From the blogs

When stupidity isn’t behind vaccine denial, philosophy may be the cure

OPINION: The crisis of ‘epistemically stubborn’ people who base their decisions on irrational beliefs can be solved through instruction in philosophy – a discipline of reason over passion

(Vaccine refusal image via iStock)
(Vaccine refusal image via iStock)

As detailed in a recent article in the Times of Israel, the Haredi rabbi Ben Zion Mutzafi expelled a man from his lecture because of the man’s opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. We will leave it to religious authorities to decide whether that man is, as the rabbi proclaimed, a “heretic.” And only a psychiatrist can determine whether the man is, as the rabbi also charged, “crazy.” However, it does not take a rabbi or a psychiatrist to see that the man is impaired in some sense. He may, of course, simply be stupid – too feeble-minded to understand the wealth of evidence that establishes the efficacy of the vaccine and its safety. However, we favor a different diagnosis. By our lights, the man is more likely afflicted with the much more common ailment of epistemic stubbornness.

Within our field of philosophy, the term ‘epistemology’ refers to the study of knowledge and justification. A philosopher concerned with epistemology seeks a theory of rationality. Such a theory will explain why some beliefs are justified and some not, as well as why some true beliefs qualify as knowledge and others do not. Although many issues within epistemology have become too abstract and technical to be of concern to the non-specialist, nearly every person can appreciate the importance of evidence in justifying a belief. We all can, or should, acknowledge that tea leaves or fortune cookies are bad reasons to believe something, whereas rigorous experimentation or the testimony of experts are good reasons.

The epistemically stubborn person refuses to tailor his or her beliefs to the available evidence. They continue to believe, for instance, that the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary. Typically, the fault is not ignorance of the facts – one would have to be living in a deep hole not to have been exposed to widespread reports of the corona virus’s danger and the vaccine’s efficacy and safety – but a stubborn refusal to see the facts as repudiating what one wants to believe.

Epistemic stubbornness is its own kind of disease and arguably even more dangerous than COVID-19. Yes, COVID-19 has, in all too many cases, been lethal. But epistemic stubbornness is the force driving resistance to the very vaccines that would have prevented these deaths. Moreover, epistemic stubbornness manifests itself across a spectrum of issues of the utmost importance.

Epistemically stubborn people can be very creative in devising stories that deny the evidence. This is just another symptom of their disease.

Here in the United States of America, we see epistemic stubbornness lying behind persistent but patently absurd claims that the election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. That the most recent presidential election was fair, and that Trump lost, is beyond doubt. Justification for believing that Biden won the presidency is overwhelming. Those who deny this outcome are, like those opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine, probably not stupid. Rather, they are irrational in that, badly misled by cynical and self-serving politicians and pundits, they simply refuse to believe a conclusion to which the evidence so clearly points. They are governed not by reason, but by desire or passion. They simply want to believe that Trump won the election and it is that desire, rather than evidence, that forms the basis of their belief.

We see the same kind of epistemic stubbornness in the denial of climate change. Can the research data and many computer models that show the effect of fossil fuels on climate be mistaken? Can reports of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and extraordinarily hot temperatures all be a hoax? Epistemically stubborn people can be very creative in devising stories that deny the evidence. This is just another symptom of their disease. They settle on a proposition they want to believe (can it be a coincidence that climate change denial is stronger among those who live in states that produce oil or coal?) and refuse to accept evidence to its contrary.

What can we do to cure epistemic stubbornness? A good first step is simply to acknowledge its existence and its distinctness from other deficiencies, like ignorance and stupidity. There is, after all, no easy cure for stupidity. As philosophers and academics, we place our hope in education. Instruction in philosophy – and the earlier one is exposed to it the better – can only deepen one’s understanding of how reasoning works, how good evidence differs from bad, how premises support a conclusion, and how to form and maintain (or give up) beliefs in a rational manner. Apart from these basic epistemological concepts, philosophy imparts a different kind of wisdom as well. We can learn from philosophy what it means to live an examined life – a life in which one takes the trouble to discover what one really does and does not know, a life of epistemic humility that reflects values that lead not just to personal fulfillment and equanimity (rather than resentment and hatred) but to reasonable approaches to social and political problems.

We recognize that some people will dismiss our treatment for epistemic stubbornness as hopelessly naïve. Can philosophy really change, even improve minds? This is a good question, one that our combined fifty-plus years of teaching undergraduate students prepares us to answer. Yes, it can. Even if you doubt this, everyone should be ready to admit that something must be done to battle the epidemic of epistemic stubbornness that is exacerbating the medical pandemic now taking lives and causing economic havoc for a second year. Education, especially in what it means to be a rational person, provides our best hope.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is the director of the Institute for Research in the Humanities. His books include Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die and (with Ben Nadler) Heretics!: The Wondrous and Dangerous Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (both Princeton).

Lawrence Shapiro is the Berent Enç Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Zen and the Art of Running: The Path to Making Peace with Your Pace and The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural Is Unjustified.

Nadler and Shapiro’s new book, When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People, is published on 31st August from Princeton University Press.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed