I scrutinize our local philosophy offerings with some trepidation

Every year, our philosophy department puts on a colloquium series on some topic in philosophy — this year, it’s the philosophy of conspiracy theories. Very timely! And I don’t see that our local conspiracy theorist faculty member is mentioned, and maybe not even involved, so there’s hope it might be good.

The first public lecture is tonight, titled “Conspiracy Theories and Public Trust”, over Zoom. I really don’t need to pile more on my plate, but maybe I can listen in while I’m grading papers.


  1. blf says

    (Cross-posted from poopyhead’s current [Pandemic and] Political Madness all the Time thread.)

    The reported findings are perhaps more interesting than the Grauniad’s title suggests, People with extremist views less able to do complex mental tasks, research suggests (my added emboldening):

    Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed — sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.

    The study, built on previous research, included more than 330 US-based participants aged 22 to 63 who were exposed to a battery of tests — 37 neuropsychological tasks and 22 personality surveys — over the course of two weeks.

    The tasks were engineered to be neutral, not emotional or political — they involved, for instance, memorising visual shapes. The researchers then used computational modelling to extract information from that data about the participant’s perception and learning, and their ability to engage in complex and strategic mental processing.

    Overall, the researchers found that ideological attitudes mirrored cognitive decision-making, according to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B [The cognitive and perceptual correlates of ideological attitudes: a data-driven approach†].

    A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.

    “Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.

    She said another feature of people with tendencies towards extremism appeared to be that they were not good at regulating their emotions, meaning they were impulsive and tended to seek out emotionally evocative experiences. […]


    Participants who are prone to dogmatism — stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence — actually have a problem with processing evidence even at a perceptual level, the authors found.

    “For example, when they’re asked to determine whether dots {as part of a neuropsychological task} are moving to the left or to the right, they just took longer to process that information and come to a decision,” Zmigrod said.

    In some cognitive tasks, participants were asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. People who leant towards the politically conservative tended to go for the slow and steady strategy, while political liberals took a slightly more fast and furious, less precise approach.

    “It’s fascinating, because conservatism is almost a synonym for caution,” she said. “We’re seeing that &mash; at the very basic neuropsychological level — individuals who are politically conservative … simply treat every stimuli that they encounter with caution.”


    “What we found is that demographics don’t explain a whole lot; they only explain roughly 8% of the variance,” said Zmigrod. “Whereas, actually, when we incorporate these cognitive and personality assessments as well, suddenly, our capacity to explain the variance of these ideological world-views jumps to 30% or 40%.”

      † The full paper is available at the link, including a legally-downloadable PDF. (I’ve not read it in full yet.)

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    From Grauniad article cited by blf @ # 1:

    The study, which looked at 16 different ideological orientations, could have profound implications for identifying and supporting people most vulnerable to radicalisation across the political and religious spectrum.

    The willful naïveté of academic psychologists never ceases to boggle my brain. Dr. Zmigrod, working at Cambridge U, presumably ought to have heard of the nefarious Cambridge Analytica project, which explicitly took the results of surveys “for identifying and supporting people most vulnerable to radicalisation” to target those most vulnerable people for (parafascist) radicalization.

  3. blf says

    @2, Yeah, I deliberately didn’t include that naïve nonsense in my excerpt, largely to focus on the reported finding that people tending towards extremism have a greater difficulty in preforming complex mental tasks and tend to see things in “black and white” terms (little nuance), seemingly preferring simplistic explanations — e.g., those offered by authoritarians (be they political, religious, conspiracy kook, etc., authoritarian). That perhaps isn’t a surprise, but at least as reported by the Grauniad, they have measurements to back up those findings. The extrapolation into the possible uses and — as pointed out, abuses — of the findings (whether or not they hold up (scammers & too many politicians won’t care about the validity)) is distracting.

  4. davidc1 says

    @`1 So they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time .Conspiracy Theories and creation theories are so much easier
    to understand than the proper stuff .