Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Open Wide Your Mind

All right, I still owe another post or two about The God Delusion, but I'm going to take a break for that for a moment to post about something else. I admit my main reason for wanting to make this post right now is to try to get it in in time for the next edition of the Skeptics' Circle, but this is a post I'd been meaning to make for a while. Anyway, the next post about The God Delusion should be up tomorrow morning--and for anyone who thinks I may have been too hard on Dawkins thus far, the next post should be more complimentary.


There's a saying which apparently originated with NASA engineer James Oberg but has since achieved wide popularity, particularly, it seems to me, among the skeptical community: "Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."

I absolutely loathe this saying, and not only because the wordplay makes no sense. How can your brains fall out of your mind? If the word was "open-headed" or "open-skulled", well, okay, sure, but it's not...

But there are deeper reasons for despising this saying. I think it utterly and dangerously misrepresents what it really means to keep an open mind in the first place. I don't think there's any such thing as having too open a mind, and I think the implication that there is could have some unfortunate consequences.

The purport of the saying, of course, is that those who hold some belief that the speaker considers eccentric have their minds too open. They're too receptive to fringe ideas, and need to close their minds a little (that follows if their minds are too open, right?) to become more rational.

I would argue just the opposite. Those who cling to unsupported beliefs in the face of the evidence don't have minds that are too open. They have minds that aren't open enough. And that needs to be emphasized if we're to point out what's really wrong with their thinking.

What does it mean to have an open mind? Well, to be willing to consider any idea, however much it may conflict with our preferences or preconceptions. If we truly have an open mind, we have to really be willing to entertain the idea that aliens could be abducting people, that God could speak to man, that chupacabras and the Loch Ness monster exist, that the moon is made of rubber cement. But, of course, we also have to really be willing to entertain the idea that all of this isn't true. Having a really open mind means being open to both sides of a proposition.

But having an open mind doesn't mean assuming that any idea has equal merit. It can't, in fact, because that's impossible. In our daily living, we are constantly, by necessity, making judgments between ideas, judging one as more likely than the other. We have to, or we couldn't do anything at all. If we considered it equally likely that we could sate our thirst by drinking paint thinner as by drinking water, we wouldn't last very long. Our every action is motivated by the judgment--whether conscious or not--that one course of action is more likely to lead to the fulfillment of a particular goal than another. (And admittedly often partly by instinct, yes, but that's beside the point.)

None of this is in conflict with being open-minded. A truly open-minded individual should be willing to consider any proposition, yes. But considering a proposition entails making a rough judgment about its probability. If confronted with the idea that the moon is made of rubber cement, an open-minded person won't reject the idea merely because it conflicts with what he's already been told. He will, however, reject the idea because of the evidence against it. For one thing, we have some understanding scientifically of how a giant sphere of rock could be where the moon is. We have no theory for how a giant ball of rubber cement could have gotten up there. For another thing, people have even been to the moon and brought back moon rocks. None of this completely rules out the idea that the moon is made of rubber cement--it's technically possible that a celestial lump of rubber cement formed by means currently unknown to us (or was placed there by playful members of an advanced civilization), and it's conceivable (though given the evidence it's immensely improbable) that all the claims of lunar visitation and moon rocks are part of a vast conspiracy--but it renders it extremely unlikely. For similar reasons, a truly open-minded person is perfectly justified in rejecting the idea that everyone has a giant green marshmallow implanted in his mid-thorax, or that there is a race of hyperintelligent living breaded shrimp living in the sewers under Pittsburgh. In fact, not only is he justified in rejecting these ideas, but he's pretty much obligated to, if he's really open-minded; any reasonable consideration should lead to the conclusion that the probability of either idea being true is pretty much negligible.

Of course, in one sense one could say that someone with a truly open mind never really rejects such a proposition at all--he may decide it's very improbable, but he doesn't rule it out entirely. When the probability is low enough, however--as it is in the above examples--, it amounts in practice to rejecting the proposition completely. Certainly if the probability is that negligible it's not worth acting on, and the individual is completely in the right to behave in most respects as if the proposition is known to be false.

So. Let's look at a typical example of where the "brains falling out" quote is likely to be used. Let's say somebody--let's call him Joe, an arbitrary choice with no offense intended to any readers of that name--holds some paranormal or pseudoscientific belief--it could be a belief in astrology, homeopathy, alien abductions, whatever; the details don't matter. Let's say, for the purposes of this discussion, that he believes in some mystical phenomenon called "kalatrasis" (a word I pretty much just made up on the spur of the moment), with evidential support comparable to the other examples named--which is to say, none. Despite the lack of evidence in kalatrasis, however--and perhaps despite experiments that actually seem to disprove its existence--Joe firmly insists that kalatrasis exists. Joe might be told to not be so open-minded his brains fall out. But is his problem really being too open-minded?

