News Observer : Distorting the study of 9/11 at UNC

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Distorting the study of 9/11 at UNC

-- The Sept. 11, 2001 images bring back memories of foreign places
-- Representing 9/11 has led to controversy in academic community
-- We must move on from the atrocity to better understand 9/11

By Neel Ahuja | September 19, 2015

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a college student in Illinois. Like most Americans, I was stunned to witness the 9/11 attacks on television. Like many individuals with relatives who had survived atrocities, the images of destruction evoked for me connections to faraway places.

When I was a child, my father told me stories of his experience of resettlement as an 11-year-old refugee in India’s 1947 war of partition, recounting the loss of his home as he was driven out of the new land of Pakistan. The most vivid memory from these stories was the moment he traced a coin-sized circle on the palm of his hand to indicate the size of his daily ration of rice in the refugee camp.

Today, as refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and elsewhere journey toward northwestern Europe, the knowledge that thousands are dying along the way provokes anger and frustration. “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark,” writes poet Warsan Shire. And yet knowledge of the world’s shared exposure to violence revealed in the ruins of 9/11 or war-torn Syria might also be a resource for building a future in which one’s identity or birthplace will no longer mandate unequal vulnerability to premature death.

As this year’s anniversary of 9/11 approached, I had just convened my fall classes at UNC-Chapel Hill. I was teaching a course I designed called “Literature of 9/11,” which explores poetry, novels, films, comics, essays, journalism and documentary materials related to the public memory and legacies of the 9/11 attacks.

The course quickly became a topic of public debate. A first-year student who was not enrolled in my course declared that “Literature of 9/11” did not adequately represent victims. Based on a list of the assigned texts published by the campus bookstore, the student wrote on a national website that “the readings mostly focus on justifying the actions of terrorists – painting them as fighting against an American regime, or mistaken idealists, or good people.” The story went viral and was aired on one national cable news channel, reaching an audience of millions. A deluge of hateful email swamped my inbox; meanwhile, the university was flooded with calls to fire me and cut humanities funding.

There have been heated debates over how to ethically represent 9/11. Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” After 9/11, the sentiment was instead to publish photographs after 9/11 is barbaric.

On Aug. 26, my students read Tom Junod’s article on the famous “Falling Man” image depicting a man in mid-air as he jumped from the burning towers. We explored the controversies over this image and similar ones, like sculptor Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman, which was removed from Rockefeller Center after complaints about its graphic content. As we examined laments from relatives of the dead, we also viewed Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu’s film about the victims who jumped from the towers.

The director blacks out the spectacle of the burning buildings and forces the viewer to zoom in on each falling individual, to hear the last phone calls of the victims on the planes and finally to listen to the sound of these human beings hitting the pavement at the moment of death. Disturbing as these scenes are, they attempt to individualize the dead, helping the filmmaker ask a question that on first glance seems to denounce religious extremism and on second seems more critical of the media’s obsessive repetition of the images of the falling towers: “Does God’s light guide us or blind us?”

Two days later, the story about our course began circulating online. It was disorienting to spend our class discussing the ethics of mourning and the application of Holocaust, postcolonial and trauma theories to 9/11, only to return to my office to find dozens of emails accusing me of sympathizing with terrorists, calling for the deportation or extermination of all Muslims or telling me to “go back where I came from.” (I was born in Nashville and grew up in Topeka, Kansas.)

One reason critics attacked me is that I teach three texts – “Poems from Guantánamo” and the novels “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid and “The Sirens of Baghdad” by Yasmina Khadra – that are easy to caricature as representing the viewpoints of terrorists. None of these texts is actually so one-dimensional. Khadra, for example, was an Algerian army officer who fought in that country’s civil war against Islamists, and his publisher brags that his books have been taught at West Point. Yet the book titles and authors’ names – along with the assumptions readers made about my own identity – left my course an easy target.

The student who criticized my course later admitted that he had never read any of the assigned texts. He just lifted impressions from reviews. Had, for him, reading itself become barbaric after 9/11?

