“Something is seriously wrong. An alarming number of citizens, in America and around the world, are embracing crazy, even dangerous ideas.” So claim Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro in their recent book, When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People, a work that seeks to diagnose our contemporary “epistemological crisis” and to offer some tools with which we can combat the scientifically unfounded and conspiratorial thinking that is on the rise, especially in the United States. Formerly fringe movements, such as the anti-vax movement and QAnon, are increasingly prominent in American public discourse. Such movements have been the basis of political campaigns and have inspired a swath of protest movements across the country. As a recent PRRI poll has shown, a “nontrivial 15 percent of Americans agree with the sweeping QAnon allegation that ‘the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.’” These and similar beliefs are certainly not morally innocent: anti-vax misinformation has led to unnecessary suffering and death, and the climate-change denial endorsed by some of our most prominent politicians has left the United States remarkably unprepared for a crisis that is already upon us.
Nadler and Shapiro argue that the kind of “bad thinking” we see on display in climate-change denial and QAnon fanaticism is a special kind of intellectual failing, distinct from ignorance, miseducation, and stupidity. This kind of bad thinking is instead a kind of “epistemic stubbornness,” a refusal to give up one’s beliefs in the face of countervailing evidence. The epistemically stubborn are guilty of confirmation bias: they ignore any evidence that doesn’t help their case and glom on to any information that does—or seems to. Epistemically stubborn people may be intellectually gifted. They may understand the “canons of good reason” but refuse to abide by them (one of the authors’ examples: a professional philosopher who promoted the conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation). The key words in this analysis are “stubborn,” “ignore,” and “refuse.” While epistemically stubborn people are making intellectual mistakes when they uphold beliefs contrary to readily accessible evidence—beliefs that are often based on nothing more than hearsay and that conflict with other truths the stubborn thinker holds—they are also making moral mistakes. And not only because epistemic stubbornness can lead to morally bankrupt action (as when a parent refuses to vaccinate a child out of the baseless fear that vaccines cause autism). According to Nadler and Shapiro, epistemic stubbornness is morally fraught even when it doesn’t produce harmful consequences. Whatever its practical effect, it is a “character flaw deserving of blame.” Luckily, they tell us, “bad thinking is always avoidable.”