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?