This was a cynical attack on learning and an attempt to censor writing exploring the fraught histories of U.S. overseas military interventions. Yet reflecting on such topics is exactly the task that the memory of 9/11 and all other mass atrocities urgently requires of us.

Admirably, students at UNC have consistently opposed attempts to stifle public education and critical thought. This includes strong resistance to smear campaigns against UNC orchestrated by the John William Pope Center that aim to justify university budget cuts in order to advance the program of tax cuts being pushed by North Carolina’s state legislature.

It is time to end the hijacking of the public trauma of 9/11 for the service of such narrow political agendas. To ask critical questions about the legacies of mass atrocity is our collective responsibility. If we don’t answer that call, there will be no possibility of moving beyond the acts of retribution, hatred and fear that continue to remake today’s world in the image of Manhattan’s rubble.

Neel Ahuja is associate professor of English, comparative literature and geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the author of “Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species,” forthcoming from Duke University Press. He teaches the courses “Literature of 9/11” and “The New Wars” at UNC.

The controversy

Find a news article about Neel Ahuja’s class at and the original blog post at

NOTE: uh ... not! these are the links provided in the final note:

UNC’s ‘Literature of 9/11’ course sympathizes with terrorists, paints U.S. as imperialistic
Alec Dent | UNC Chapel Hill | August 28, 2015

UNC course on 9/11 criticized in conservative publications
By Jane Stancill | September 1, 2015


another link from the original:

Fox News Fooled By College Freshman Blogger In Attack On 9/11 Literature Course

and from this there are many others, including:

Newsweek : Florida Man Charged With Planning to Explode 9/11 Memorial

Friday, September 11, 2015

Florida Man Charged With Planning to Explode 9/11 Memorial

By Polly Mosendz | September 11, 2015

A 20-year-old Florida man made plans to destroy a September 11 memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, according to a criminal complaint filed in the Middle District of Florida.

Joshua Ryne Goldberg allegedly planned to have an accomplice carry out his plan on September 13, using a bomb.

He is charged with illegal distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction. On social media, Goldberg posed as an extremist based in Perth, Australia who planned to carry out attacks in that nation. An FBI official who was posing as a fellow jihadist spoke online with Goldberg regularly. Authorities were able to trace Goldberg’s IP address to his mother’s house in Florida.

“Have you decided what kind of attack to carry on 9/11, akhi? I was thinking a bombing. We could make pipe bombs and detonate them at a large public event,” Goldberg wrote, according to the criminal complaint. Using the pseudonym AusWitness, Goldberg provided instructions on how to make a pressure cooker bomb and selected the Kansas City 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb as the location for the attack. Rather than carry out the attack himself, Goldberg convinced the informant to bomb the memorial, the complaint says.

In messages to the informant, Goldberg advised him to purchase the bomb-making materials separately so as not to alert authorities to his plans. “When you go [to the memorial] to place the bomb, make sure the bomb is VERY well hidden.... Put the backpack near the crowd,” Goldberg wrote, according to the complaint.

In order to cause the most damage possible, Goldberg suggested filling the bomb with nails, glass and metal. “If you can, dip the screws and other shrapnel in rat poison before putting them in. that way, the kuffar who get hit by them will be more likely to die,” he wrote, the complaint says.

A search warrant was issued for Goldberg’s home on September 9 and it was then that he was detained. In conversations with authorities, Goldberg allegedly admitted to providing instructions on how to make a bomb and planning the Kansas City attack. “Goldberg stated he believed that the individual did intend to create functioning bombs and would actually attempt to use them to kill and injure persons,” the complaint reads.

Goldberg claims he planned to tell law enforcement about the bombing plan in advance so he would “receive credit for stopping the attack.”

Guardian : Frederick Forsyth: I was an MI6 agent

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Frederick Forsyth: I was an MI6 agent

Day of the Jackal author reveals in autobiography that he worked for the intelligence service for more than two decades

Alison Flood | September 1, 2015

Frederick Forsyth will admit in his forthcoming autobiography that he worked as an agent for MI6 for more than 20 years.

