Stupidity as Moral Negligence (J.P. de Ruiter, 10 Jan 2024, Quillette)

For instance, in debates about the safety of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, opponents will often claim that “the science is new.” This is demonstrably false. The science is not new, and abundant data now show that mRNA vaccines are not only highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19, but that these vaccines are also very safe. Nevertheless, while “the science is new” is a stupid argument against vaccination, it requires mature and advanced cognitive skills.

First, the vaccine skeptic displays awareness that their decision not to get vaccinated needs to be defended at all. If the question were “Why don’t you get a dog?”, an expression of preference—such as “I don’t like dogs”—would be sufficient to end the discussion. There is, after all, no social pressure to own a dog. Vaccination campaigns, on the other hand, produce clear societal benefits, including protection of the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable from potentially fatal infection, slowing and containing the spread of disease, preventing the overloading of medical facilities, and so on. Skeptics, therefore, realize that the refusal to get vaccinated demands justification. This requires a level of social intelligence that would be very challenging to achieve for people with genuine cognitive limitations.

Second, the claim that “the science is new” appeals to a chain of four inferential assumptions, each of which requires complex reasoning skills:

Invocations of “the science” in these discussions are invariably vague, but the skeptic appeals to a common understanding of the term—“the scientific research that underlies the development and testing of mRNA vaccines”—so they can be confident that its meaning is intelligible to opponents. This requires reflexive reasoning and taking an interlocutor’s perspective into account.

The skeptic assumes that new or inadequately tested medical science may be unreliable, which requires some knowledge of how such science works.

If the science that underlies the development and testing of the new vaccine is unreliable, the vaccine might harm the recipient.

If it is potentially dangerous to take the vaccine, this is a legitimate reason for refusing to get vaccinated, on the grounds that it is reasonable to avoid doing things that might cause harm to oneself.

So, even though “the science is new” is a stupid argument, employing it to defend one’s refusal to get vaccinated requires mature and sophisticated cognitive skills. Other anti-vax arguments follow the same pattern. A conspiracy theorist who believes that Big Pharma wants to subdue the human population by putting microchips in their blood would need to make use of the same sophisticated cognitive skills. That arguments like these are often provided by and copied from opinion leaders (bloggers, podcasters, and social-media influencers) does not substantially alter this analysis. Most of us get most of our arguments from others, but we must still judge whether, when, and how they can be used to defend our own beliefs.

Generally, the ability to recognize how and why a certain argument threatens (or supports) one’s belief, and to choose the most effective and energy-efficient way to counter (or employ) it, requires highly developed cognitive skills. Any Artificial Intelligence researcher attempting to implement these reasoning skills in an artificial agent would emphatically agree. Individuals with true cognitive limitations would not be able to chain these inferences together and come up with the counterargument “the science is new” in this context.

So, the claim that people who employ stupid arguments “can’t help it” because of their limited intelligence is not only condescending, it is also inaccurate.