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Society & Reason
6 Signs You’ve Taken The Blue Pill
Lewis Vaughn tells you how you can know whether you’re a conspiracy theorist.
Millions have embraced the outrageous, demonstrably false partisan claims of our times, such as the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, or that the Nuremberg Code says mask mandates are a war crime, or that Covid vaccines are dangerous and ineffective, or that the US government is controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles… Among the misinformed are those who simply believe; and then there are those who really, really believe. Partisans in this latter group, liberal or conservative, don’t just dispute contrary evidence: For them, the idea they reject is impossible, and there can be no conceivable evidence or argument that would convince them otherwise. They will stick to their guns in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Like the shopkeeper in the famous Monty Python parrot skit, they will insist that their cold, stiff, dead bird is very much alive. In an epistemic sense, they live in their own alternative reality – like those in the The Matrix who would prefer to take the blue pill, and thus continue to live unaware that they’re in a simulated world where nothing is real and fantasies rule their mind.
Many commentators have accused these blue-pill partisans of being reckless, self-destructive, and potentially dangerous. But research suggests that most conspiracy-minded people are psychologically normal, propelled by ordinary psychological and sociopolitical forces, and otherwise a lot like everyone else. And the same pressures can nudge almost anyone in that direction. The researchers point to the fuel being resentments and fears, the need for order and control, the need to overcome cognitive dissonance (whenever reality conflicts with what we want to believe), and negative partisanship (when beliefs are formed primarily because of hate for others). These unabating winds can drive people into a gale of unreason, false rationalizations, and political extremism. If someone has thoroughly blue-pilled themselves, their chances of seeing clearly and believing rationally is almost nil, at least in the short term. Arguing with blue-pill people is almost always a waste of time, especially in the distorted funhouse atmosphere of social media.
But it’s possible to detect the signs of this kind of warped thinking in ourselves, before it’s too late. The first step is to become more aware of the problem, and that requires applying some critical reasoning.
Here are some telltale signs:
Sign 1: You’ve adopted at least one of these habits of thought:
• You reject out of hand any facts, statistics, arguments, or studies that contradict your beliefs.
• You wholeheartedly accept significant claims without once asking to see the evidence.
• You believe without question whatever you’re told by your leader.
• You think any news that conflicts with your beliefs is automatically fake.
• You refuse to seriously consider any view that makes you uncomfortable.
• In the worst cases, you simply make up your own ‘facts’.
If we recognize these symptoms in ourselves, the immediate implication is that some of our thinking is probably delusional. It should then be distressingly obvious that we’ve become unmoored.
Sign 2: You can’t defend your views without relying on information that comes exclusively from hyperpartisan sources.
The challenge is to make your case with facts and evidence derived from trustworthy, least-biased sources. If you can’t do that, then your case is weak.
Hyperpartisan sources of any stripe – whether websites, social media, magazines, newspapers, or television – warp perspectives and distort reality. They are often inaccurate, lack credible sourcing, feast on unverifiable information, and spout partisan propaganda, unhinged conspiracies, and fake news (deliberately false or misleading news stories that masquerade as truthful reporting). These sources can’t be trusted because they ignore all contrary information. If you believe Joe Biden is the Antichrist, and your only supporting evidence comes from BidenIstheAntichrist.com, you need to broaden your research.
Sign 3: All your reasoning is motivated reasoning.
Motivated reasoning is reasoning for the purpose of supporting a predetermined conclusion, not to uncover the truth. It’s confirmation bias in overdrive. It’s a way of piling up evidence that agrees with your preferred conclusion and of downplaying, ignoring, or devaluing evidence that supports a contrary view. You set out to prove your point, not to determine whether your point is true.
On social media, people spend hours expounding their one-sided arguments without once examining opposing views – except to try to trash them – or without trying to understand the larger picture that could put issues and evidence in context; or not examining contrary evidence impartially without indulging in knee-jerk rejection. If you were a police detective using motivated reasoning, you might arrest Bill simply because you don’t like the look of him, without any proof even of there being a crime
Sign 4: You can’t formulate an argument for your position without using fallacies.
A good argument consists of a conclusion logically supported by true premises. A fallacy is an illogical argument. In conspiratorial thinking, claims are often propped up by fallacies, most often one of these:
• Appeals to personal certainty: Trying to prove a claim by appealing to the fact that you’re certain of it. ‘No doubt about it, Joe Biden is irredeemably corrupt!’ or ‘Of course climate change is a hoax!’
• Straw man, ‘nutpicking’: This is taking an extreme member of an opposition group and treating them as representative of the group as a whole: ‘Smith – a life-long Democrat – says the best government is a communist government. The Democrats have gone absolutely crazy!’
• Straw man, radicalizing the opposition: This involves transforming a modest, qualified proposition from an opposing group into an unqualified radical proposition so it can be more easily attacked or refuted. You: ‘I think this policy might lead to mistakes or problems in some circumstances, but we should nevertheless implement it.’ Your opponent: ‘So you’re saying problems will always happen with this policy. Why would you institute something so ridiculous?’
• Whataboutism: The opposing of an accusation by arguing that an opponent is guilty of an equally bad or worse offense – which of course is beside the point, and does nothing to disprove the original charge. A good example is Donald Trump defending himself against impeachment charges by asking, “What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches…?”
• Motivism: Dismissing an argument not because the argument is bad but because you think the arguer’s motives are bad: for example, ‘People mistakenly believe Covid vaccinations work because they’re slaves to Big Pharma’ or ‘Scientists warn us about global warming out of greed.’
Sign 5: You can’t talk to anyone opposed to your views without insulting them, mocking them, scolding them, or yelling at them.
Sometimes getting angry with your opponent means only that you care deeply about an issue or the people involved. Sometimes moral outrage is the appropriate response to a moral outrage. But too often, heated reactions just get in the way of clear thinking, and are signs that your argument is weak, that you fear you’re wrong, or that you don’t want to have an honest, rational discussion. Bertrand Russell once made the same point, although perhaps with a pinch of hyperbole:
“When there are rational grounds for an opinion, people are content to set them forth and wait for them to operate. In such cases, people do not hold their opinions with passion; they hold them calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly. The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.”
Let the People Think by Bertrand Russell, 1941, 2.
Sign 6: You won’t, or can’t, distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate reasons for believing something.
Blue-pill thinkers ignore this elementary principle of critical reasoning: We should not believe a claim unless there are legitimate reasons for doing so. Legitimate reasons are those that increase the likelihood of a claim being true. Such reasons come from reliable evidence, trustworthy sources, and good critical thinking. The problem is that we frequently reach for illegitimate reasons – those that are irrelevant to the truth of a claim. Illegitimate reasons for accepting or rejecting claims include:
• The statements made by this source feel true; therefore they must actually be true (because my feelings can certify claims).
• Believing this claim or source makes me feel good (and feeling good is what matters).
• I don’t know how I know this statement is true – I just do.
• All my friends believe this claim, so it must be true.
• People I dislike believe this claim, so I will reject it.
Critical thinking isn’t easy. It requires an honest, uncomfortable look at ourselves and the world as we and it really are. It’s a bucket of ice water on our fevered fantasies. Swallowing the partisan blue pill is easier. But it’s also a retreat from real knowledge and from what’s important in life.
© Lewis Vaughn 2023
Lewis Vaughn is the former editor of the journals Free Inquiry and Philo and the author of several textbooks, including The Power of Critical Thinking, 7th edn; Philosophy Here and Now, 4th edn; and Doing Ethics, 6th edn.