The bestselling thriller author, who was an RAF pilot and a journalist before turning to fiction with The Day of the Jackal, is due to release The Outsider next week. Forsyth has previously denied claims that he worked for MI6 – “Some said that I was a spook, but I just knew a few,” he told the Guardian in 2001 – but an extract from his memoir in the Sunday Times reveals how in late 1968 a “member of the Firm” - MI6 – called Ronnie sought him out.

The Nigeria-Biafra conflict had been ongoing for 15 months, and Ronnie needed “an asset deep inside the Biafran enclave, what he termed ‘someone in on the ground’”. Forsyth had been reporting from Biafra as a freelancer, and writes that “when I left for the return to the rainforest, he had one”.
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Forsyth says that he was simultaneously working as a stringer for various newspapers and magazines reporting on the conflict and the humanitarian disaster, and keeping Ronnie “informed of things that could not, for various reasons, emerge in the media”.

He told the BBC that he was not paid for the work he did. “There was a lot of volunteer assistance that was not charged for. The zeitgeist was different … the cold war was very much on,” he said. “If someone asked: ‘Can you see your way clear to do us a favour?’, it was very hard to say no.”

Forsyth’s reporting from Biafra provided the material for his first book, The Biafra Story, a non-fiction account of the breakaway state’s war with Nigeria. He also undertook fact-finding missions to Rhodesia and South Africa, and in 1973, two years after the publication of his debut novel The Day of the Jackal, went into East Germany to retrieve a package from an asset. He played the part of a British tourist visiting the Albertinum museum. “Graeco-Roman treasures were my new enthusiasm and there were books to study as if for an exam,” the author told the Sunday Times, which said that Forsyth was handed the files under a toilet door at the museum.

Forsyth said this weekend that he was making the revelation now because “it is 55, 60 years later. There have been memoirs written, highly secret minutes have been published. There’s no East Germany, no Stasi, no KGB, no Soviet Union, so where’s the harm?”

He also revealed that he had consulted MI6 over passages in his novels, which are known for their authenticity. “I had a number to ring,” he told the Sunday Times. “I would have a lunch at the club, I’d ask is it OK? They would check with their superiors, and then they would say yes, you can use that, with one proviso, that sheets must be provided for vetting – just in case I went too far.” Usually, he told the BBC, “the response was: ‘OK, Freddie!’”

The 77-year-old Forsyth is the author of 13 bestselling novels, including The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil’s Alternative and The Fourth Protocol. The Outsider will be published on 10 September, described by its publisher as “a candid look at an extraordinary life lived to the full, a life whose unique experiences have provided rich inspiration for 13 internationally bestselling thrillers”.

Phys dot Org : Why do people believe 9/11 was an inside job?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Why do people believe 9/11 was an inside job?

July 31, 2015

The reasons why some people believe bizarre conspiracy theories are set to be explored in a new project by a philosopher from the University of Warwick.

Professor Quassim Cassam has been awarded £250,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to study what he calls 'intellectual vices'. The title of his project is 'Vice Epistemology'.

He believes his research could help to explain how certain claims -- for example that 9/11 was masterminded by the US government -- are able to gain so much traction.

His findings may also shed light on why some people are susceptible to becoming radicalised in ways that make them potential recruits for extremist organisations such as Islamic State.

Prof Cassam said: "In 2008, a global poll of over 16,000 people found fewer than half believed that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, with a significant number attributing the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers to a controlled demolition by the US government.

"We live in a world where strange conspiracy theories such as this abound, often with dire social and political consequences. But how are such beliefs to be explained?

"My project as an AHRC Leadership Fellow is about the possible role of intellectual vices in fuelling these beliefs. By intellectual vices I mean intellectual character traits such as gullibility, closed-mindedness, prejudice and dogmatism. What I call vice epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature and significance of such character traits."

He added: "There are some true conspiracy theories, such as Watergate, but the philosophically interesting ones are those that are clearly false and refuted by best available evidence. Why is it that some people continue to believe such theories?

