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Thinking by numbers

Can philosophy really cure good people of bad thinking?

Janna Thompson Books 3 December 2021 2170 words

Bonded by beliefs: protestors at an anti-lockdown protest in Brisbane in July. Darren England/AAP Image

When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People: How Philosophy Can Save Us from Ourselves
By Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro | Princeton University Press | $34.99 | 240 pages


We are beset by an epistemological crisis, say philosophers Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro. Large numbers of people, including many who are intelligent and well educated, believe in conspiracy theories and harbour views that have long been discredited. Holding onto a belief in the face of contrary evidence is a fault of character — what they describe as “epistemological stubbornness.” If the belief causes harm — as does the refusal to believe in the reality of the Covid-19 epidemic or that vaccines protect us against it — epistemological stubbornness is also a moral wrong.

What causes epistemological stubbornness? Bad reasoning, according to the authors’ diagnosis. People who suffer from this condition fail to take into account evidence that might contradict their assumptions. They jump to conclusions from too little evidence; they make implausible assumptions. The cure, the authors think, is the tools that philosophy can provide: its methods of reasoning and “its millennia-old history of recommendations for how to lead a good, rational, and examined life.”

Some of what they think philosophy can teach are methods of reasoning. Nadler and Shapiro take us through the rules for good reasoning taught in courses on critical thinking. They tell us how to identify a sound deductive argument, how to assess conclusions that depend on induction, and what you should keep in mind when you are searching for the best explanation for a phenomenon. They identify common mistakes of reasoning: reaching a hasty conclusion from a small number of cases, assuming that correlated phenomena have a causal relationship, and accepting evidence that tells in favour of a belief while ignoring considerations that might disprove it. They warn us against mistakes that practically everyone, including philosophers, make when they reason about probabilities. They do this job well, using amusing anecdotes and examples, real and fictional, to illustrate good and bad reasoning.

But how much can such lessons accomplish? The people the authors describe as epistemologically stubborn are undoubtedly reasoning badly. Those who think that only a small number of Jews were killed in the Holocaust are ignoring mountains of evidence. Conspiracy theorists who think that Covid is a hoax make the implausible assumption that thousands of officials and doctors all over the world have conspired to produce false data and withhold information. Those who think that vaccination causes autism fasten on a few cases of vaccinated children with autism and ignore studies that show the incidence of autism to be no lower among the unvaccinated.

Yet those who attempt to dispute conspiracy theories and other forms of bad thinking often find that providing counterevidence or pointing out errors of reasoning is ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. Epistemological stubbornness is often rooted in a strong emotional commitment and a course in critical thinking is not likely to be a cure.

If not a cure for the epidemic of bad reasoning, then perhaps lessons in critical thinking immunise people against succumbing to a false system of beliefs in the first place. But even as a safeguard against falling into epistemic error their effectiveness can be doubted. Research in cognitive science shows that critical thinking is not a skill like bicycle riding or making bread — something that once learned can be exercised in many different situations. A student who learns how to recognise the fallacy in an argument is often unable to detect fallacies in other arguments — even when the logical structure is the same. People’s ability to reason often depends on their background knowledge rather than application of the rules. Critical thinking is hard to teach and apply, and we have reason to believe that the rules and guidelines supplied by philosophers are not much of a protection against falling into error.

But Nadler and Shapiro think philosophy has more to offer than guidelines for critical reasoning. Bad thinking doesn’t merely affect the beliefs you have and the actions you do. It reveals what kind of person you are. Philosophy, they believe, can save us from ourselves by putting us on the path to wisdom and the right way of living. A wise person, they say, is someone who knows how to live well, and living well requires exercising good judgement. Having a good life, being virtuous and thinking well are together the ingredients of wisdom. The hero of their book is Socrates, who believed that an unexamined life was not worth living and regarded it as his mission to force his fellow Athenians to explain and justify their beliefs, whether they wanted to or not.

Nadler and Shapiro also subscribe to Plato’s view that living well depends on having true beliefs. A person whose beliefs are false cannot have a good life, but we can’t be sure that our beliefs are true unless we are willing to criticise and justify them. We might question whether this Platonic view is true; living well and being knowledgeable don’t always seem to go together. And we might also wonder whether it is possible to justify all of our beliefs. Perhaps some of them have to be taken on faith. Nevertheless, we can agree with these philosophers that if we, like Socrates, are prepared to critically examine our beliefs then we will be less likely to exhibit the epistemic stubbornness that causes even good people to think badly.


Why then does Nadler and Shapiro’s antidote for bad thinking seem simplistic? One reason is that those who hold the views that these philosophers abhor believe they have performed the Socratic task of self-examination. They have done their research; they have criticised and rejected beliefs that they used to hold; they believe they have uncovered the truth; and like Socrates they are prepared to challenge authority, and question and criticise those who adhere to conventional ideas. Any account of why bad thinking happens to good people has to explain why people fall into error despite their commitment to discovering the truth and criticising false beliefs.

