Alan Kohler: A global epidemic of bad thinking

Harper’s Magazine’s Index is always a treasure trove of American wackiness.

Here’s a sample from this month: “Percentage of Democrats that Republicans believe are atheist or agnostic: 36. Percentage that are: Nine.”

And this one from July: “Proportion of Republicans who believe high-level Democrats run a child sex-trafficking ring: Half.”

Half of American Republicans think Democrat leaders are paedophiles! Good grief.

This thinking is not just wacky, it’s bad thinking. And it is not just in the United States. For example, the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss believed that borrowing money to provide rich people with a tax cut was a good idea; in fact, it was bad thinking, which backfired quickly and spectacularly.

In Australia, only 81 per cent of people believe climate change is happening and 8 per cent of the rest actively deny it – twice the global average of deniers. And a lot of those 8 per cent are in positions of power or influence.

A recent book describes all this, and more like it, as an “epidemic of bad thinking”.

The book is called When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People; it was written by two philosophy professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro, and it starts like this:

“Something is seriously wrong. An alarming number of citizens, in America and around the world, are embracing crazy, even dangerous ideas.”

Ideas like – vaccination causes autism, or that prominent politicians and movie stars are involved in a cannibalistic paedophile ring, or that climate change is a hoax or that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

“There is nothing to substantiate these beliefs, and easily available evidence shows that they are actually false. And yet people – often educated, smart, and influential people – continue to believe them.”

The authors explain that bad thinking is a kind of stubbornness, and that when someone refuses to tailor their beliefs to the evidence, it’s “epistemic stubbornness” (that is, relating to the validity of knowledge) – for example, denying climate change or the theory of evolution, or the benefits of vaccination.

This sort of bad thinking is different to stupidity or ignorance, but is instead a sort of rampant confirmation bias, where countervailing evidence is ignored or simply disbelieved, and any information or assertions that help their case are fastened onto.

Nadler and Shapiro focus mainly on the United States because they know it best and, well, there’s more craziness there. But the US certainly does not have a monopoly on bad thinking.

Epistemic stubbornness led Liz Truss and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng astray because they ignored the clear evidence that trickle-down economics does not work, and pressed on with the ideology that tax cuts promote economic growth.

British Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and PM Liz Truss abandoned plans for high-end tax cuts. Photo: AP

In the first round of the Brazilian presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been constantly asserting that the election was rigged and thereby falsely undermining Brazil’s democracy, got 43.2 per cent of the vote.

And in Australia, Sky News After Dark is an endless tantrum of bad thinking, of epistemic stubbornness writ large, as is a powerful section of the Liberal-National Coalition, based largely on climate change denial.

Morally fraught

Nadler and Shapiro state this sort of bad thinking is morally fraught and a character flaw “deserving of blame”, and they end the book with a warning:

“What is clear is that unless we can turn things around and become epistemically more responsible in our beliefs and, more generally, commit ourself to living examined lives, the health of our minds, of our bodies, of our democracies, and of our planet are in grave danger.”

Very true.

So what is Nadler and Shapiro’s solution to this global epidemic of bad thinking?

Better education, they say, focused more on the humanities and specifically philosophy, which “teaches the canons of good thinking, that is, proper reasoning and the epistemic, moral, and even political benefits of forming and holding beliefs in a rational manner”.

And this is where their book falls down, in my view – it becomes a sort of advertisement for the authors’ profession.

It’s simply fanciful to think that ideologues and bad thinkers can be educated into being philosophers holding beliefs in a rational manner, and in any case, education is always a very long-term solution.

Most of the bad thinking described in the book, and that we can see around us, is seriously harmful, which they acknowledge in the final paragraph about grave danger.

What’s more they make a strong case that this epistemic stubbornness, as they call it, is deliberate on the part of its practitioners – that is, they choose to hold those beliefs and ignore the contrary evidence.

Tougher antidote needed

So, a tougher antidote than a humanities education is required, I’d suggest.

Being cancelled or given a Twitter pile-on by woke warriors doesn’t seem to be the solution – it only entrenches the true believers and epistemically stubborn in their false ideas.

Part of the problem is that stubbornness is often seen as a virtue, even a sign of intelligence. For example, David Beckham once said: “I’m a very stubborn person. I think it has helped me over my career.”

So the vaccine for this epidemic is more likely to be facts, stated plainly and often, and for the bad thinkers to be called out and ostracised if they refuse to listen.

Climate scientists, especially those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, need to make their warnings about the consequences of global warming much plainer, instead of burying it in scientific language so as not to scare everyone too much.

In America, they could definitely do with an electoral commission like Australia’s, although the Trumpists would probably still claim it was a part of the deep state.

And Anthony Albanese and his ministers should refuse to go on Sky News unless the climate deniers are removed – it is not simply a matter of “everyone is entitled to their opinion” if the opinion is dangerous epistemic stubbornness.

Also, political leaders need to examine the soil in which bad thinking takes root.

As a reviewer of Nadler and Shapiro’s book remarked: “If there is indeed an epidemic of bad thinking … it may be evidence not only of untrained minds, but a defective society.”

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is also editor in chief of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news.

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