Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Dangerous beliefs

How our private beliefs can have public effects

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Our beliefs about the world guide our actions in it. Likewise, our actions reveal our beliefs. But are there beliefs we hold in theory, but would never act on? Such a distinction can be dangerous and irresponsible, writes Kenneth Boyd.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be ripe source material for those looking to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories throughout social media and elsewhere online. One does not have to look far before finding people defending beliefs that the virus was made in a Chinese lab in order to control population numbers, or that it can somehow be contracted by being in proximity to 5G cellular towers, or that Bill Gates is, for whatever reason, behind the whole thing. Such beliefs are seemingly held in defiance of the available evidence and, for the most part common sense, and show no signs of going away any time soon.

Despite it being confounding that anyone should believe these things, we might think that, for the most part, beliefs in these and similar kinds of theories are largely inert: although someone might express beliefs in such theories, they are not likely to act on them, at least not in a way that goes beyond expressing one’s views on social media. There have, of course, been exceptions. For example, workers erecting 5G towers have been berated by those who believe that 5G signals are related to the spread of coronavirus, and several such towers have been vandalized in the UK. In these cases, those acting on their beliefs that 5G signals are dangerous are rightly chastised for their actions. But we also might think that while people are not entitled to act in any way they want, they are entitled, at least in some sense, to believe whatever they want. Not only that, the fact that only a small number of those who purport to believe in these conspiracy theories do, in fact, go out and act on them, implies that people may be willing to defend some beliefs in theory that they may not be willing to defend in practice.

We might think that while people are not entitled to act in any way they want, they are entitled, at least in some sense, to believe whatever they want.

It is perhaps easy to come up with cases in which we treat some beliefs differently than others. For example, say that I am a self-proclaimed believer in astrology, and as such I enjoy discussing and reading about astrology, consulting my horoscope, and blaming my fiery Scorpio temperament for most of my personal flaws. Sure, I’m aware that there’s no empirical evidence that your date of birth has any effect on your personality, and that there are probably better explanations for my vices than my star sign. What’s more, it’s not as though I’m going to act on most of these beliefs: if my horoscope tells me that I will have good financial luck today I might believe it, even though I’m not going to restructure my investments in preparation for a monetary windfall. But this all seems fine: my astrology beliefs are, in a way, ones that I hold just for fun, don’t harm anyone, and, for the most part, aren’t going to influence how I act.

Other beliefs that have more practical consequences, however, are ones that I’m likely to treat differently. For instance, my beliefs about how much gas is in my car, or whether it’s going to rain, or how much money I have in my bank account, etc., are ones that are important for determining the ways that I act on a daily basis. They are also the kinds of beliefs that are going to be responsive to experience and evidence: I am not, for instance, going to hold onto the belief that I have plenty of money in my account when I receive notice from the bank that I am overdrawn.

It’s a tempting thought that there are some beliefs we can treat differently than others, with some that we are, in some sense, entitled to hold despite a lack of evidence. But the thought that we can hold some beliefs just in theory relies on a particular view of beliefs in which they can be personal, private things that exist in our own minds that show up in our actions only when we want them to. I don’t think this view is correct. What’s more, the view that we can and do treat some beliefs differently than others may be part of the problem with the abundance of conspiracy theories and other outlandish information that is spread online. To see why, we need to think more about how our beliefs are related to our actions.

It’s clear that one’s beliefs are related to one’s actions, in that beliefs can cause and explain how one acts. For example, the belief that there is free pizza in the next room, combined with my hunger and frugality, explains why I got up from my desk and went next door. It also seems that how one acts says something about what one believes. Consider someone who purports to be a staunch vegetarian because they believe that eating meat is morally reprehensible, but then always orders steak when you go out for dinner (even when there are plenty of vegetarian options available). We would probably say that despite what they say, they don’t actually believe that eating meat is wrong: after all, if they did, then they would act differently. What’s more, if I asked them about their beliefs and they responded that they are a vegetarian in theory but not in practice, it would be difficult to make sense of what they were talking about.

It’s clear that one’s beliefs are related to one’s actions, in that beliefs can cause and explain how one acts.

That we treat beliefs in these ways gives credence to the view that beliefs are importantly defined in part by our actions. If this is the case, then it is hard to see how we can make strict distinction between those beliefs we take to be private, and those we take to have practical importance. Retaining the view that we can cordon off some beliefs from our actions and the forces of evidence and experience can then have some problematic consequences.

Recall the examples of beliefs in conspiracy theories we started with. Research suggests that one of the reasons why the internet is such a petri dish for these kinds of theories is that people are willing to express views online that they would not express when interacting with others in person, partly because online interactions offer the possibility of anonymity and a distancing from the effects that one’s actions might have on others. The internet, then, is an ideal place to discuss far-fetched and outlandish beliefs that one takes to live in the realm of the theoretical, as one might conceive of such discussions as not really being an instance of putting beliefs into actions, but merely playing around with them for fun.

It’s clear that one’s beliefs are related to one’s actions, in that beliefs can cause and explain how one acts.

A worry, though, is not simply that a perceived lack of repercussions when interacting with others online will make one more likely to express such beliefs, but also that seeing such expressions can reinforce the beliefs of those who are willing to act on those beliefs in more tangible ways. Again, consider the case of those vandalizing 5G towers in the name of coronavirus prevention: that many others on social media expressed views that supported such beliefs no doubt played a role in their deciding how to act, regardless of whether those views were taken to be of purely theoretical interest or ones that had practical import.

The thought that beliefs can be categorized into those that are purely theoretical and those that are not, and that there are correspondingly different standards for each, combined with conceptions of online interactions that do not really count as putting beliefs into practice, may then be part of the explanation for how it is that some people can take outlandish views seriously. While the problem of people believing ridiculous stuff on the internet is a complex one with no simple solution, discarding of the view that one’s beliefs are purely private things that only have practical import when one chooses may be a step in the right direction.


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Joseph Tracy 7 September 2020

Straw man arguments. I am a fairly regular visitor to the web and never heard the idea that 5G systems were causing Covid-19. not saying this theory does not exist, but it has no major following and only an uneducated person would believe that. However, Many many have published articles and scientific papers about the dangers and negative health impacts of the high intensity EMF waves of 5G. This article seems to me to to try to associate the growing opposition to 5G based on science and the human experience of those close to EMF towers with loony conspiracy theories. BOGUS!!!!!!!!! Take on the real issue of 5G, disclosing your funders, and stop trying to associate the global resistance to 5G with straw man crap.