"One way of answering is to ask the person and they will give you their reasons, but the thing that's striking is that these reasons will often be bad reasons. They have access to the evidence, but continue to subscribe to their theories. If you simply answer the question 'why do they believe these things?' by reference to the reasons they give you will have an incomplete account -- you need to go deeper.

"The thing is that these people aren't necessarily crazy or irrational but, as Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein points out, crazy thoughts are often held by people who are not crazy at all. But if these people aren't irrational, why is it and how is it they believe the things they believe? We need an alternative explanation."

Prof Cassam's study will also consider whether intellectual vices may explain why there is sometimes a gap between the results of scientific research and the implementation of those findings by practitioners on the ground. "This gap is a major challenge facing clinical and other human services, identified by the World Health Organization," he said.

The research is due to begin in April 2016.

Independent : What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

New study will look at why some people are more suspectible to extremist views

Caroline Mortimer | July 30, 2015

Conspiracy theorists aren’t "mad" they just have certain “intellectual character traits” that make them believe certain things, a professor has said.

Quassim Cassam, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick, has launched a new study into what makes people believe in certain theories – and why such theories could push people to extremes such as joining Isis.

He believes that some people are more vulnerable to “intellectual vices” such as dogmatism, gullibility and close mindedness and this in turn makes them more likely to listen to extreme "alternative" sources of information.

He told The Independent: “The other explanation is that that these people are literally mad or mentally ill but I don’t really go for that theory.

“For example take 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Why do they hold onto their conspiracy theory despite the fact that there seems to be overwhelming evidence that it wasn’t an American government conspiracy to bring down the towers?

“The answer is they are overwhelmingly receptive to certain kinds of evidence for instance of website and they are overly dismissive of other types of evidence such as engineers’ reports on the towers.”

Professor Cassam explains that psychologists have developed a theory of a “conspiracy mentality” which explains why people are more likely to be taken in by certain types of rhetoric or information that go against received wisdom.

Now he is trying to explore that idea in more depth and study the generic character traits which underpin that mentality.

In the case of terrorism and Isis, he questioned why is it that some 18 or 19 year olds can be convinced by Isis recruiters to believe their interpretation of Islam despite the people around them telling them differently.

He explained: “For example, I don’t know much about Islam but I do know that there is an absolute clear bar in Islam on suicide. So people who are told it is acceptable to be suicide bombers are ending up believing something which on the face has no foundation at all.”

He said he was not trying to prove that these character traits were the sole reason for people believing these things but they are “part of the package”.

Professor Cassam’s study, which is funded by the Arts and Humanity Research Council, will start in April 2016 and run for 18 months.

He hopes that his findings will help understand the irrational decisions made by some and be a step forward towards combating and challenging them.

Aeon: Bad thinkers

Friday, March 13, 2015

Bad thinkers

by Quassim Cassam | March 13, 2015
Edited by Ed Lake | @ejklake

Why do some people believe conspiracy theories? It’s not just who or what they know. It’s a matter of intellectual character

Quassim Cassam is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry. His latest books are Berkeley’s Puzzle: What Does Experience Teach Us? (2014) and Self-Knowledge for Humans (2014).

Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn’t have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Polling evidence suggests that Oliver’s views about 9/11 are by no means unusual. Indeed, peculiar theories about all manner of things are now widespread. There are conspiracy theories about the spread of AIDS, the 1969 Moon landings, UFOs, and the assassination of JFK. Sometimes, conspiracy theories turn out to be right – Watergate really was a conspiracy – but mostly they are bunkum. They are in fact vivid illustrations of a striking truth about human beings: however intelligent and knowledgeable we might be in other ways, many of us still believe the strangest things. You can find people who believe they were abducted by aliens, that the Holocaust never happened, and that cancer can be cured by positive thinking. A 2009 Harris Poll found that between one‑fifth and one‑quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation, astrology and the existence of witches. You name it, and there is probably someone out there who believes it.

