photograph of figurine of the patron saint of lost causes
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Adam Savage, former co-host of the television show Myth Busters, tweeted out earlier this month with a message about the importance of wearing masks as a measure to held stop the spread of coronavirus. In response, an angry twitter user replied that they would be deleting all of their Myth Busters episodes off of their DVR, presumably because they disagreed with Savage’s message.

Now, twitter drama by itself is hardly newsworthy. And while conventional internet wisdom states that one ought not feed the trolls, Savage nevertheless responded in the following way:

“Delete away! I didn’t make those shows for you. I made them for curious people with functioning minds and empathetic hearts. Oh! And we did a whole episode on how a cold spreads. Guess you’ll never watch it now.”

Savage’s response is understandable (as well as being somewhat, well, savage). Most of us have likely encountered someone during the pandemic that just refuses to take the recommendations of scientific experts seriously, and no matter what we say it seems that they will not change their minds. Whether the person in the above tweets is one of those people, and is generally lacking in curiosity and/or empathy, probably can’t be determined by a single angry tweet. But there do seem to be people like that out there. We might refer to such people as lost causes: it seems that no matter what we do, we won’t be able to get through to them, and so it’s just not worth trying.

But there’s a problem with this kind of thinking. Consider the kind of audience that Savage says that he intends to reach: those who are curious, willing to be open to evidence and argument (this is how I am interpreting the qualification of having a “functioning mind”) and empathetic. While it is certainly worthwhile to attempt to teach these kinds of individuals about, say, the importance of wearing masks and the ways in which disease can spread, it also seems that this is the same kind of person who will tend to be convinced by recommendations from scientific experts in the first place. A worry is that we end up preaching to the choir. When it comes to trying to inform the public about the best kinds of practices with regards to limiting the spread of coronavirus, we might think that the kinds of individuals that we should be targeting are precisely those that are resistant to accepting the recommendations of the experts.

What, though, if these people really are lost causes? How can we try to change the mind of someone who is beyond reaching? And should we even try?

It does seems that when someone is truly a lost cause, when nothing at all can be done to help them, that our obligations towards that person end. Consider an example. You and I are walking along a river, and I fall in. Not being a strong swimmer, I nevertheless manage to grab onto a rock, which allows me to resist the pull of the current. In this situation, it seems that you are obligated to try to help me, in one way or anothermaybe you need to jump in after me, or find a branch or a rope for me to hold on to, etc. Now consider a scenario in which I have fallen in the river, but have been rapidly pulled downstream and am about to fall over a very high waterfall. You may still have some obligations towards me maybe you need to look for my body, or inform my family of my demisebut you don’t have the obligation to jump in after me. I am a lost cause: there’s nothing that can be done for me, and as such you’re not obligated to try.

While this is an extreme case, I think that we tend to conceive of other people as lost causes when it comes to their beliefs, as well. These are the kinds of people that we think just will not respond to any kind of reason or evidence, no matter what we say or do. If there’s nothing that will make a difference, if they are going to hold on to false or poorly-reasoned beliefs no matter what, then it seems that there is no point in trying to change their minds.

The worry, of course, is that those whom we might deem to be a lost cause when it comes to one’s beliefs about the pandemic are precisely those whose actions are potentially causing the most problems. For instance, many of those who are protesting lockdown orders and social distancing guidelines reject information from scientific experts about the dangers of the coronavirus, and often include many who reject other consensus scientific views, such as the safety of vaccines. What’s more, there is reason to think that these protesters may be spreading the virus, and that such protests could lead to an additional surge in cases in the US. While reading such stories, it may be tempting to deem such protesters to be beyond the reach of reason when it comes to their beliefs about the pandemic. Treating them as lost causes, though, does not help solve any problems, it merely ignores them.

We might also wonder whether anyone ever is truly a lost cause when it comes to irrational beliefs. While it may certainly be frustrating to try to engage with those who are obstinate in the face of plentiful scientific evidence, we should not take this necessarily as a sign that they cannot eventually be convinced to pay attention to said evidence. What we might take to be lost causes may just instead be very difficult ones.

Let’s return to our twitter drama. The response that one’s intended audience is only the subgroup of people who are open-minded and critical risks treating others as lost causes. And the right response to a lost cause may very well be to dismiss or ignore them, in extreme circumstances. But when there are potentially significant consequences in doing so, it is worthwhile to consider who may or may not be a lost cause, and what the best way to respond to them might be.

Ken Boyd is currently a postdoc in the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com.