Intellectual vices, from Brexit to the Birmingham Six

Unthinkable: The Leave campaign was unconcerned about truth but Remainers showed ‘naivety and arrogance’, says philosopher Quassim Cassam

The belated opening of the inquests into the deaths of 21 people in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings reminds us of one of the IRA’s worst atrocities. It also brings fresh attention to a dark chapter in British legal history that saw six men wrongly convicted for life for the murders.

The case of the Birmingham Six highlights that even the most educated minds can fall prey to intellectual vices. The leading judges who stood over the conviction of the six – refusing the accept the possibility of a police stitch-up – displayed what philosopher Quassim Cassam calls “anti-conspiracy thinking”, which “in different circumstances, might have been epistemically virtuous”.

While conspiracy thinking is normally associated with loopy fanatics and truth-deniers, there is nothing inherently vicious or virtuous about it, says Cassam. It depends on whether such thinking is grounded in facts or prejudice. “It isn’t far-fetched to suppose that conspiracy thinking might be conducive to knowledge if it is evidence-based.”

Cassam analyses the reasoning of successive judges in the Birmingham Six case in his new book, Vices of the Mind, which also explores more recent examples of intellectual vice in the public arena. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump provide rich material for developing what he calls an "anatomy of vice" from arrogance and overconfidence to closed-mindedness and gullibility.


It matters to the liar that what he says isn't true. The bullshitter doesn't care

Cassam, this week’s Unthinkable guest, offers advice on how to spot intellectual vices and also how to tackle them. While “there is little prospect of our ever being able to entirely avoid unconscious bias or unrecognised ignorance”, there is scope for improving our thinking with effort and “a lot of honesty”.

You say conspiracy thinking is not necessarily a vice. But how does one identify virtuous conspiracy thinking?

Quassim Cassam: “Suppose you present me with compelling evidence of a conspiracy. I look at the evidence and think, ‘Yes, there’s clearly been a conspiracy!’ There’s nothing wrong with this type of conspiracy thinking. Indeed, I’d be more open to criticism in this example for not believing there has been a conspiracy.

“In the first Birmingham Six trial the judge, Mr Justice Bridge, was presented with strong evidence that the police had conspired to frame the defendants. He dismissed the evidence on the grounds that if the men had been set up, then the police would have been involved in a conspiracy ‘unprecedented in the annals of British criminal history’, as he put it. This is something he wasn’t prepared to contemplate and that was wrong.

“Virtuous thinkers are guided by the evidence rather than by their own prejudices. Not only was there a police conspiracy against the Birmingham Six, there was good evidence of a conspiracy.

“In saying these things I’m not defending Conspiracy Theories with a capital C and a capital T. A conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. In this sense, the official account of 9/11 is a conspiracy theory. There’s nothing wrong with conspiracy theories per se and many conspiracy theories - like the one that Bridge rejected - are correct.

“Conspiracy Theories, like the theory that recent high school shootings in the US were false flag operations, are quite different. They aren’t based on any evidence, are unlikely to be true, and are mainly put forward for propaganda purposes. Conspiracy Theories in this sense are spread in order to promote a political cause, such as opposition to gun control.

“I’d suggest that the people who come up with these theories don’t necessarily believe them. If they do then there’s certainly something wrong with their thinking.”

Sticking with the Birmingham Six case, what other vices of the mind did the judges display?

"There's quite a long list. Bridge's anti-conspiracy thinking was really an expression of his closed-mindedness, a classic intellectual vice. The same goes for Lord Denning.

“When the six launched a civil action against the police, Denning famously said that if they won it would mean that the police were guilty of violence and perjury. This was ‘such an appalling vista’ that the action shouldn’t be allowed to go any further. No question here of assessing the evidence on its merits and that’s another classic intellectual vice.

“Chris Mullin [the campaigner and former Labour MP] is good on all this. He talked about a degree of complacency and self-satisfaction in the legal profession at that time that was not to be found in any other walk of life ‘with the possible exception of the police’.”

A vice you identify in prominent Leave campaigners in the Brexit debate is ‘epistemic insouciance’. How does this differ from lying or bullshitting?

“Epistemic insouciance is a particular form of not giving a shit. It means not caring about the facts, about what the evidence shows, or what experts think. It’s an attitude of indifference towards the truth. As I see it, bullshit is the primary product of epistemic insouciance.

"The philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously distinguished between lies and bullshit. It matters to the liar that what he says isn't true. The bullshitter doesn't care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. In my terms, what the bullshitter displays is epistemic insouciance. Most people who read my account of this attitude immediately think of certain British politicians who are prominent on the Leave side in Brexit. Need I say more?"

What is the chief intellectual vice among Remain campaigners?

“With the Remainers in 2016, I’d say a lethal combination of arrogance and naivety. They assumed they knew best. In one sense they did: Brexit is a truly terrible idea. But in another sense they were utterly clueless.

“They misjudged the mood of the country, and the result of the 2016 referendum was a rude awakening for them. They knew much less than they thought. The interesting question for me is whether they have learned from their mistakes. Would they do any better in a second referendum? I’m not so sure.”

In terms of practical advice, you say reading books helps one to appreciate complexity. Can you give three quick tips for combating vices of the mind?

“The first thing to say is that many of our intellectual vices are what I call ‘stealthy vices’: they obstruct their own detection. It’s a bit like the Dunning-Kruger effect, the idea that some people are too stupid to realise how stupid they are. How often do you find closed-minded people recognising their closed-mindedness?

“So my first tip is to try to get to know your intellectual vices, at least the non-stealthy ones like arrogance. That requires a lot of honesty and input from other people.

“Once you know what the problem is, maybe you can do something about it.

“Above all, we need to come to grips with the fact that answers to simple-sounding questions can be highly complex. But I think we need to get away from the idea that we are stuck with our intellectual vices and can do nothing about them. Some people are too far gone but we aren’t all like that.

“My third tip? Read my book!”

Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political by Quassim Cassam is published by Oxford University Press