I post on a couple of message boards. There, I often find myself embroiled in some small debate, usually spiraling down to become little more than a flame war. These debates are on a variety of topics, but they generally share the similarity that some person posts a thread having to do with something for which there is little to no evidence. These debates have been about psychic powers, ghosts, vaccination, water fluoridation, and a host of other topics. I have even been in debates over the existence of fairies. I kid you not.
As might be expected (or maybe not, as I’ve discovered), when someone makes a claim along the lines of “fairies exist” or “water fluoridation is a conspiracy by the Rockefellers to make us stupid,” I ask for evidence. I never come into a thread and tell someone they’re foolish (at least not at first), and I try to be respectful. However, after one or two responses, I almost invariably find myself being accused of something very odd given the situation: being close-minded.
An important question might be, given the context, what is meant by “close-minded”? In the cases on the boards, it is an accusation that is tossed at someone who asks for evidence for something far-out and difficult to believe. You might be familiar with the kind of thing about which I’m speaking. Someone comes along and begins to talk about how quantum mechanics shows how crystals can help us center our spiritual energy (whatever that means). In response, you ask “Really? When? Where? Can you point me to the study?” There is typically some floundering about on the claimant’s part as to how this is common knowledge or how they can’t remember where they read it, but they are certain the source was reputable. You suggest that you’re skeptical of any such thing, and then you’re accused of just being close-minded. So, it looks like, when most people use the word, they mean that you’ve shut yourself off to believing in things without good justification.
But is this anything like what we might legitimately think of as being close-minded? If we consider what being close-minded would actually entail, it would seem that being guilty of this fault would be to shut oneself off to new ideas or the unfamiliar when such positions are justified. I think most of us would agree that such a mindset is to be avoided. But in what way is asking for evidence or justification being closed off to new ideas? I’ve asked this very question repeatedly, and I have as of yet to receive any good response.
Here, I would like to make a suggestion: I want to say that being willing to go the way that the evidence points is what open-mindedness is all about. While it might be the case that some individuals asking for evidence would refuse to change their positions even if the evidence was presented and was compelling, I don’t think that is the case for most people who ask for such evidence. On the contrary, I think that most people asking for evidence do so just because they want to make an informed decision, and they recognize that evidence is a good way of doing just that. In such a case, asking for evidence might be seen as the first step in being open-minded, and this stands in stark contrast to the way the case is most often presented.
With the above in mind, it seems that we can make a determination about who is, in fact, close-minded. If going where the evidence points regardless of your initial position is open-mindedness, then close-mindedness would be refusing to alter your position even if the evidence points someplace else. Being dogmatic, refusing to accept evidence, and believing on faith would all be examples of close-mindedness. And this makes the accusations of close-mindedness that we so often hear incredibly ironic. Rather than it being those who are asking for evidence or justification being close-minded, as is so often suggested, it is those individuals using this attack who are guilty of this specific error.
Some reading this might be wondering why this needs to be addressed. They might think that this is obvious, and, as such, it is an uninteresting topic. But it is clear from my discussions that this is just not the case. The people who accuse me of being close-minded don’t see their own error, and, perhaps more importantly, neither do other people! I know from personal experience that the accusation of close-mindedness finishes the argument in the minds of a lot of the people watching from the sidelines. Even though the accusation is itself without merit, it still has a bite. For that reason, it is important to point out who is the guilty party within a debate. I have discovered that by making it clear that close-mindedness is linked to believing something without good reason, and, as such, the person asking for evidence is not the one in error, others watching the debate are more likely to be convinced that believing baseless claims is not some sort of virtue to be prized. In fact, it is exactly the opposite.
This is a good thing. It isn’t really “winning” a debate that is important. At least for me, it is much more satisfying to get people to recognize that there is virtue in skepticism, that we should require justification for our beliefs. By recognizing the fallacious tactic of the charge of close-mindedness and pointing out that the reality of the situation is diametrically opposed to the initial charge, we can remove a vital tool from the proponent’s of woo toolbox, turning it around on them and showing those watching that there is no fault in being skeptical.