You realise, of course, that Oliver’s theory about 9/11 has little going for it, and this might make you wonder why he believes it. The question ‘Why does Oliver believe that 9/11 was an inside job?’ is just a version of a more general question posed by the US skeptic Michael Shermer: why do people believe weird things? The weirder the belief, the stranger it seems that someone can have it. Asking why people believe weird things isn’t like asking why they believe it’s raining as they look out of the window and see the rain pouring down. It’s obvious why people believe it’s raining when they have compelling evidence, but it’s far from obvious why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job when he has access to compelling evidence that it wasn’t an inside job.

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.

Usually, when philosophers try to explain why someone believes things (weird or otherwise), they focus on that person’s reasons rather than their character traits. On this view, the way to explain why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job is to identify his reasons for believing this, and the person who is in the best position to tell you his reasons is Oliver. When you explain Oliver’s belief by giving his reasons, you are giving a ‘rationalising explanation’ of his belief.

The problem with this is that rationalising explanations take you only so far. If you ask Oliver why he believes 9/11 was an inside job he will, of course, be only too pleased to give you his reasons: it had to be an inside job, he insists, because aircraft impacts couldn’t have brought down the towers. He is wrong about that, but at any rate that’s his story and he is sticking to it. What he has done, in effect, is to explain one of his questionable beliefs by reference to another no less questionable belief. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell us why he has any of these beliefs. There is a clear sense in which we still don’t know what is really going on with him.

Now let’s flesh out Oliver’s story a little: suppose it turns out that he believes lots of other conspiracy theories apart from the one about 9/11. He believes the Moon landings were faked, that Diana, Princess of Wales, was murdered by MI6, and that the Ebola virus is an escaped bioweapon. Those who know him well say that he is easily duped, and you have independent evidence that he is careless in his thinking, with little understanding of the difference between genuine evidence and unsubstantiated speculation. Suddenly it all begins to make sense, but only because the focus has shifted from Oliver’s reasons to his character. You can now see his views about 9/11 in the context of his intellectual conduct generally, and this opens up the possibility of a different and deeper explanation of his belief than the one he gives: he thinks that 9/11 was an inside job because he is gullible in a certain way. He has what social psychologists call a ‘conspiracy mentality’.

Notice that the proposed character explanation isn’t a rationalising explanation. After all, being gullible isn’t a reason for believing anything, though it might still be why Oliver believes 9/11 was an inside job. And while Oliver might be expected to know his reasons for believing that 9/11 was an inside job, he is the last person to recognise that he believes what he believes about 9/11 because he is gullible. It is in the nature of many intellectual character traits that you don’t realise you have them, and so aren’t aware of the true extent to which your thinking is influenced by them. The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded. The only hope of overcoming self-ignorance in such cases is to accept that other people – your co-workers, your spouse, your friends – probably know your intellectual character better than you do. But even that won’t necessarily help. After all, it might be that refusing to listen to what other people say about you is one of your intellectual character traits. Some defects are incurable.

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness are examples of what the US philosopher Linda Zagzebski, in her book Virtues of the Mind (1996), has called ‘intellectual vices’. Others include negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking. To describe Oliver as gullible or careless is to say something about his intellectual style or mind-set – for example, about how he goes about trying to find out things about events such as 9/11. Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues Oliver plainly lacks, and that is why his attempts to get to the bottom of 9/11 are so flawed.

Oliver is fictional, but real-world examples of intellectual vices in action are not hard to find. Consider the case of the ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009. Abdulmutallab was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to affluent and educated parents, and graduated from University College London with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was radicalised by the online sermons of the Islamic militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was subsequently killed by an American drone strike. It’s hard not to see the fact that Abdulmutallab was taken in by Awlaki’s sermons as at least partly a reflection of his intellectual character. If Abdulmutallab had the intellectual character not to be duped by Awlaki, then perhaps he wouldn’t have ended up on a transatlantic airliner with explosives in his underpants.