Again, a truly open-minded person should be open to all possibilities. Joe is open to the possibility that kalatrasis exists. Is he open to the possibility that it doesn't? If he were, and if he were honestly evaluating the evidence, would he have reached his conclusion? Insisting on something in spite of the evidence isn't being open-minded; it's being extremely closed-minded, because one is refusing to even consider the alternative possibility--that the evidence is right and the something isn't there. Insisting a priori on the truth of kalatrasis (where of course "kalatrasis" is a stand-in for astrology, homeopathy, alien abductions, or whatever similar unsupported belief you'd like to throw in there) is no more "open-minded" than insisting a priori on its falsehood. The truly open-minded way is to be willing to consider either possibility, and evaluating the evidence to see which one is more likely. And if there's no evidence for kalatrasis, and plenty of evidence against it, then that means that the open-minded person will reject it. In other words, the person who's really being more open-minded isn't the person who firmly believes in the unsupported idea--it's the skeptic.

Of course, there are a few caveats here. First of all, this doesn't mean that to be truly open-minded a person is required to go out of his way to hunt down all the evidence on a given subject. That's not reasonable, and an open-minded person can make a provisional judgment on limited evidence--though of course with the proviso that he's open to revising that judgment later if contrary evidence arises. This is especially true with regards to a particularly complicated proposition, or one that seems to contradict established theories. The burden of proof is then on the person making the proposition, and in the absence of evidence the open-minded person is perfectly justified in rejecting the proposition--at least until such a time as such evidence is presented.

Furthermore, I don't know that anyone really is perfectly open-minded. Open-mindedness is the ideal of the skeptic, of course, but I don't know that any skeptics really achieve it completely; skeptics are human too, and they do have prejudices and make mistakes. At least they do consciously strive for open-mindedness, and are in general more open-minded than other people, but in practice they're not perfect.

Anyway, though, why am I making such a big deal about this? Sure, the "brains fall out" injunction may be a little inaccurate or misleading, but why argue against it at such length? Well, mainly because if we (that is, skeptics) accuse the fringe believers of being too open-minded...then that opens us up to being accused of not being open-minded enough. Believers can--and do--accuse skeptics of being closed-minded when they don't accept their beliefs. This accusation is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be open-minded in the first place...but it's a misunderstanding that we ourselves perpetuate when we attribute adherence to fringe beliefs to excessive open-mindedness.

So. Let's all try to be as open-minded as we possibly can. Our brains aren't going anywhere.


At 8/17/2007 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gracious. I've always loved that adage, and now you've neatly and distinctly shown why I was wrong to do so. You have forever ruined it for me.

And given how convincingly you argued against the adage, I think that's a good thing. Thank you for saving me from my own sloppy thinking. You are absolutely right on this one.

At 8/21/2007 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When is a door not a door ? When it is ajar. A dina ken if having put that joke correctly t'was first joke I heard this lifetime and introduced me to what being described as having a sense of humour growing up one needs to have a sense of humour ..almost vital if one is too survive in a sane manner......the point I was going to make be brain continue developing, understanding point of creation as the purpose.TRUTH will not question you will not then deny experience of your own being...when the brain mature enough then at such a stage more reveiled,at present all go through a process of development,then we will have LIFT OFF ,at present in humanities spiritual development it important experiencesessesss as understandingsssss not excessive to damage brain in a crucial stage of its, developmentalabiladittity.

At 8/26/2007 2:24 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Uh...I'm just going to assume that second anonymous post is some kind of attempt at humor...

At 9/12/2007 5:02 PM, Blogger Ross said...

Excellent post, Mr. AC. Well written, and you make a profound point. Thanks for opening my mind just a little more. I have used the "keep an open mind..." phrase numerous times, and had it in my list of quotes on my blog (when I tried to find out who it was attributed to, there were at least six claimed originators - I remember reading a Skeptic magazine article on the phrase, but couldn't find it. I think I lent somebody that issue.) Anyway, I will now encourage others to continue opening their minds as far as they can.

At 9/13/2007 1:30 AM, Blogger Ross said...

After writing my previous comment, I watched the second part of Richard Dawkins' "Enemies of Reason" series, and he said this at the end:

"We can think independently and be truly open minded. That means asking questions - being open to real corroborated evidence. Reason has liberated us from superstition, and given us centuries of progress.
We abandon it at our peril."

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At 3/18/2008 11:15 AM, Blogger Mike said...

I just found your blog post because I was looking for the originator of the very quote you so detest. I just used that quote, and I think it was justified.

The skeptics among us are told to be more "open" to extremely improbable and un-useful "explanations" (e.g. GOD) of natural phenomena. We are right if we consider doing so to be "too open-minded". Only those people should be taken seriously who have already done the hard work of showing how some fringe or un-useful idea is worthwhile.

I have recently made the mistake of taking seriously all too much crank science. I wasted a lot of time. I was in fact being too open-minded.

Just as probabilistically determining certain ideas to be incorrect means, in practice, rejecting them; so too does taking them seriously for more then a moment constitute, in practice, being too open minded.

In any case, the quote should be taken as a friendly reminder not to waste too much time on junk -- nothing more.

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