Opening Minds with Minimal Fatalities: An Argument for Skepticism
Open Your Mind and Let the Parasites Out
People rarely accuse skeptics of being too open-minded.
Instead, when Sylvia Brown or another self-proclaimed psychic alleges supernatural vision, advocates dismiss any and all doubt as symptoms of close-mindedness. Stereotypically, the image of an open-minded person does not include lab coats, telescopes, or Bunsen burners so much as tie-dyed shirts, tarot cards, and crystals. Skepticism and open-mindedness, perhaps counter-intuitively, are not antonyms, but instead complementary. In fact, advocates of fringe fields such as astrology, parapsychology, or alternative health are often associated with open minds, but many of their techniques are nothing short of doors shutting in the mind. Besides the few who take a more scientific approach, such fringe groups tend to create closed cultures hindering investigation and questioning. Scientific skepticism, on the other hand, encourages an open culture promoting investigation and questioning. Arguably, a person is open-minded if and only if that person can remain receptive to new ideas while also not allowing prejudice to interfere with considering such new ideas. If open-mindedness is the ability to remain receptive to new ideas, and to consider such ideas without prejudice, then skepticism is the ideal example of an open-minded endeavour.
The Oxford Dictionary defines open-minded as “willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.” Merriam-Webster puts forth “receptive to arguments or ideas.” Cambridge offers the definition as “willing to consider ideas and opinions that are new or different to your own.” Collectively, these examples define open-mindedness as receptivity to arguments and ideas. For clarification, to consider a new idea, one must set aside prejudices; however, there is not, in these definitions, a demand to change an opinion automatically or blindly.
Expounding on what having an open mind means, George Polya’s idea of an inductive attitude gives further insight while complementing the previous definitions. Listening to a new idea without prejudice may be the first stage of open-mindedness; however, one cannot be truly receptive to a new idea without a second stage of evaluation. Polya provides the philosophical framework.
An inductive attitude, Polya states, “aims at adapting our beliefs to our experiences as efficiently as possible. It requires a certain preference for what is matter of fact” (1990). At first, the previous definitions and Polya’s idea do not seem complementary. If the aim were to adapt beliefs to experience as efficiently as possible, a logical assumption would argue that such an aim is restricting rather than freeing. Adapting beliefs to experience efficiently seems likely to hinder, for example, the process of imagination with its endless possibilities.
Furthermore, requiring a certain preference for that which is matter of fact is indubitable bondage for thought. A requirement, by nature, is constraint. Such constrictions seemingly reflect Raymond Queneau’s analogy of Oulipians, those from a constrictive writing movement, as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape” (de la Torre, n.d.). As with the Oulipian attempt at inspiring creativity through rules, Polya’s idea inspires open-mindedness. Without an inductive attitude, as Polya describes, solipsism and sophistry shut the mind. If there is no aim to adapt beliefs to experience as efficiently as possible, then beliefs can no longer be discussed outside of endless, non-hierarchical possibility. One idea remains as good or as bad as any other. Instead, beliefs become based on specious argument, if even that. In the end, considering all ideas as equals to each other is not only a logical contradiction. It is also not conducive to a receptive mind.
To solve the problem of determining beliefs with an inductive attitude, Polya offers the three moral qualities of a scientist. According to Polya, a scientist should:
- Muster the intellectual courage to be ready to revise any belief
- Show the intellectual honesty to be willing to change a belief when there is compelling reason to change it
- Have wise restraint not to change beliefs capriciously or without good reason
Polya’s inductive attitude provides a functional foundation for committing to an open mind. As the previous dictionary definitions suggest, to be open-minded, one must be ready to revise beliefs. If an individual is unwilling to revise beliefs, undoubtedly they are not receptive to new ideas. Yet, willingness to revise beliefs does not mean changing them without a compelling reason. Wise restraint prevents changing without justifiable reason. Such an attitude keeps one from dismissing other ideas or arguments with initial prejudice; however, the attitude also keeps the mind open for reflection and critical thinking. Or as Carl Sagan puts it: “Keeping an open mind is a virtue—but not so open your brain falls out” (Lee, 2000).
