Now: onward to theorizing about conspiracy theories.
I often hear people accuse those who disagree with them of failing to think critically. “If they were able to think critically, as I am” (so the idea goes),
“they would have come to the same conclusions as I have.”
Obviously it’s not so simple.
But I see the temptation. Looking at people who believe what I consider to be wild, fanciful, conspiratorial ideas about topics like the pandemic or the election, it’s easy to think that they are merely floating along with the whims of whoever they follow on Facebook. That they have failed to think critically about what they read.
Now, there are many definitions of “critical thinking,” but I (thinking critically) choose to make my own for my purposes here. It’s a low bar: critical thinking, for my purposes here, is the decision not to take a claim at face value—instead, to examine and test it a bit.
Let’s take a very easy one: someone comes in from the outdoors and reports that it’s raining. However, their clothes and hair are dry. Critical thinking, at a very basic level, is the process that allows you to say “hang on just a minute, I think it might not be raining,” despite what they’ve said.
Conspiracy thinking about the pandemic may or may not involve critical thinking of this basic type. I believe a lot of people are genuinely trying to use the God-given critical thinking skills their frontal lobes are hungry for. And there are disparities to use them on: These people hear various governments and experts making various mutually incompatible claims about what is and isn’t safe, what is and isn’t allowed, what the consequences of certain behaviors are. And these statements may not match this person’s experience. They may not know anybody who’s had Covid, or who’s had it bad, or who’s died.
To them, this is a dry person reporting a rainstorm.
Or, they hear different experts and different governments saying conflicting things, and this makes everyone’s critical-thinking alarms go off. After all, if there’s a lack of consensus, someone needs to sort things out.
“Why not me?” And then they charge in and try to sort out something very complicated without proper guardrails, and things go sideways.
This is the very American problem we’re facing right now: our individualist culture champions what it calls “critical thinking,” by which we too often mean discarding expert information in favor of the testimony of our own friends and our own guts. We believe in our ability to understand hard concepts, far more than we believe in our own limitations and others’ expertise. And we believe that it is actually uncritical, sheeplike, to listen to experts.
I want to get deeper into this idea in future posts, but for now I want to leave you with this challenge: if you are tempted to think of so-and-so as a big dumb-o for believing whatever wild idea is floating around the internet today, consider whether they think the same of you. Then consider: if you wanted to engage them in a real debate, how would you convincingly distinguish between your belief in what you read and hear, and what they do?
After all, simply yelling back and forth to read different sources isn’t going so well.
I’m working on my answer to that; stay tuned.