Building Up Your Intellectual Immune System

Ideas are like viruses.

They can hijack your mind and cause you to do dangerous things.

Consider Ted Kaczynski. Despite being a brilliant math prodigy, he became convinced that the world was heading towards self-annihilation. The only solution was to return to a pre-technological, agrarian society.

When his own exile from society failed, he started mailing bombs to university professors and airline officials, demanding to be heard. Nicknamed the Unabomber, he was eventually apprehended, but not before he killed three people and injured dozens of others.

While Kaczynski is an extreme case, the impact of ideas and ideologies is profound. Anorexics can overcome one of the human bodies most hard-wired instincts—to eat enough food to survive—driven by an ideal of thinness. Fanatics can kill thousands all in support of an abstract ideology.

More modestly, our lives are deeply shaped by the ideas we find persuasive. This can be profoundly good—education is a process of ingesting ideas which improve ourselves. But it can also be dangerous, when incorrect ideas take us down risky paths.

Your Defense Against Influential Ideas

Radical Skepticism Doesn't Work

One solution to the danger posed by ideas is to adopt a radical skepticism. Don’t believe anything you read or see. At least not without enormous quantities of proof.

However, a quick look at online groups devoted to skepticism and you’ll see a large number of wacky beliefs. Vaccine skeptics reject useful medicine to ward off imaginary problems. Flat-earthers doubt the shape of the globe, and all the modern science that goes with it.

Blanket skepticism doesn’t help because the mind inevitably believes something. Total doubt isn’t a psychologically realizable state. Doubting everything, perversely, allows you to become infected by ideas most sane people would reject.

A useful analogy is to one of actual pathogens. Your body can defend against intrusion of bacteria and viruses. But you still need to eat, walk around and live in the world. Therefore, contamination is impossible to avoid. Living inside a sterilized environment ultimately makes you even more susceptible to dangerous bugs.

In contrast, careful exposure is often a better remedy. It allows your immune system to adapt defenses so that when exposed to harmful ideas, you have the ability to avoid them.

Exposure Therapy for Better Thinking

The way to avoid being corrupted by bad ideas, but also to get the value from beneficial ones is to expose yourself broadly to large swathes of ideas. This has a few effects.

The first is that broad exposure to lots of different ideas (many of which contradict) prevents smaller ideas from expanding to occupy your entire worldview. Conspiracy theories are prevalent because as the theorist begins to hone in on his particular delusion, explanations for why to reject outside sources grow and grow.

The second is that certain patterns of ideas can be quite persuasive, when you hear them in isolation, but as you hear more debates you become less convinced.

When I started reading popular science books, I was often instantly sold on the truth of some new theory of biology, psychology, physics or human nature. After all, the person who wrote the book was so smart, and they had so much evidence.

That is, until I read another book by a different author who disagreed with the first. They managed to poke all sorts of holes in the other’s theories that I was surprised I found it so persuasive to begin with.

Reading a lot helps prevent malignant ideas from festering in your mind.

Seek Out Antibodies to Popular Positions

Vaccines work by injecting yourself with a small amount of the pathogen, so your body can train itself to fight off the infection.

You can do the same for your beliefs by seeking out smart people who disagree with you and hearing what they have to say. If they truly are wrong, you’ll learn to spot the persuasive tactics they use so you can avoid them next time. On the other hand, they may have some merit, and help you immunize yourself against the persuasive tactics you’ve already fallen victim to.

Does this mean you should have to read, in-depth, every crazy theory or belief system, no matter how widely discredited or dismissed? No, of course not.

However, I think ideas which are popular deserve some attention, even if they don’t deserve your belief. Popular ideas carry persuasive memetic mechanisms, so they’re worth understanding why other people believe them, even if you don’t agree with them yourself.

Unpopular ideas are safer to reject from a distance, perhaps with the caveat that unpopular ideas with support from small subsets of other experts, deserve a little more attention.

You Can’t Guard Your Mind, It Is Already Infected

One approach to this problem would be to guard your mind carefully, so that it isn’t unintentionally contaminated by the wrong ideas. This doesn’t work, however, because all of us are already infected by many ideas. The only solution is to balance our existing infections with competing ones. Moderate the impact of our bad ideas, rather than amplify them.