The ideas Polya extols are cornerstones to scientific skepticism. Skepticism is the philosophy of suspending judgment (Vogt, 2011). There are other forms of useful skepticism, yet scientific skepticism, also known as rational skepticism or skeptical inquiry, promotes the idea of scientific investigation into claims. Merriam-Webster first defines skepticism as “an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object.” This first definition reflects the persistent and near automatic disbelief often tarnishing the reputation of skeptics.
The definition hearkens back to ancient skepticism summarised by Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing” (A Skeptical Manifesto). Although such an epiphany is useful to keep in mind, the idea is not conducive to productive thinking or evaluation if the idea becomes a thought-terminating cliché rather than a spark for further inquiry. “The language of the totalist environment,” argues Lifton, “is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis” (1986). For example, the phrase “I do not know” becomes a thought-terminating cliché if used to dismiss an issue from further thought and analysis. A more proper statement of skeptical inquiry would be: “I do not know, let us try to find out.” Miguel de Unamuno expounds this idea: “The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found” (Quotation by Miguel de Unamuno, n.d.) Skepticism is not dismissal of claims, but questioning of such claims.
Merriam-Webster provides a second, perhaps more accurate, definition of skepticism that is “the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics.” Thinking skeptically is not dismissal of ideas, but rather suspending judgement through systematic doubt. Similarly, A Skeptical Manifesto defines a skeptic as “one who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality.” Here, there is recognition of claims of knowledge and facts rather than working with speculation. When considering what it means to have an open mind, there is a key difference between imaginative work and what is put forth as fact. Without such distinction, fiction infringes onto non-fiction. Again, having an open mind entails considering new thoughts without prejudice, but an open mind also demands evaluation for receptivity; therefore, skepticism determines validity of ideas to the natural world. Skepticism provides a framework with which one can ponder all ideas openly while also offering a means through which those ponderings may be evaluated before becoming belief.
Lastly, the “elevator pitch” definition of skepticism provides a brief summary as to why skepticism is important and useful to the community: “Skepticism is the intersection of science education and consumer protection. We help people learn from science to avoid spending their money on products and services that do not work” (Farley, n.d.). Admittedly, Farley’s definition lacks the important aspect of skepticism that is not only about the market place, but also for knowledge for its own sake. Skepticism is an effective thinking tool that helps separate the likely untrue claims from the more likely true. The ability to suspend and evaluate claims systematically functions to increase or decrease confidence. Not only does skepticism offer a means to protect consumers financially, but also increases resistance of all people against harmful information and mistaken ideas.
Such suspension, however, should not be confused with denialism or cynicism. Both denialism and cynicism resort to unreceptive prejudice to new ideas. Denialism, for example, disregards established results; therefore, someone exhibiting denialism no longer suspends judgement and instead relies on prejudice. Denialism hinders receptiveness to ideas and arguments. Mark Hoofnagle describes denialism as “the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none” (2007). He provides five tactics denialists use in maintaining appearance of legitimate controversy (Hoofnagle, 2009):
- Conspiracy theories
- Cherry picking
- False experts
- Moving the goal posts
- Other logical fallacies
By using the tactics of this list, denialists defend preconceived notions through irrational means rather than maintaining an inductive attitude. Cynicism, similarly, is perhaps what people usually think of when they claim that skeptics are closed-minded. Cynics refuse to consider alternate possibilities to preconceived notions. Cynicism and denialism are closely related since they both use preconceived notions to inoculate beliefs against new information.
In combination, such traits of cynicism and denialism are not philosophies of skepticism, but rather pseudoskepticism. Marcello Truzzi, “the skeptic’s skeptic”, expounds on the idea of pseudoskepticism (1987), suggesting true skepticism is based on doubt rather than denial. A skeptic ought to remain in an agnostic position that says a claim is not proved rather than the negative position that says a claim is disproved. A pseudoskeptic may, for instance, explain away the claim of an alien UFO by counter-claiming that the UFO was merely giant plasma, yet the pseudoskeptic does not accept the burden of proof.
