On 10th August Why Delusions Matter is out in paperback! One of the key ideas of the book is that we should avoid thinking of beliefs that we find irrational as a sign of a pathology. In the last few days, two open-access papers have been published where I capture some aspects of this idea.
In one paper, Is it pathological to believe conspiracy theories?, I ask how we decide that some ways of thinking about the world are pathological. Either those ways are considered to be harmful or the output of a malfunctioning mechanism. But in the case of conspiracy beliefs, harmfulness is hard to ascertain, and beliefs that are harmful in some ways can also bring benefits.
For instance, the belief that a vaccine is unsafe and is promoted by health authorities to benefit the pharmaceutical company who produced it may lead someone not to take advantage of the vaccine. As a result, the person is left unprotected against a serious disease. But conspiracy theories also aim to respond to epistemic and psychological needs, such as a need to impose some meaning onto stressful and uncertain circumstances, and feel more in control. Finding someone powerful to blame may be a part of this.
Whether or not it is harmful to have conspiracy beliefs, such beliefs do not seem to be the outputs of a malfunctioning belief formation system. There is no indication that the mechanisms likely to be responsible for their formation have been severely disrupted or deviate from the norm. Conspiracy theories may be attractive due to a general mistrust in the official sources of information, which is understandable in some contexts.
Moreover, they may be endorsed due to information gathering and processing biases that characterise cognition as a whole, not just the cognitive efforts of people who are likely to endorse conspiracy theories. The intentionality bias (when we tend to see a significant event as the intended outcome of a deliberate action) or the confirmation bias (when we seek evidence confirming our hypothesis and neglect evidence disconfirming it) are common reasoning tendencies which do not indicate any pathology.
In the other paper, written with Kathleen Murphy-Hollies, Why we should be curious about each other, we are interested in situations in which curiosity is both an epistemic virtue (by leading to the pursuit of worthwhile knowledge about other agents that would not be available otherwise) and a moral virtue (by fostering more epistemically just interactions with other agents).
In some exchanges it is difficult for us as interpreters to understand the perspective of the speaker: this may be because the speaker's experiences or views are radically different from ours. In such cases, genuine curiosity about the speaker's perspective can help us see where they are coming from and what is important to them, extending common ground and avoiding polarisation.