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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 180

Andy Norman — Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think

Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think (book cover)

Astonishingly irrational ideas are spreading. COVID-19 denial persists in the face of overwhelming evidence. Anti-vaxxers compromise public health. Conspiracy thinking hijacks minds and incites mob violence, and toxic partisanship is cleaving nations. Meanwhile, American Nazis march openly in the streets, and Flat Earth theory is back. What the heck is going on? Why is all this happening, and why now? More important, what can we do about it? In Mental Immunity, Andy Norman shows that these phenomena share a root cause. We live in a time when the so-called “right to your opinion” is thought to trump our responsibilities. The resulting ethos effectively compromises mental immune systems, allowing “mind parasites” to overrun them. Conspiracy theories, evidence-defying ideologies, garden-variety bad ideas: these are all species of mind parasite, and each of them employs clever strategies to circumvent mental immune systems. In fact, some of them compromise cultural immune systems — the things societies do to prevent bad ideas from spreading. Minds and cultures have immune systems, and they really can break down. Fortunately, they can also be built up: strengthened against ideological corruption. He calls for a rigorous science of mental immune health — what he calls “cognitive immunology” — and explains how it could revolutionize our capacity for critical thinking.

Andy Norman directs the Humanism Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University. He studies how ideologies short-circuit minds and corrupt moral understanding, and develops tools that help people think together in more fruitful ways. He’s done research on the evolutionary origins of human reasoning and the norms that make dialogue fruitful. He works to clarify the foundations of responsible thinking about what matters and likes to engage audiences on topics related to science and human values.

Shermer and Norman discuss:

  • the plague of ideologies (Tree of Life synagogue attack; Jews will not replace us),
  • memes and viruses (replicate),
  • bad ideas as parasites,
  • cognitive immunology,
  • cultural immune systems,
  • science and philosophy as ways of thinking (philosophical idea testing),
  • epistemology and how we know what is true: of course we should be immune to bad ideas, but how do we know which ideas are bad vs. good?
  • Are humans by nature gullible or skeptical?
  • why “some minds are comparatively susceptible to ideological fixation, and others are comparatively immune”,
  • personal identity and ideas important to it: Dan Kahan’s identity-protective cognition,
  • Rebecca Goldstein’s hypothesis that we have a deep need to matter, the “mattering instinct”,
  • God loves you; we are God’s chosen people, God sacrificed his only son for you…
  • Norman’s Law: It is difficult to reason well when you need to reason poorly to feel like a decent human being,
  • What would it take to change your mind?
  • six Immune-Disruptive Ideas:

    1. Beliefs are private and no one else’s concern.
    2. We have a right to believe what we like.
    3. Values are subjective.
    4. We have no standing to criticize other people’s values.
    5. Basic value commitments are not subject to rational assessment.
    6. Questioning a person’s core commitments is fundamentally intolerant.
  • NOMA: should religion be given an epistemological pass?
  • belief in belief, religious truths, religion for the “little people”,
  • William K. Clifford vs. William James: evidence, faith, & the will to believe,
  • Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatism and the method of tenacity,
  • how to regulate beliefs,
  • impediments to curiosity (conceit, lack of imagination, incomprehension, relativism, moral cowardice).
12-Step Program
  1. Play with ideas.
  2. Minds are not passive knowledge receptacles.
  3. We are not entitled to our opinions.
  4. Distinguish between good and bad faith.
  5. Learning is more than adding to the mind’s knowledge stockpile.
  6. New information is like a puzzle piece; you must find where it fits.
  7. Don’t use “who’s to say?”
  8. Let go of the idea that value judgments can’t be objective.
  9. Treat challenges to your beliefs as opportunities rather than threats.
  10. Satisfy your need for belonging with a community of inquiry rather than belief.
  11. Upgrade your understanding of reasonable belief.
  12. Don’t underestimate the value of ideas that have survived scrutiny.

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This episode was released on May 11, 2021.

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