To illustrate, consider the issues of fraud and conflicts of interest within the scientific community. Which type of strategy would be most effective and open-minded when dealing with known corruption? A cynical pseudoskeptic uses the ineffective, closed-minded strategy of hastily generalising the corruption of the few to all members. When confronted with new research not confirming pre-established biases, a pseudoskeptic dismisses contradictory information instantly on the basis that the research likely comes from a corporate stooge or a shill. The pseudoskeptic may also dismiss the entire scientific community as “dogmatists.” With a cynical outlook, a pseudoskeptic is unlikely to inquire deeply into the research, but instead uses superficial reasons, such as those put forth by Hoofnagle, to dismiss claims. Even when the research is well established and there is scientific consensus, a pseudoskeptic is likely to use denialism to dismiss the consensus as one large conspiracy. A pseudoskeptic explains away results by counter claiming possible fraud without producing evidence. Now, if one were to ask these cynics about such denial, the cynics might argue that they are being skeptical. This claim, however, is a false conception of what skepticism is. A scientific skeptic and a cynic may start out in the same place with distrust or doubt about conflicts of interest in a study. For the cynic, this is where the journey ends. For the scientific skeptic, this is where the journey begins.
The scientific skeptic uses distrust to suspend judgment and then investigates the possible conflicts of interest. The skeptic investigates proactively, looking for variables that may bias the research. Moreover, a true skeptic keeps in mind that past fraud does not mean every study is fraudulent. Even the worst liar may tell the truth and even a corporate-funded researcher may release legitimate studies. Furthermore, a skeptic will seek out independent research that confirms or rejects the results. While the idea of conspiratorial fraud may be easy to accept, and while it may fit a stereotype, a skeptic ought to go beyond prejudices.
Richard Feynman explains such integrity as “a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards” (1974). By this, Feynman means that the scientifically-minded are not seeking easy answers to confirm preconceived notions, but are instead seeking to falsify claims and to point out possible flaws in their own claims. “It is a narrow mind,” says George Eliot, “which cannot look at a subject from various points of view” (n.d.). Looking at a subject from various points of view defines a skeptic as open-minded.
In his 1985 book, In Defence Of Open-mindedness, philosopher William Hare discusses how open-mindedness is one of the ideals invoked in characterizing the nature of scientific inquiry. Greater benefit comes from setting aside dogmatism, prejudice, and personal preference to favour an inquiry that strives for objectivity, impartiality, and intellectual honesty. Ideally, objectivity ought not be confused with absolute certainty and infallibility since scientific theories are always tentative and subject to revision or even rejection.
Pseudoscience fails to meet the aforementioned criteria of open-mindedness, and runs parallel to cynicism and denialism. Derry (1999) gives five defining characteristics of pseudoscience:
- Static or randomly changing ideas
- Vague mechanisms to acquire understanding
- Loosely connected thoughts
- Lack of organised skepticism
- Disregard of established results
If these are the defining characteristics of pseudoscience, the criteria run contrary to ideas of open-mindedness and Polya’s inductive attitude. Static ideas, for instance, are the defining example of closed-mindedness and contradict Hare’s criticism of absolutist thinking. An individual, furthermore, cannot be receptive to an idea if the original idea randomly changes before undergoing evaluation. With vague mechanisms to acquire understanding, one is unlikely to truly appreciate an idea. If terms are overly general and non-specific, superficial appearances of understanding are deceptive. If skepticism is disorganized, worthwhile ideas may be rejected and not so worthwhile ideas may be accepted. Easily understood, and more pleasant, ideas are more likely to be accepted rather than ideas more likely to be true. Lastly, by disregarding established results, one is no longer receptive to the idea since, at best, data is cherry-picked to support prejudice.
For another example, such disregard for established results and prejudiced cherry-picking appears in Wicca, a modern day witchcraft. Wicca is slightly different from pseudosciences that mimic science to create an illusion of credibility. It uses a closed worldview that does not rely on external validation. The Witches Bible, for instance, states “the rationale of Wicca is a philosophical framework into which every phenomenon, from chemistry to clairvoyance, from logarithms to love, can be reasonable fitted” (Farrar, 1996). Rather than maintaining an open mind of inquiry, this philosophy of modern witchcraft forces new, possibly contradicting, data into its own framework. The framework offers no means for falsification. Another self-proclaimed Wiccan, Marrion Weinstein, offers the opinion that:
We really don’t need anyone to say that magic is valid. The validity of magic is ultimately not measurable by the authority-oriented (‘rational’) part of our minds or of our culture. This work is more appropriately ascertained by the ‘relational’. In other words, we do not need anyone else to decree that magic is OK. Only our own Inner Bells can ultimately decide this for us, each of us for ourselves. (1994)
Weinstein’s philosophy demonstrates a closed-minded affair of dismissing potentially more reasonable beliefs. Moreover, the philosophy attempts to place personal, prejudiced beliefs onto equal footing as scientific reason and thorough peer-review analysis. Intuition plays an important role in life and survival, but Weinstein encourages dismissing unexamined intuitions and assumptions. Relying on “inner bells” for determining validity contradicts Feynman’s idea of “leaning over backwards” to determine weaknesses of assertions. Farrar and Weinstein’s ideology strives to be right by confirming biases while Feynman’s strives to be wrong. The Wiccan philosophy may not entirely be defined as a pseudoscience, yet similar beliefs are the backbone of pseudoscientific reasoning.
