You say closed, I say open with reason

I get emails. People tell me I should be more “open-minded”.

There is that clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: “Keep an open mind — but not so open that your brain falls out”. This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It’s a fine saying.

I’m reminded about my narrow lack of vision (as they see it) when I report about recently deceased mystery mongerers or self-proclaimed miracle workers. Their followers chastise me not only for speaking ill of the dead (I’m sure they were all nice people, but that does not excuse their bad ideas), but that I did not experience their miracles or I fail to understand their work because I’m not thinking “out of the box”.

Here’s one example. Lloyd Pye was committed to the idea that a curiously-shaped skull he had is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the “star child” skull, Pye promoted the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings. You can read my post about his death. There is nothing offensive about it. Yet, I got a SLEW of messages telling me how horribly misguided I was. I disagreed with his crackpot ideas. I’m allowed to. The plausibility of it is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty sci-fi story. To accept it, we’d have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be completely irrational.

Consideration of such an outlandish idea takes me about a minute before I realize that would be unreasonable. But in other cases, such as ghosts or Bigfoot, it’s more complicated regarding what people might be experiencing so I think about it a bit more, years maybe.  In order to accept the black and white truth that there are spirits of the dead or an unknown ape, I’d have to discard too much including society’s accumulated knowledge. The evidence clearly suggests another more down-to-earth explanation.

Since the Starchild skull DNA tested as human, and we know that certain genetic conditions can cause the enlargement of the skull in just this way, I’m going to accept the obvious and not some far-fetched story just for kicks. Lloyd Pye didn’t stop promoting his star child skull after the DNA tests came back human. Probably nothing will make believers change their minds. Investment in these ideas is not based on scientific evidence; it’s based on faith or commitment to a worldview for various, personally important reasons.

Calling skeptics closed-minded because we discard wacky ideas is a common ploy. It’s often used as a personal insult because the skeptic has rejected the idea that the promoters fancy. When you don’t have evidence to support your idea, observe that the proponent resorts to derogatory tactics. The proponent is accusing the skeptic of being stubborn, undemocratic, and unfair; I’m being overly rational, ignoring a possibly worthwhile option to be considered. But all ideas are not equal. Not all ideas are worthy of consideration.

Energy healing is not worthy of consideration. I should be open-minded, reiki practitioners say, and try these forms of energy medicine where healing energy gets channeled or manipulated for better health. If someone offers these treatments to me and I just say “OK! Sounds good!” (and hand over my money) is that actually being open-minded? No. It’s swallowing what I’m being fed without a thought. I know enough about physics and the human body to know this is nonsense.

When “open your mind” translates to “shut off your thinking,” I’ll pass. That’s a recipe for disaster in today’s world where we are awash in misinformation and unreliable claims. Can you imagine if we didn’t use some reasonable rules of thumb for these zany ideas? We’d never make any progress in the world being bogged down buying into every silly claim out there!

There is a VERY good chance that I once seriously considered your particular fringe idea as plausible before discarding it as not worthy of attention. I believed in a lot of ideas I now do not. I’ve looked at all sides best I can and chose to play the odds that the universe is not messing with us – actually a reliable strategy – anything that defies well-established natural laws is probably not true and there is no use bothering with it unless the evidence is TRULY overwhelming.

I can tell you exactly why I do not think these poor ideas are any good. I can also give a description of what it would take for me to subscribe to them. Evidence. Show me evidence for this alternative that is greater than the accumulated evidence for the other interpretation and I may be swayed. There is the crux of genuine skeptical thinking — I consider the option that my conclusion may be wrong and that I may change my mind depending upon new evidence or a better explanation that comes along.

What will it take for the homeopath to give up his field? What evidence can be provided that will convince you that the explanation for the collapse of the WTC towers was actually the result of the accepted narrative established by investigative commission? What can I show you that will convince you that psychics don’t have special powers?

If you refuse to admit you might be wrong — rejecting the evidence and the plausible alternatives in order to hold on to a cherished belief — and nothing can convince you otherwise… then who’s the closed-minded one?

7 thoughts on “You say closed, I say open with reason

  1. It’s true for the most part, but in major decision, rational evaluation often still takes precedence. It’s important to speak up regarding being reasonable. Someone might get it.

