I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.
I am beginning a slow, measured return to Blogging. My health has improved somewhat, though I came close to destroying an eye (that has also recovered well) due to an injury I sustained. So I have started bringing Blogs back into ‘operation’ again.
I’ll be taking a week off from the Blog (at this stage – may be longer) due to a resurgent CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I have been battling this ‘outbreak’ for about 6 weeks and there has been very little improvement, so I need to take some ‘health time.’ Back when I can be.
I am very thankful. Having battled away for the past 48 hours trying to salvage files, I have now also been able to get into the system restore feature on my computer, attempt to restore the system and… it worked. Very thankful. It is working again.
I now need to bring the various Blogs back online and to start posting again.
The latest Windows 10 update has basically trashed my computer. The update was installed automatically, so I wasn’t expecting it to happen. I had just turned the computer on and when I returned to it after allowing it to boot, there it was ‘installing.’ Anyhow, it failed and the computer is now unusable.
So what this means is that I will not be able to post in the ‘usual’ way for some time – very disappointing.
Conspiracy theories are known for connecting apparently unrelated events. Consider the X-Files’ Fox Mulder holed up in his office, frantically joining seemingly random dots. Or the American radio host Alex Jones connecting leaked Clinton emails and fuzzy rover pictures to conclude that NASA is running a child slave colony on Mars.
Cognitive psychologists have often claimed that conspiracy theorists possess a “monological” belief system, in which belief in one conspiracy leads to belief in others. Eventually, they explain every significant event, however unrelated, through the same conspiratorial “logic”.
On such a view, conspiracy theorists are fundamentally irrational, perhaps even pathologically so. But is this an oversimplification?
So-called “big data” approaches to psychology can give a unique perspective on these questions. By using large datasets gathered from social media websites, one can look at people interacting in everyday settings. Importantly, these approaches can capture everybody, not just the most vocal members of a community.
In a recent paper we used online comments to examine individuals who are interested in these types of ideas. We examined a complete set of comments over eight years from the conspiracy forum of reddit.com.
Our dataset included 2.2 million comments from roughly 130,000 distinct user names. Our analyses used topic modelling, a type of linguistic analysis that tries to find common themes across a large collection of documents.
We were able to identify 12 distinct subgroups of individuals who used language in different ways and who varied widely in their interests and their posting habits. What they talked about strongly suggested that they held different beliefs and attitudes about a range of conspiracies.
Eleven of these had consistent enough interests to be readily interpretable. We assigned each of them a name and created aggregate sample comments, as shown in this diagram.
We found that there were posters who fit the “monological” pattern (we dubbed them True Believers), writing at length on a wide variety of different topics. However, they were only the tip of the iceberg. Most posters had more specific interests.
Indeed, many seemed to be attracted as much to the social aspects of discussing conspiracies as the content of specific conspiracies. The group we called the Meta-redditors, for example, was most notable for their discussion of other forums on Reddit and complaints about moderation policies.
Similarly, there were subgroups (the Downtrodden) who appeared to be communicating about conspiracy theories as a way of expressing general frustration with authority.
Some were suspicious of US foreign policy (Anti-imperalists). Others may be using conspiracy topics as a way to express racist or otherwise socially unacceptable ideas (Anti-semites). There was even a distinct subgroup who appeared to be posting primarily in order to debunk conspiracy beliefs (Sceptics).
This suggests that individuals involved with conspiracy theories may have quite different motivations, beliefs and attitudes. It may not be useful to consider them as a homogeneous group.
What does all this mean for the study of conspiracy theories? It’s complicated.
On the one hand, it has long been known that online conspiracy theorising can have a variety of negative social effects, from political disengagement to actual violence. These are effects we should aim to mitigate.
On the other hand, our study also reveals something more surprising. The vast majority of posters were no more active in the conspiracy forum than they were on other reddit forums. This suggests that, for most individuals, conspiracy theories are not an all-encompassing obsession that overrides other interests, but just one interest among many. Even the most obsessed posters also spend a lot of time discussing Star Wars and trading cute cat photos on other parts of the site.
As noted, many members of online forums appear to use conspiracy theories to express legitimate doubts about structures of power, even if the details may appear striking to us. Reddit’s conspiracy forum links on its front page to a “list of confirmed conspiracies”, many of which are historically accurate. In the 1960s, for instance, the US FBI did infiltrate domestic protest groups to disrupt and discredit them. The public health service in Alabama did conduct long-term medical experiments on African American men.
Hence, we think that conspiracy theorising may be best understood as a symptom of a breakdown of trust in institutions like government and the media. Rebuilding that trust is, alas, a difficult proposal. However, our work suggests that recognising the varied and complex motivations and attitudes of conspiracy believers is an important step forward.
Colin Klein, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Australian National University; Peter Clutton, , Australian National University, and Vince Polito, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Cognitive Science, Macquarie University
I have been battling an ongoing illness for the last week or so, with it showing very few signs of any imminent departure. So it is time once again to have a break and to have a rest while I wait for a restoration of my health and well-being. How long will the break be? That is a difficult question to answer as I don’t know how long it will take to get well again, but I will certainly not be posting here until next weekend at the earliest. I really feel I need a complete break and to just rest (I will, after all, be still working at my day job which makes recovery more difficult). I am hopeful that it won’t be much more than a week. I have been trying to press on, but have often-times failed in posting and turned in to bed instead.
This is just a short post by way of an announcement – that I am going to take some time off from my Blogs for the next week or so. I expect to be back posting in the usual manner from about the 16th November. There may be the occasional post before that, but nothing too regular. Why? I just need to get a few things done around the house and in my personal life that I can’t put off any longer, and a short break is also good for my well being. So back in a little bit.
