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Bad Thinkers, AKA the Republican Party


I’ve always been fascinated by crazy thinkers—people who believe in stuff that’s plainly fake. Whether it’s evangelicals with their Rapture nonsense, anti-Clintonites who said Hillary murdered Vince Foster, Sept. 11 conspiratorialists or, nowadays, Republicans who claim the election was rigged, my reaction always has been: Who the fuck are these people?

It’s clear that the crap they peddle is insane. But a more complicated question is, Why? Why do people believe in lies? From my rational perspective, no one could seriously subscribe to such patent horseshit. Therefore, they must be deliberately spreading misinformation, for nefarious reasons. Sadly, we can’t ever fully know why these people advance such phony theories, because we can’t get inside their heads (nor would I want to).

But some scientists have devised ingenious theories to explain why people are “bad thinkers.” That’s the title of this analysis that examines a guy named “Oliver.” He believes the Twin Towers were brought down on 9/11 not by Al Qaeda, but by “government agents [who] planted explosives in advance.”

The paper’s author, a British philosophy professor, begins by acknowledging something all sane people can agree upon: Oliver is profoundly, stupendously wrong. The evidence that it was Al Qaeda is overwhelming; there is even a videotape of Bin Laden bragging, in his cave, that he did it, although he did not expect the Towers to collapse. Why, then, would Oliver believe such idiocy? The author puts it bluntly: “Because there is something wrong with how he thinks.”

What’s wrong with the way Oliver thinks? Plenty. He suffers from “conspiracy mentality,” which is comprised of “gullibility, carelessness, closed-mindedness” and other “intellectual vices” including “negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail.”

These “intellectual vices” also are the subject of a 1996 study, “Virtues of the Mind,” published by Cambridge University. It takes a close look at “intellectual vices” and contrasts them to “intellectual virtues.” The difference is that intellectual virtue enables people “to arrive at truths in a particular field.” On the other side of the coin, the qualities that characterize Oliver’s thinking–“intellectual vices” including “negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail”—lead precisely to those falsehoods that make such thinking, not virtuous, but a vice.

Talking about “virtue” and “vice” introduces an element of morality into the discussion. People who deliberately spread false information—even if they firmly believe it to be true—are immoral, in the truest sense of the word. They have wandered far from Aristotle’s qualities of intellectual virtue, namely “theoretical wisdom, practical wisdom, and understanding or insight.”  We can rightly condemn them as bad citizens, because they undermine the rational foundations of the world, even if they do not consciously intend to do so.

In the first article I cited, Bad Thinkers, the author asks a salient question: “There remains the problem of what to do about such people as him (Oliver)” Because he is so closed-minded, Oliver will never acknowledge his intellectual vice. In order to heal oneself of closed-mindedness, one needs to be motivated. Unfortunately, bad thinkers like Oliver are unlikely to be so motivated. It is here that the author throws up his hands and admits that little can be done about the Olivers of this world. The best he can come up with is to educate children to think more critically. Where does that leave Oliver? Free to peddle his lies.

Multiply Oliver by, say, 70 million, and you get the Trump voters in America. Each and every one of them is a bad thinker, suffering from the immorality of intellectual vice. Unfortunately, I too must throw up my hands as to what we can do about them. It’s the biggest problem our country faces, and the scary truth is, we don’t have the slightest idea what to do about it.

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