  2. I’m with Daniel, good post!
    Recently on the Bad Psychics blog, the host, Jon Donnis, did a post about ‘psychic medium’ Colin Fry, who is dying of cancer.
    He explains how he spoke to Fry, suggesting he fight and live, do all that he can to beat the disease. He also talked about times that Fry had been caught out in fraudulent activities, by his own ‘psychic’ peers, no less.
    The comment section for that post runs long and is packed with reprimands for speaking negatively of a dying man. Included are many insults about Jon’s closed mind. He answers that he gave Fry the best, most caring advice he could, but couldn’t dismiss the ‘psychic mediums’ proven fraudulence, or what his many years of experience in the field has taught him about the claims of ‘psychics’.

  3. “I believed in a lot of ideas I now do not.”

    You should write about some good examples, in the spirit of the John Brockman-edited Edge anthology, “What Have You Changed Your Mind About?” (I found that book frustrating because so many of the contributors didn’t seem to take the question seriously, instead banking off the prompt to make rhetorical points.)

    Here are three things I’ve changed my mind about:

    Ancient astronauts – I was a kid, OK? My father was an enthusiast for this idea and he encouraged me to read the usual batch of popular books. I was fascinated and I bought it. Then I read James Randi’s Flim-Flam and … poof!

    The Historicity of Jesus – I used to believe Jesus was a historical figure. Due consideration of mythicist arguments gradually convinced me that it’s far more likely that Jesus is the mythical apoethesis of a centuries-long churn of syncretist evolution and church propaganda.

    The probability of intelligent extra-terrestrial life – Thinking on the Fermi puzzle, I always assumed that the probability of smart aliens was high. Reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works (his analogous discussion of the evolutionarily contingent emergence of an elephant’s trunk) shifted my thinking. Brainy ETs are still possible. I no longer think they’re likely.

    Depression is the leading cause of suicide – I accepted this because it seems obvious, but … nope. Thomas Joiner’s research (critically amplified by Sarah Perry) convinced me that this popular nostrum is built on confusion and propped up by PR. Suicidality is more strongly (independently) related to an individual’s sense of belonging and burdensomeness. Depression is largely a confounding factor.

    I could go on. Anyone else?

  4. I’m going off on a bit of a tangent regarding how we skeptics approach energy healing and similar ideas.

    A few months ago, I first encountered the ASMR phenomenon. That’s to say, I encountered that particular label for a sensation, which I immediately recognized from its description, having occasionally experienced it myself. In my case, it manifests only subtly, and only in response to a very few particular sound triggers, so (like many others across the web) it had never occurred to me that there might be anything unusual about it. Having newly piqued my curiosity, I combed through the copious examples on YouTube, and noticed a couple points that strike me as likely significant.

    Firstly, that quite a lot of people describe ASMR as an intense, even euphoric, tingling sensation that runs across the scalp and down the back of the neck; and secondly, that many of the ASMR videos feature roleplay of alt-therapy methods, which for some people will consistently trigger the sensation. This reaction even works remotely, as it were.

    It’s not much of stretch to suppose that a person who experiences ASMR in response to alt therapy (or even just a video of it) would be convinced that they are feeling cleansing energy coursing through their bodies, and that energy healing is a real thing, and would therefore quite rationally write off as closed-minded anyone who would tell them otherwise. On the other hand, someone who has never experienced it (and who perhaps cannot) will tend to react to a believer’s description with stark disbelief, as it will inevitably sound like nonsense when couched in mystic or spiritual terminology.

    So I think that skeptics in general could benefit by taking a more Oliver-Sacksian approach to pseudoscientific claims, especially those involving alt therapy. That is, when discarding scientifically unfounded explanations for an experience, we should be careful not to discard the perception of the experience.

    My pet theory regarding ASMR is that if it were properly understood, various woo-ish triggers could be fruitfully (and ethically) employed as genuine complementary therapy; moreover, that one could readily determine the most effective therapy to use (if any at all) on an individual basis, akin to scientifically selecting and applying a placebo. Unfortunately, nobody with the knowledge and skills to sort out ASMR seems to want to tackle it, either for predicted lack of usable results, or out of protection for reputation. That’s the case so far, at least; it may just be too newly described for the right people to know about it yet, though Novella has treated the idea seriously and even suggested a mechanism by which it could work.

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