Criticism of homeopathy, for example, is met with the argument that each person can rely on “inner bells” rather than broad scientific consensus and reason. Similar to Wicca, homeopathy, while attempting to fit all phenomena into its own framework, mimics the form and procedure of science. As with the cargo cult people of the South Seas building runways for planes that will never land, pseudoscientists such as homeopaths “follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential” (Feynman, 1974).
Most importantly, contrary to pseudoscience and cargo cult science, actual science is not an unthinking use of tools, methods, and routines. As Feynman suggests, the phrase “science has shown” is a misconception. Experiments demonstrate seeming connections between phenomena, increasing or decreasing confidence in certain claims, but science does not show. Further, experience teaches, not science. Science is not an authority with which one should use as a thought-terminating cliché. Rather, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts” (Feynman, 1969). Science is a way of thinking, reasoning, and questioning. Scientific reasoning is an inquiring mindset and an understanding that all conclusions are tentative. According to Feynman:
Another of the qualities of science is that it teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true. You must here distinguish–especially in teaching–the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. It is easy to say, “We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that.” You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science. In this way, we all suffer from the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisers. (1969)
The public views science as an institution, but science is more than the scientific community. Scientific reasoning is also a personal process of critically thinking about scientific claims as well as experiences in the natural world. In school, students tend to learn that science is merely a set of procedures and facts to memorise, taught by an authority figure. With such an impression, it would be understandable to believe that science is a community of closed-minded authoritarians; however, as Feynman suggests, science is not the strict following of form, but rather a toolkit for freeing thought and creative puzzle solving within experience.
In sum, pseudoscience opposes open-mindedness while skepticism encompasses an ideal form. The ideal form of skepticism, however, is active, not passive. There is no such thing as a skeptic. It is not something that someone is, but rather something someone does. People have moments of thinking skeptically, but no individual is always a skeptic. Skepticism is a continuous process of being aware of not only irrationality of others, but also one’s own internal biases. By being aware of cynicism, denialism, and pseudoskepticism, one may increase chances of properly evaluating new information with an open mind. People who remain vigilant open routes to further skeptical inquiry in their own minds as well as the minds of others. Importantly, as more people understand how skepticism encourages an open mind, people such as pseudoscientists have less opportunity to fallaciously argue that their critics are closed-minded for not accepting irrational and unfounded claims. Each of us ought to be skeptical of not only the scientific community, but also those who speak on its behalf. While living in the age of information brings immense advantage to learning, such learning remains hindered since we also live in the age of misinformation. Quantity of information has increased, but quality has not always followed in kind. For many of us, we spend a lot of time thinking about science, but not much time thinking about how science is done. We think about science, but we don’t think scientifically. For skepticism to prosper, each of us needs to keep an inductive attitude and encourage open-minded inquiry within the local and global community. We are partially blind to ourselves; therefore, we rely on others to watch our backs.
Derry, G. N. (1999). What Science Is and How It Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Farrar, J., & Farrar, S. (1996). A witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook. Custer, Wash. Phoenix.
Goldstein, M. & Goldstein, I. (1984). The Experience of Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach. New York: Plenum.
Hare, W. (1985). In Defence of Open-mindedness. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Lee, J. A. (2000). The Scientific Endeavor: A Primer on Scientific Principles and Practice. San Francisco: Addison Wesley Longman.
Lifton, Robert J. (1989). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism: A study of brainwashing in China. UNC Press. p. 429.
Polya, G. (1990) Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, Volume 1: Induction and Analogy in Mathematics, pp. 7-8. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Weinstein, M. (1994). Positive magic: occult self-help (Reprinted ed.). New York: Earth Magic Productions.