Intellectual character explanations of questionable beliefs are more controversial than one might imagine. For example, it has been suggested that explaining peoples’ bad behaviour or weird beliefs by reference to their character makes us more intolerant of them and less empathetic. Yet such explanations might still be correct, even if they have deleterious consequences. In any case, it’s not obvious that character explanations should make us less tolerant of other peoples’ foibles. Suppose that Oliver can’t help being the kind of person who falls for conspiracy theories. Shouldn’t that make us more rather than less tolerant of him and his weird beliefs?

A different objection to character-based explanations is that it’s just not true that people have questionable beliefs because they are stupid or gullible. In How We Know What Isn’t So (1991), the US social psychologist Thomas Gilovich argues that many such beliefs have ‘purely cognitive origins’, by which he means that they are caused by imperfections in our capacities to process information and draw conclusions. Yet the example he gives of a cognitive explanation takes us right back to character explanations. His example is the ‘hot hand’ in basketball. The idea is that when a player makes a couple of shots he is more likely to make subsequent shots. Success breeds success.

Gilovich used detailed statistical analysis to demonstrate that the hot hand doesn’t exist – performance on a given shot is independent of performance on previous shots. The question is, why do so many basketball coaches, players and fans believe in it anyway? Gilovich’s cognitive explanation is that belief in the hot hand is due to our faulty intuitions about chance sequences; as a species, we’re bad at recognising what genuinely random sequences look like.

And yet when Gilovich sent his results to a bunch of basketball coaches, what happened next is extremely revealing. One responded: ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ This seems like a perfect illustration of intellectual vices in operation. The dismissive reaction manifested a range of vices, including closed-mindedness and prejudice. It’s hard not to conclude that the coach reacted as he did because he was closed-minded or prejudiced. In such cases as this, as with the case of Oliver, it’s just not credible that character traits aren’t doing significant explanatory work. A less closed-minded coach might well have reacted completely differently to evidence that the hot hand doesn’t exist.

Could we explain the dismissiveness of the coach without referring to his personality in general? ‘Situationists’, as they are called, argue that our behaviour is generally better explained by situational factors than by our supposed character traits. Some see this as a good reason to be skeptical about the existence of character. In one experiment, students at a theological seminary were asked to give a talk elsewhere on campus. One group was asked to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan, while the rest were assigned a different topic. Some were told they had plenty to time to reach the venue for the lecture, while others were told to hurry. On their way to the venue, all the students came across a person (an actor) apparently in need of help. In the event, the only variable that made a difference to whether they stopped to help was how much of a hurry they were in; students who thought they were running late were much less likely to stop and help than those who thought they had time. According to the Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman, the lesson of such experiments is that ‘we need to convince people to look at situational factors and to stop trying to explain things in terms of character traits’.

The character traits that Harman had in mind are moral virtues such as kindness and generosity, but some situationists also object to the idea of intellectual virtues and vices. For example, they point to evidence that people perform much better in problem-solving tasks when they are in a good mood. If trivial situational factors such as mood or hunger are better at explaining your intellectual conduct than your so-called intellectual character, then what is the justification for believing in the existence of intellectual character traits? If such traits exist, then shouldn’t they explain one’s intellectual conduct? Absolutely, but examples such as Oliver and Gilovich’s basketball coach suggest that intellectual character traits do explain a person’s intellectual conduct in an important range of cases. People don’t believe weird things because they are hungry or in a bad (or good) mood. The view that people don’t have character traits such as gullibility, carelessness or prejudice, or that people don’t differ in intellectual character, deprives us of seemingly compelling explanations of the intellectual conduct of both Oliver and the basketball coach.

Suppose it turns out that Oliver lives in a region where conspiracy theories are rife or that he is under the influence of friends who are committed conspiracy theorists. Wouldn’t these be perfectly viable situational, non-character explanations of his beliefs about 9/11? Only up to a point. The fact that Oliver is easily influenced by his friends itself tells us something about his intellectual character. Where Oliver lives might help to explain his beliefs, but even if conspiracy theories are widespread in his neck of the woods we still need to understand why some people in his region believe them, while others don’t.

Differences in intellectual character help to explain why people in the same situation end up believing such different things. In order to think that intellectual character traits are relevant to a person’s intellectual conduct, you don’t have to think that other factors, including situational factors, are irrelevant. Intellectual character explains intellectual conduct only in conjunction with a lot of other things, including your situation and the way your brain processes information. Situationism certainly would be a problem for the view that character traits explain our conduct regardless of situational factors, but that is not a view of character anyone has ever wanted to defend.

In practical terms, one of the hardest things about dealing with people such as Oliver is that they are more than likely to accuse you of the same intellectual vices that you detect in them. You say that Oliver is gullible for believing his 9/11 conspiracy theory; he retorts that you are gullible for believing the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission. You say that he dismisses the official account of 9/11 because he is closed-minded; he accuses you of closed-mindedness for refusing to take conspiracy theories seriously. If we are often blind to our own intellectual vices then who are we to accuse Oliver of failing to realise that he believes his theories only because he is gullible?

These are all legitimate questions, but it’s important not to be too disconcerted by this attempt to turn the tables on you. True, no one is immune to self-ignorance. That doesn’t excuse Oliver. The fact is that his theory is no good, whereas there is every reason to believe that aircraft impacts did bring down the Twin Towers. Just because you believe the official account of what happened in 9/11 doesn’t make you gullible if there are good reasons to believe that account. Equally, being skeptical about the wilder claims of 9/11 conspiracy theorists doesn’t make you closed-minded if there are good reasons to be skeptical. Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

Once you get past the idea that Oliver has somehow managed to turn the tables on you, there remains the problem of what to do about such people as him. If he is genuinely closed-minded then his mind will presumably be closed to the idea that he is closed-minded. Closed-mindedness is one of the toughest intellectual vices to tackle because it is in its nature to be concealed from those who have it. And even if you somehow get the Olivers of this world to acknowledge their own vices, that won’t necessarily make things any better. Tackling one’s intellectual vices requires more than self-knowledge. You also need to be motivated to do something about them, and actually be able to do something about them.

Should Oliver be condemned for his weaknesses? Philosophers like to think of virtues as having good motives and vices as having bad motives but Oliver’s motives needn’t be bad. He might have exactly the same motivation for knowledge as the intellectually virtuous person, yet be led astray by his gullibility and conspiracy mentality. So, both in respect of his motives and his responsibility for his intellectual vices, Oliver might not be strictly blameworthy. That doesn’t mean that nothing should be done about them or about him. If we care about the truth then we should care about equipping people with the intellectual means to arrive at the truth and avoid falsehood.

Education is the best way of doing that. Intellectual vices are only tendencies to think in certain ways, and tendencies can be countered. Our intellectual vices are balanced by our intellectual virtues, by intellectual character traits such as open-mindedness, curiosity and rigour. The intellectual character is a mixture of intellectual virtues and vices, and the aims of education should include cultivating intellectual virtues and curtailing intellectual vices. The philosopher Jason Baehr talks about ‘educating for intellectual virtues’, and that is in principle the best way to deal with people such as Oliver. A 2010 report to the University College London Council about the Abdulmutallab case came to a similar conclusion. It recommended the ‘development of academic training for students to encourage and equip them not only to think critically but to challenge unacceptable views’. The challenge is to work out how to do that.

What if Oliver is too far gone and can’t change his ways even if he wanted to? Like other bad habits, intellectual bad habits can be too deeply entrenched to change. This means living with their consequences. Trying to reason with people who are obstinately closed-minded, dogmatic or prejudiced is unlikely to be effective. The only remedy in such cases is to try to mitigate the harm their vices do to themselves and to others.

Meanwhile, those who have the gall to deliver homilies about other peoples’ intellectual vices – that includes me – need to accept that they too are likely very far from perfect. In this context, as in most others, a little bit of humility goes a long way. It’s one thing not to cave in to Oliver’s attempt to turn the tables on you, but he has a point at least to this extent: none of us can deny that intellectual vices of one sort or another are at play in at least some of our thinking. Being alive to this possibility is the mark of a healthy mind.