How does one deal with conspiracy theorists? Quassim Cassam tackles this often thorny adventure in the dealing with the tinfoil hat crew.

On the individual level, I think it comes down to how dedicated the individual is to the pursuit of the relevant evidence and knowledge associated with topic at hand.  The fictional character “Oliver” is a 9/11 conspiracy buff and is used as a exemplar of what one can run into online and in real life.  Unsurprisingly, the key to combating conspiracy theorists is education, especially one that focuses on Critical thinking and being intellectually rigorous (duh?).  So this isn’t the tonic to fixing stupid people saying “go educate yourself” isn’t particularly helpful because it isn’t necessarily the absence of evidence for one position or another, but rather, the ability to evaluate the quality and reputability of the sources being used.

The other solution, at least on social media is the block button, because nobody has enough time in the day to fix all the stupid in the world. :>

 

“Closed-mindedness is one of the toughest intellectual vices to tackle because it is in its nature to be concealed from those who have it. And even if you somehow get the Olivers of this world to acknowledge their own vices, that won’t necessarily make things any better. Tackling one’s intellectual vices requires more than self-knowledge. You also need to be motivated to do something about them, and actually be able to do something about them.

Should Oliver be condemned for his weaknesses? Philosophers like to think of virtues as having good motives and vices as having bad motives but Oliver’s motives needn’t be bad. He might have exactly the same motivation for knowledge as the intellectually virtuous person, yet be led astray by his gullibility and conspiracy mentality. So, both in respect of his motives and his responsibility for his intellectual vices, Oliver might not be strictly blameworthy. That doesn’t mean that nothing should be done about them or about him. If we care about the truth then we should care about equipping people with the intellectual means to arrive at the truth and avoid falsehood.

Education is the best way of doing that. Intellectual vices are only tendencies to think in certain ways, and tendencies can be countered. Our intellectual vices are balanced by our intellectual virtues, by intellectual character traits such as open-mindedness, curiosity and rigour. The intellectual character is a mixture of intellectual virtues and vices, and the aims of education should include cultivating intellectual virtues and curtailing intellectual vices. The philosopher Jason Baehr talks about ‘educating for intellectual virtues’, and that is in principle the best way to deal with people such as Oliver. A 2010 report to the University College London Council about the Abdulmutallab case came to a similar conclusion. It recommended the ‘development of academic training for students to encourage and equip them not only to think critically but to challenge unacceptable views’. The challenge is to work out how to do that.

What if Oliver is too far gone and can’t change his ways even if he wanted to? Like other bad habits, intellectual bad habits can be too deeply entrenched to change. This means living with their consequences. Trying to reason with people who are obstinately closed-minded, dogmatic or prejudiced is unlikely to be effective. The only remedy in such cases is to try to mitigate the harm their vices do to themselves and to others.

Meanwhile, those who have the gall to deliver homilies about other peoples’ intellectual vices – that includes me – need to accept that they too are likely very far from perfect. In this context, as in most others, a little bit of humility goes a long way. It’s one thing not to cave in to Oliver’s attempt to turn the tables on you, but he has a point at least to this extent: none of us can deny that intellectual vices of one sort or another are at play in at least some of our thinking. Being alive to this possibility is the mark of a healthy mind.”