I am currently being assailed by a variety of ailments and illnesses, and it is therefore necessary for me to take some time off to recuperate. I’m hoping this will only be about a week or so, and then be back at it again. There may be the odd post, but nothing much and nothing is certain. Anyhow, have a break from me and we can get back together in just over a week perhaps. Thanks.
How do you know what the weather will be like tomorrow? How do you know how old the Universe is? How do you know if you are thinking rationally?
These and other questions of the “how do you know?” variety are the business of epistemology, the area of philosophy concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge and belief.
Epistemology is about understanding how we come to know that something is the case, whether it be a matter of fact such as “the Earth is warming” or a matter of value such as “people should not just be treated as means to particular ends”.
It’s even about interrogating the odd presidential tweet to determine its credibility.
Epistemology doesn’t just ask questions about what we should do to find things out; that is the task of all disciplines to some extent. For example, science, history and anthropology all have their own methods for finding things out.
Epistemology has the job of making those methods themselves the objects of study. It aims to understand how methods of inquiry can be seen as rational endeavours.
Epistemology, therefore, is concerned with the justification of knowledge claims.
The need for epistemology
Whatever the area in which we work, some people imagine that beliefs about the world are formed mechanically from straightforward reasoning, or that they pop into existence fully formed as a result of clear and distinct perceptions of the world.
But if the business of knowing things was so simple, we’d all agree on a bunch of things that we currently disagree about – such as how to treat each other, what value to place on the environment, and the optimal role of government in a society.
That we do not reach such an agreement means there is something wrong with that model of belief formation.
It is interesting that we individually tend to think of ourselves as clear thinkers and see those who disagree with us as misguided. We imagine that the impressions we have about the world come to us unsullied and unfiltered. We think we have the capacity to see things just as they really are, and that it is others who have confused perceptions.
As a result, we might think our job is simply to point out where other people have gone wrong in their thinking, rather than to engage in rational dialogue allowing for the possibility that we might actually be wrong.
But the lessons of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science teach us otherwise. The complex, organic processes that fashion and guide our reasoning are not so clinically pure.
Combine this ignorance with the conviction of our own epistemic superiority, and you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem. Appeals to “common sense” to overcome the friction of alternative views just won’t cut it.
We need, therefore, a systematic way of interrogating our own thinking, our models of rationality, and our own sense of what makes for a good reason. It can be used as a more objective standard for assessing the merit of claims made in the public arena.
This is precisely the job of epistemology.
Epistemology and critical thinking
One of the clearest ways to understand critical thinking is as applied epistemology. Issues such as the nature of logical inference, why we should accept one line of reasoning over another, and how we understand the nature of evidence and its contribution to decision making, are all decidedly epistemic concerns.
The American philosopher Harvey Siegel points out that these questions and others are essential in an education towards thinking critically.
By what criteria do we evaluate reasons? How are those criteria themselves evaluated? What is it for a belief or action to be justified? What is the relationship between justification and truth? […] these epistemological considerations are fundamental to an adequate understanding of critical thinking and should be explicitly treated in basic critical thinking courses.
To the extent that critical thinking is about analysing and evaluating methods of inquiry and assessing the credibility of resulting claims, it is an epistemic endeavour.
Engaging with deeper issues about the nature of rational persuasion can also help us to make judgements about claims even without specialist knowledge.
For example, epistemology can help clarify concepts such as “proof”, “theory”, “law” and “hypothesis” that are generally poorly understood by the general public and indeed some scientists.
In this way, epistemology serves not to adjudicate on the credibility of science, but to better understand its strengths and limitations and hence make scientific knowledge more accessible.
Epistemology and the public good
One of the enduring legacies of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that began in Europe during the 17th century, is a commitment to public reason. This was the idea that it’s not enough to state your position, you must also provide a rational case for why others should stand with you. In other words, to produce and prosecute an argument.
This commitment provides for, or at least makes possible, an objective method of assessing claims using epistemological criteria that we can all have a say in forging.
That we test each others’ thinking and collaboratively arrive at standards of epistemic credibility lifts the art of justification beyond the limitations of individual minds, and grounds it in the collective wisdom of reflective and effective communities of inquiry.
The sincerity of one’s belief, the volume or frequency with which it is stated, or assurances to “believe me” should not be rationally persuasive by themselves.
If a particular claim does not satisfy publicly agreed epistemological criteria, then it is the essence of scepticism to suspend belief. And it is the essence of gullibility to surrender to it.
A defence against bad thinking
There is a way to help guard against poor reasoning – ours and others’ – that draws from not only the Enlightenment but also from the long history of philosophical inquiry.
So the next time you hear a contentious claim from someone, consider how that claim can be supported if they or you were to present it to an impartial or disinterested person:
identify reasons that can be given in support of the claim
explain how your analysis, evaluation and justification of the claim and of the reasoning involved are of a standard worth someone’s intellectual investment
write these things down as clearly and dispassionately as possible.
In other words, make the commitment to public reasoning. And demand of others that they do so as well, stripped of emotive terms and biased framing.
If you or they cannot provide a precise and coherent chain of reasoning, or if the reasons remain tainted with clear biases, or if you give up in frustration, it’s a pretty good sign that there are other factors in play.
It is the commitment to this epistemic process, rather than any specific outcome, that is the valid ticket onto the rational playing field.
At a time when political rhetoric is riven with irrationality, when knowledge is being seen less as a means of understanding the world and more as an encumbrance that can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of wishful thinking, and when authoritarian leaders are drawing ever larger crowds, epistemology needs to matter.