Mar 31 2008

Keeping An Open Mind

I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in November 2004.


I listened patiently as the UFO enthusiast explained how humans were transplanted to the earth from another world by our alien forebears.

“Then how do you explain the fact that humans share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and a genetic code will all life on earth?” I asked.

“Well, I think you have to keep an open mind,” was her starry-eyed response.

People who believe odd things-that coffee enemas can cure cancer, that the Loch Ness Monster exists, that art on the dollar bill can explain secret conspiracies-are always telling us to “keep an open mind.”

The now standard skeptical response is to quip: “Keep an open mind, sure–but not so open that your brains fall out.” In the endless sparring between skeptics and believers, the “keep an open mind” rejoinder is the favorite weapon in the believers’ arsenal. It is their all-purpose tool. But what does it really mean to be open-minded, and is it the skeptics or the believers who are truly closed-minded?

Having an open mind is a curious virtue: Everyone agrees that open-mindedness is indeed a virtuous state, but it’s most often praised by those being decidedly closed-minded. Also, the most open-minded people are those whom you would least suspect as paragons of this particular virtue – skeptics. And those most lacking open-mindedness are those most likely to admonish others for not being so – true believers.

Let me explain.

Having an open mind means you don’t dismiss claims to truth out of hand. You analyze first. When you analyze a claim, you consider all the relevant evidence and examine all the logic involved, in a fair and unbiased manner, then grant tentative acceptance or rejection. If new arguments or new evidence come up, then you revise your opinion. Being open means that you apply this standard fairly to all claims. Being open-minded does not mean believing every claim, no matter how improbable-that’s being gullible, not open.

This process of fair analysis, based upon logic and evidence, leading to tentative conclusions, which are open to revision, is part of science. It is also the very soul of true open-mindedness.

By contrast, true believers adhere to a desired claim regardless of evidence or logic. No argument is persuasive enough, and no evidence (or lack thereof) is compelling enough to nudge them from the perch of their belief. They are closed to the possibility that Bigfoot might be a delusion, that crop-circles are pranks, that coffee enemas don’t cure cancer-that their cherished belief might be wrong. Yet it is such believers who most frequently claim the moral high ground of open-mindedness, then condemn unbelievers for being closed-minded. They wish others to accept their claims either without examining the logic and evidence, or despite refutation from such examination.

The “open-minded” police often use the label of “closed-minded” as a personal attack to dismiss the arguments of those who dare to examine their claims (and are therefore committing an ad hominem logical fallacy). You do not believe I was abducted by aliens, they argue, because you are closed-minded. (Could it be because they lack credibility or any evidence to back up the claim? Or because the claim is inherently improbable?) To them, being abducted by aliens is an article of faith, much as religious believers take certain beliefs on faith.

That’s fine. People are entitled to their faith. It’s an important freedom, guaranteed in the Constitution. But personal faith cannot be used to justify a scientific claim about the factual state of nature. Scientific claims must be public, open, and transparent-they cannot be based upon secret knowledge, special talents, or unquestioned virtues. If you think aliens have visited the planet, you must be prepared to offer evidence, not just accuse other people of being closed-minded for not believing you.

Science is also a cumulative process. At this point in history we happen to be sitting on centuries of painstakingly accumulated scientific knowledge. It would be both hubris and folly to ignore all that has gone before. So while keeping an open mind to new ideas and claims, it is to our advantage to view such claims through the filter of established knowledge. Believers would have us view new claims in an intellectual vacuum, as if all claims were inherently equal.

So let me turn the tables and humbly ask you, dear reader, to be truly open-minded. Adhere to the advice of David Hume, who wrote, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” Keep your brains tucked safely inside your skulls. Be open but not gullible. And remember, it is better to think than to believe.

13 responses so far

13 thoughts on “Keeping An Open Mind”

  1. alalonde says:

    “This process of fair analysis, based upon logic and evidence, leading to tentative conclusions, which are open to revision, is part of science. It is also the very soul of true open-mindedness.”

    There’s the problem. Scientific method has next to nothing to do with “Open Mindedness”.

    An Open Minded Scientist is one who’ll accept almost any statement and subject it to testing.

    But to the general public “Open Minded” means to be willing to forgo judgment indefinitely. And scientific testing… forget it.

    Not ground breaking thinking, but it’s at the core of this I think.

