At some point in our lives, we’ve come across ideas that are flat-out wrong, not just kind of wrong but very and obviously wrong. The idea that the earth is flat is a prime example of a false belief regaining traction among new age “enlightenment” communities.
It might be easy to criticize this belief, but even more interestingly, we must ask ourselves, why is this happening? How does one continue to believe a wrong idea despite extensive scientific evidence that proves their belief wrong?
This is where the philosophical concept called Cognitive Immunology championed by Epistemologist Andy Norman comes in. Norman was heavily inspired by Richard Dawkin’s work, The Selflish Gene, where Dawkin presents the“meme” which can be ascribed to an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person; a memetic virus.
A meme is not controllable by anyone individual – many people can simultaneously serve as hosts for it. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by being passed from one person to another, memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via imitation.
Norman defines Cognitive Immunology as the science of mental immunity.
You may be asking, what is mental immunity?
It's the mind's resistance to "bad" ideas, misinformation, and divisive ideologies, where "bad" is defined as false, misleading, irresponsible, harmful, or overly problematic in this context.
This concept doesn't suggest that a portion of the brain is devoted to sifting through ideas and removing the bad ones; rather, in the same way that the body's immune system is decentralized, so is the mental immune system. Instead, it's defined by the cognitive processes across the brain that take place to filter out bad ideas.
If this is the case, how then do mental immune systems fail at removing bad ideas?
The truth is our brain likes a good shortcut. These neural shortcuts help us decode large amounts of information we receive every day saving us energy.
In a practical sense, this seems like a great function to have, but it's also the major contributing factor to the proliferation of cognitive biases and mental immune dysfunction.
Mental immune dysfunction is exactly how it sounds; it’s when the cognitive immune system fails to remove a bad idea. Psychological phenomena such as confirmation biases and belief perseverance are both great examples of mental immune dysfunction.
Confirmation bias tends to select the information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas while discarding contracting ones. It is quite common because it requires a lot less mental energy to accept information that neatly fits into our current beliefs. As humans, we crave cognitive consistency.
Due to the overwhelm of interpreting new information, it’s easier to accept what we already believe than to willingly question our ideas and feel the discomfort of deconstructing core ideologies.
In a similar vein, belief perseverance is the tendency to cling to one's initial belief even after receiving new information that contradicts or disconfirms the basis of that belief.
A great example of this is the unspoken agreement between science and religion.
There is an aspect of science that disproves claims made by certain religious traditions (i.e., the age of the earth). Yet, despite the evidence, there are believers who continue to believe such statements in the name of their faith.
Norman argues that exists because science has been designated to tend to the facts while religion tends to our values. So, it seems there is a bit of confusion and resistance when it comes to separating fact from belief. In general, when dogmatism controls our moral development, there is a void of logical reasoning.
Our individual and social morality should constantly be questioned for collective mental progress to be made.
Beyond science and modern religion, concepts like mental immune dysfunction can be found in Native American ideology and storytelling.
An Algonquin term, wétiko (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan), describes a person infected with a cannibalistic spirit driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption.
This mental “infection” deceives the host into believing that causing harm is logical and morally upright.
The term wétiko is often used to explain the disregard of our environment. It facilitates the idea that we are above nature and have no responsibility to preserve or protect it.
In addition to negative environmental consequences, the power of our ideas can also manifest in our body, both positively and negatively. For instance, we all may be familiar with the placebo effect, but what about the nocebo effect?
The nocebo effect can occur in different situations when one is exposed to adverse information about potential side effects or health results, as well with the power of suggestion, such as a "curse"
There are many ideas that possess the capacity to lead to mental immune dysfunction, and it is our responsibility to ensure these harmful ideas and beliefs don't take root. Our awareness of them can be a starting point to reevaluate whether these are ideas that we also harbor and to begin to question or challenge them.
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
According to Norman, certain ideas can be categorized as Cognitive Immune Disruptors (CIDs). These are ideas that have the capacity to interfere with the testing and removal of biases or ideas that weaken the mind’s ability to defend itself against bad ideas. CIDs can also excuse unaccountable talk and block moral inquiry.
Norman argues that while one person may have direct access to their belief, it does not translate to the belief not being someone else’s concern. In fact, many of our beliefs can have an indirect impact on the well-being of others.
Private beliefs can prevent us from questioning ourselves while identifying and removing bad ideas, and therefore weaken our mental immune systems.
While this may be a common idea, Norman points out that it exploits ambiguity and that legal and a moral rights are two separate things.
Ultimately, we need moral norms to regulate the things the law does not regulate because we all have the responsibility regarding our belief formation and the maintenance of such beliefs.
It’s up to us to recognize this difference between legal and moral rights and how own interpretations of them can cause harm to others indirectly.
Norman stands by the claim that this belief kills curiosity and allows for a fixed-mind mentality.
This idea inhibits resolution-oriented dialogue and suggests that value inquiry is pointless.
We can get rid of this idea by separating two senses of “subjective.” One that is mind-dependent and the other that is rationally arbitrary.
Norman suggests that this idea implies that one must have a special standing to be able to express certain moral judgements like perfect impartiality.
He states that anyone who notices the rightness or wrongness of something has the standing to ask questions about it. Avoiding this is to neglect challenging conventional moral wisdom and push this uncomfortable task to future generations.
Norman here defines basic as not needing to be argued or defended.
Someone who uses this idea typically wants to defend a cherished conviction from critical thinking.
This type of idea allows for the exploitation of the confusion surrounding what can or cannot be argued against and excuses dogmatic believing.
This idea can typically be used in the hopes of sparing others the discomfort of having to rethink core assumptions.
It's unassumingly "nice," but there is a difference between being nice and being kind. If you question someone's core commitments, you risk shifting focus from the critique to the critic's character.
Having a good argument doesn't tell you anything about a person's character or moral standing.
I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.
It’s extremely important to create a habit of questioning our belief systems and ideology. Perhaps, it’s not something that it energetically sustainable to do every day, but continual self-reflection along with challenging current social ideologies strengthens our mental immune systems against bad ideas.
Interestingly, research has demonstrated that we are motivated to think critically only when held accountable by others. While this may be true for the majority, we are all capable of creating a practice of self-reflection.
Moving forward, reflect on your beliefs and morals. Find the ways they do or do not negatively impact someone directly/indirectly.
Take a moment to get uncomfortable and find the ways you are or are not being held accountable.