Bad thinkers

This article, Bad Thinkers, argues that believing weird stuff is often due to bad information, but to flawed intellectual character:

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.

Although the writer’s example centers around 9/11 conspiracy theories, his case does not, so if you are more sympathetic to that particular theory than the writer you can choose something else—the vast right-wing conspiracy, maybe, or (something the writer himself is guilty of) an unexamined faith in the redeeming power of education.

I like the idea of intellectual virtues and vices, and I think the items he puts on each list belong there.

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness are examples of what the US philosopher Linda Zagzebski, in her book Virtues of the Mind(1996), has called ‘intellectual vices’. Others include negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking.

To describe Oliver as gullible or careless is to say something about his intellectual style or mind-set – for example, about how he goes about trying to find out things about events such as 9/11. Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues Oliver plainly lacks, and that is why his attempts to get to the bottom of 9/11 are so flawed.

[…] Our intellectual vices are balanced by our intellectual virtues, by intellectual character traits such as open-mindedness, curiosity and rigour.

The nicest example of intellectual character fostering questionable beliefs is a psychologist investigating the idea of basketball players having a “hot hand,” something that is easily disproven.

Gilovich used detailed statistical analysis to demonstrate that the hot hand doesn’t exist – performance on a given shot is independent of performance on previous shots. The question is, why do so many basketball coaches, players and fans believe in it anyway? Gilovich’s cognitive explanation is that belief in the hot hand is due to our faulty intuitions about chance sequences; as a species, we’re bad at recognising what genuinely random sequences look like.

And yet when Gilovich sent his results to a bunch of basketball coaches, what happened next is extremely revealing. One responded: ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ This seems like a perfect illustration of intellectual vices in operation. The dismissive reaction manifested a range of vices, including closed-mindedness and prejudice.

This in a nutshell is the danger of seeking out like-minded community, where the goal is largely to avoid direct encounters with challenging viewpoints, preferring to hoot and holler at them from a distance, taking strength not from the soundness of your thinking but from the uncritical encouragement of your fellow enthusiasts.

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