  2. Blair T says:

    One of my favourite quotes on this topic:

    “An open mind should be open at both ends, like the foodpipe, and have a capacity for excretion as well as intake.” Northrop Frye, Canadian literary critic

  3. Roy Niles says:

    To open your mind has customarily meant to activate your curiosity. The extent and quality of that curiously have always been the more crucial factors in the search for reliable answers – that in turn can only come from an ability to conceive of and know how to ask an ever increasing range of relevant questions.
    Open mindedness is as much about generating ideas as shooting down the bad ones. Skepticism is not just a process of searching for targets. It needs to be as much of a productive process as an eliminative process. It is of course much easier to be the latter than the former.
    Thus I have spake.

  4. nowoo says:

    I believe it was David Hume, not T.H. Huxley who said “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

  5. rochabill says:

    I seem to have so much trouble understanding how these very basic core points turn into this rather ridiculous quibble of semantics. The Doc is simply making the point that while it is common for believers to dismiss non-beliviers as being closed minded, its important we actually look at the big picture and examine who really is being closed minded. Furthermore, I think the point is also being made that if a real debate or argument is going to take place over who is truly being open or close minded the criterion should be congruent and understood by both parties beforehand. Discussion as to “what being open-minded REALLY means” after the fact seems fruitless and truly without end.

  6. Roy Niles says:

    I too have trouble with people coming in and explaining the real meaning of a basic core point to the rest of us.

  7. Roy Niles says:

    rochabill: By the way, semantics is basically about the meaning of words. The comments you’re complaining about are concerned more with abstractions. If it were simply a matter of definitions, the initial post would more likely be a reference to one or more dictionaries – not such a complicated discourse in any case.
    In fact what you have exhibited could be an example of one type of closed mind. You read the post, but seemingly took away no more than a reinforcement of a previous point of view. Because in my view, your take was the complete opposite of the one intended.

  8. Steve Page says:

    Coffee enemas…mmm, mocha.

  9. Cropduster says:

    Hey I beleive I am as open minded as the next person.
    I know I am about to drive home.

    I am going to take an open minded approach to this. Now usually when I leave work I carefully drive my vehicle holding the steering wheel at just the right angles and making corrections as needed to navigate the twists and turns in the road. At the same time I apply pressure to the accelerator and brake with varying force to make the journey comfortable and relatively safe.

    Tonight I will keep an open mind and where a blind fold put my foot to the floor and pray that my spirit guide will look after me.
    That is hwta the woo woo crowd mean by being open inded isn’t it?

    Surely if I get home safely this will prove how opn minded I am.

    Yeah Right!!!

  10. John Melland says:

    To whom it may concern:
    I have seen these being’s twice and have had many encounter’s with them. As far as Dr.Melba Ketchum studie’s and DNA research and diagnostic’s go, it will be published soon. It has been over 5 years and with over 100 samples from various Bigfoot’s. Steven Novella (Bigfoot Novice) doesn’t even know about fossil’s that do exist from a creature called Gigantopithecus Blacki. As far as fossil’s go, they are not accurate, as the Coelacanth Fish fossil’s were found. Coelacanth’s are also a living breathing fish! So fossil’s don’t alway’s mean it is extinct. So, when it come’s to writing and publishing anything worth reading, one must do their homework and it should be at least accurate. As far as skeptic’s go. I suggest they get off their asses and into the wood’s. Read some info about them and get out there for yourselves. Best thing is to check www. which is Matt Moneymaker’s sight and one of the Finding Bigfoot’s star’s, I have known this site for about 12 year’s now. Check an area nearby that has had some Bigfoot activity. Then go to that area and at least spend a few nights there when you can. Don’t be scared. If you are a true skeptic, than you shouldn’t be afraid of them. They are about 8 feet tall on average with a weight of around 800 to 1,000 pounds. Known to bash humans against tree’s and rip limb’s off and tear your dog in half. As long as you respect them and not trying to harm or kill them you should be fine. I’m still here aint I? Good luck to you. Remember we are part of the food chain as well. Have no fear my brave skeptic’s!

  11. John,

    If you have had many encounters, did any result in a compelling picture or video? Otherwise, it’s just words.

    I cannot evaluate evidence that is yet to be published. (This is the old “evidence is coming” ploy.)

    I am very familiar with Gigantopithecus. (I studied human paleontology in college.) Doesn’t mean they are still around.

    I never said fossils prove a species is extinct, so that is a straw man.

    When you say “known to bash humans against trees and rip limbs off” – do you mean there are documented cases? Do tell.

    I’d be happy to participate in an investigation (although not many bigfoot sightings where I live in CT). But – it is not up to me to disprove the claim that bigfoot exists. Proponents have to provide evidence that they do exist, and they have not.

  12. ccbowers says:

    Steve, you forgot your apostrophe’s before your s’s

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