The Cure for Belief in Conspiracy Theories
How intellectual humility is an antidote to belief in false conspiracies.
Posted October 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Intellectually humble people have an appropriate level of awareness of their intellectual weaknesses.
- People who hold the above beliefs fail to appreciate their intellectual limits appropriately and accurately assess what those limits are.
- Intellectual humility is a crucial virtue for avoiding irrational belief in conspiracy theories.
There is no shortage of conspiracy theories, both old and new:
- The moon landings were faked.
- COVID vaccines magnetize people who get them.
- There are child-trafficking tunnels under the White House.
- The “Marxist globalist Satanists” 1 are pushing for all of us to wear masks.
One thing that belief in these and other outlandish and false conspiracy theories have in common is that they all exhibit a failure of intellectual humility.
According to Nathan L. King, in his wonderful book The Excellent Mind: Intellectual Virtues for Everyday Life, intellectual humility has three key components. First, the intellectually humble person has an appropriate level of awareness of her intellectual weaknesses. She’s not obsessed with them, but neither does she ignore them. Second, such a person accurately (or reasonably, at least) assesses her intellectual weaknesses. Third, the intellectually humble person seeks to own her intellectual weaknesses.
People who hold the above beliefs fail to appreciate their intellectual limits appropriately and accurately assess what those limits are. Think about the past two years. Some people suddenly knew the truth about all of the following, contrary to the consensus—sometimes an overwhelming consensus—of the relevant experts and participants in these events: the results of the 2020 election, the laws of several state constitutions related to election procedures, the efficacy of face masks in limiting the spread of the coronavirus during a global pandemic, immunology, virology, public health, international relations, the nature and role of government, computer technology related to voting machines, 5G wireless technology, a variety of issues related to race and racism, and global climate change. It is one thing to have opinions about these things, even, in some cases, highly informed opinions. But when a single person has deep convictions about some, most, or all of these issues, something is wrong.
Many who believe and then propagate false conspiracy theories are also failing to own their intellectual weaknesses. One aspect of this is that we must learn to accept our intellectual limitations. For example, as a friend of mine recently and rightly pointed out to me, those who believe in a minority view in a particular field (e.g., climate change) or who believe in one or more conspiracy theories (e.g., the COVID vaccines are designed to allow the government to track our movements) ought to question why they, as a layperson, are intellectually capable of discerning that some outliers in a particular field are correct, rather than the overwhelming consensus of experts. This is a failure of intellectual humility because it is a failure to accept that one is simply not sufficiently equipped to make these kinds of judgments, at least in a reliable manner.
One good question to ask is this: do all of the conspiracy theories I believe (or that I am at least drawn to believing) reflect and reinforce my own political, ethical, and religious beliefs? If so, that’s a solid piece of evidence that something may have gone wrong. If so, my belief in all of these conspiracies is reflective of my liberal or conservative biases rather than a humble and passionate concern for the truth. This is one way to own our intellectual limits and weaknesses that can help us correct them.
Intellectual humility is a crucial virtue for avoiding irrational belief in conspiracy theories and anyone who wants to know what is accurate and then live their lives accordingly.