The problem with Nadler and Shapiro’s approach, it seems to me, is that they regard bad thinking as an individual failing and assume that the cure is to get individuals to reason better. They focus on the individual and aim to save her from herself. They pay no attention to social conditions that are conducive to good or bad reasoning, and they don’t attend to the ways in which good reasoning requires cooperation and the assistance of others.

One indication of this lack is their failure to discuss the role played in our lives by the testimony of others. Most of what we believe about the world was told to us by school teachers, experts or people with direct experience. We know that Earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis, not because of our own experiments or observations, but because we were told that this is so and we believed those who told us. Nadler and Shapiro think that we should examine the evidence for and against our beliefs, but few of us have the time or the expertise to determine for ourselves whether the predictions of climate scientists are accurate or whether immunologists are right about the efficacy of the vaccines for Covid-19. A lot of what we believe depends on trusting what others tell us, and reasoning well requires us to think about where we should place that trust.

Our dependence on testimony means that knowledge is not a personal achievement but the result of cooperation between individuals who share with each other information and views deriving from their experiences and expertise. Without relevant background knowledge our efforts to do our own research can lead us down blind alleys and make us vulnerable to views of charlatans. As participants in the social system of knowledge production and use, the most rational course, most of the time, is to trust what experts tell us — whether they are plumbers telling us why our pipes leak or immunologists telling us why it is safe for us to get vaccinated. To understand why good people are susceptible to bad thinking we must therefore explain why so many people are willing to believe members of a group peddling a conspiracy theory rather than the views of experts.

It is, perhaps, not so difficult to explain why good, intelligent people might be seduced by views that seem to be plausible or thrilled by the impression that they have uncovered a secret that has been kept hidden by the authorities. It is more difficult to explain why they hang on to their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. What makes them so epistemologically stubborn?

This question can probably only be answered by sociologists or social psychologists. But a partial answer may have to do with a reason for belief that Nadler and Shapiro briefly discuss. Sometimes believing is a prudent thing for a person to do. Pascal thought it was prudent to believe in God even though there is no way of proving His existence. If God doesn’t exist, the belief is false but having it does you no harm; but if God exists and punishes those who don’t believe in Him, then your belief will enable you to escape his wrath. Nadler and Shapiro allow that in some circumstances we are justified in believing something for prudential reasons even when available evidence tells against it. Suppose your past performances give you good reason for believing that you have no chance of winning your next race. But you believe that you can, and because of the confidence and determination that having this belief gives you, you do win. The belief justifies itself by helping you to do better.

If your society punishes those who don’t believe in God, then it would be imprudent to express your doubts. For the sake of a safe and comfortable life it would be better still if you could bring yourself to share the belief. You will no longer feel alienated from other group members; you can regard yourself as truly belonging. Group bonds are, after all, important not only for an individual’s survival but also for her sense of who she is and where she belongs, and they are often cemented through shared beliefs. But this makes it not only prudent to adhere to group beliefs; they also believe that a stubborn refusal to countenance criticism is a mark of loyalty and commitment.

Those who are bonded together by their belief in a conspiracy theory or who join together in demonstrating against Covid restrictions have found an identity as a member of a supportive group who see themselves as standing against evil or conspiratorial forces. They are not likely to accept the arguments of people they oppose or regard as unenlightened, or to countenance the possibility that their common cause is mistaken.

The problem is that group beliefs can be ill-founded or downright irrational, and as Nadler and Shapiro emphasise, this matters morally if they cause harm. Those who want to be epistemically responsible and loyal to the cause of their group can find themselves in a difficult position.

Socrates is a hero, especially to philosophers, because he refused to compromise his epistemic ideals. He was determined to force Athenians to explain and justify their beliefs — whatever the consequences. They condemned him to death, not because he was irritating but because he questioned religious and moral beliefs that they believed were essential to the harmony and good order of their society and, worse, encouraged the young to follow his example. He argued, in vain, that he was performing a good service for his society. But even in a liberal social order many people find it difficult to accept that those who dissent, question official historical narratives or blow the whistle on their country’s injustices can be loyal citizens.

Socrates was heroic because he refused to give up his epistemic ideals even in the face of death. Patients with serious cases of Covid who continue to deny that the disease is real are a perverse form of anti-hero. They refuse to give up the beliefs to which they are committed in the face of the most overwhelming empirical evidence. They take epistemic stubbornness to a new height.

How much can philosophy really contribute to curing good people of bad thinking? Less than Nadler and Shapiro think, I am forced to conclude, but not nothing. Philosophers can present rules for good reasoning, a valuable thing to do even when many people ignore them; they may be able to find ways of making people think more critically. They can champion ideals of critical inquiry and laud those who follow them even in adversity. Most of all they can encourage the creation of communities that value differences of opinion and critical exchange. Those who teach philosophy to children have found a way of encouraging communities of enquiry bound together by a commitment to respectful exchange of ideas. There is no reason to think that such groups cannot become more prevalent among a society’s adult members. •

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Popular with conservative leaders: Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (centre) with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison and Britain’s Boris Johnson during COP26 in Glasgow last month. Yves Herman/Reuters

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