Who Is Closed Minded, the Skeptic or the Believer?

Skeptics and believers both tend to accuse each other of similar faults in their thinking.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #134
December 30, 2008
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

The tagline for this podcast, buried somewhere in the RSS feed that nobody ever sees, is "The truth always hurts someone." This axiom is reproven every week when my Google Alerts show me new references on the web to Skeptoid, usually in somebody's blog, usually lambasting me as a paid stooge for the government or at best, "just another closed-minded debunker". If I don't accept every shred of anecdotal whimsey as absolute proof of the supernatural, I'm "closed minded". If I have not been sufficiently impressed by evidence to move from the null hypothesis, I'm "trying to justify my preconceived notions". If I am moved by the results of well-performed studies that have passed peer review and contribute to a scientific consensus, I've "taken the red pill and gone down the rabbit hole to become a true believer in the lies of Big Science".

Now, take a moment to reflect. Are those not the same things skeptics say about believers? They are, exactly. Skeptics and believers tend to follow the same thought processes, and come to conclusions that validate their own methods and beliefs, and invalidate those of their opponent. More than once, I've had a conversation with a well read, intelligent, articulate true believer, who charged me with the same flaws in my logic that I found glaring in his. I've watched debates between the top names in science and pseudoscience, and seen these conversations deterioriate into little more than "Takes one to know one", "Nuh-uh", and "I know you are, but what am I?"

To be an effective skeptic, it's critical to understand that your opponent is not simply a lunatic. Maybe some are, but the majority are as intelligent and thoughtful as you. Dismissing your opponent as crazy is a weakness in you. When a skeptic talks with a believer, he often finds the believer to be closed minded, in that the believer is not open to any evidence that challenges his belief. The fact is that the believer also finds the skeptic to be closed minded, in that he does not accept the evidence that supports the belief. From the perspective of each, each is right. And that's really important to understand.

Being closed-minded is only one crime of which skeptics and believers accuse each other. Both also accuse each other of being believers, and consider themselves skeptics. For example, a 9/11 Truther honestly believes that what everyone observed on 9/11 is not what happened, and that the consensus of what witnesses, victims, law enforcement, and emergency services experienced on that day is merely a government fabrication. They are skeptical of that fabrication, and thus consider themselves skeptics. They consider those of who accept what was reported on that day to be believers, as if we deliberately close our minds to their hypothesis and instead uncritically accept the "official story".

Similarly, proponents of non-scientific alternatives to healthcare, like reflexology or straight chiropractic or reiki, honestly consider their mistrust of evidence-based medicine to be well-founded skepticism. They consider those of use who "blindly accept what doctors and pharmaceutical companies tell us" to be uncritical believers. From their perspective, that's a reasonable evaluation.

People who watch and believe the ghost hunting shows on television consider what they see to be scientific evidence of ghosts, and that skepticism of the claim that ghosts don't exist is more than justified. They honestly consider those of us who don't buy into those shows to be turning a blind eye to the evidence, and insisting on a stubborn belief that ghosts have never been shown to exist. From their perspective, we are the ones who are closing our minds to the evidence and not being scientific.

I'm not even sure what being "closed minded" is. I guess it means that you won't give a chance to any evidence of any quality. If that's true, then closed minded is probably not a term that genuinely applies to either skeptics or believers. The first step is to be selective about what evidence we turn away at the door, and this is where the real difference is. We all turn away some of the evidence at the door. We have to. It would be impossible to get through your day if you had to devote a full-fledged investigation into every minute suggestion or claim or anecdote that comes along.

And here's an important point. This is a charge that I think we are nearly all guilty of, to some degree: In their process of selecting which evidence to turn away at the door and to which to give further attention, skeptics and believers both tend to select evidence they are likely to be predisposed to accept. Everyone does this. Whether you know anything about the scientific method or not, whether you believe in Bigfoot or not, whether you're trying to justify a preconceived notion or not, and whether you're a skeptic or a believer, we all have our own individual standards by which we select evidence to consider.

This filtering is usually done with a bias, because most people don't happen to be following a formal research protocol every minute of every day. Here's the way this evidence filtering usually plays out in everyday life:

I say: My dad's diabetes was cured with acupuncture.
The skeptic says: We already know there's no plausible connection between the two, I'm not interested in that anecdote.
The believer says: I'm very interested in what acupuncture can do, this is one more piece of evidence of its effectiveness.

I say: Pfizer just announced its new cancer drug has been approved and found to be safe and effective.
The skeptic says: That system's not perfect but it's the best we have, glad to hear we have a new effective option.
The believer says: I'm not interested in any claims made by a for-profit pharmaceutical company.

I say: Bob saw a UFO and he could see aliens waving through the window.
The skeptic says: A fun story, but hardly useful as evidence of anything.
The believer says: Taken by itself, this story may not be great evidence, but it adds to the mountain of evidence of alien visitation.

Even though both of these people follow the same thought process, the skeptic is going to be right more often than the believer. Why? He's no more or less closed minded or biased in the way he shuts out information. The only reason his decisions are usually going to be better is that he has a better general science background. He has a general understanding of what's clinically known about acupuncture, rather than what's in newspaper advertisements. He has a general knowledge of the drug research and approval process. He has a general understanding about quality of evidence and the value of anecdotal evidence.

Here's a real life example. I had a recent email exchange with Stanton Friedman, probably the biggest promoter of alien visitation. He's best known for his promotion of the Roswell mythology, following the National Enquirer's 1978 reprinting of the original 31-year-old uncorrected article from the Roswell Daily Record. In our emails, Friedman accused me of closing my mind to all the evidence out there. Fair enough; I do filter out evidence that's purely anecdotal, ambiguous, irrelevant, or otherwise useless. So I asked him if he could provide a single piece of useful, unambiguous evidence of alien visitation. He replied in part:

I certainly don’t have a piece of a saucer. There are about 4,000 physical trace cases from about 90 countries... Having a fingerprint doesn’t provide the finger, but proves one was there... We are dealing with intelligently controlled ET spacecraft.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Friedman is absolutely right that a fingerprint proves a finger was there. A fingerprint is unambiguous and has no other explanation. But what are these 4,000 physical traces? We'd have to look at each one individually and evaluate it; we don't just say "Well 4,000 is a big number, some of them must be real." If any are conclusively and unambiguously parts of an alien spaceship, with no other possible explanation, then we'd have something worth looking at. What we don't ever do is credit 4,000 pieces of poor evidence in the aggregate as one piece of good evidence. If Friedman followed a responsible research protocol, he would refuse to draw a conclusion from 4,000 useless items of unknown origin. I look at it and see 4,000 arguments that no good evidence has been found. Friedman looks at the same thing and says, quote, "We are dealing with intelligently controlled ET spacecraft."

So what is the real difference between skeptics and believers? It's disingenuous to claim that either is more closed-minded than the other; everyone sits somewhere along that spectrum, nobody is immune. It's disingenuous to say that either is more of a stubborn believer than the other, or that either tends to support their preconceived notions more than the other. Probably all of us are more guilty of these than we like to admit, especially in less formal environments. The real difference between skeptics and believers is that skeptics have a useful foundation of scientific knowledge and an aptitude for following the scientific method. These tools allow us to distinguish poor quality evidence from good quality evidence. And, importantly, they help restrain us from drawing poorly supported conclusions from the evidence that we do accept, no matter how strongly we want those conclusions to be justified.

So don't focus on buzzword labels like "closed minded" or "true believer". You can be both of those things and still be able to properly analyze evidence and draw a supported conclusion. You can also be guilty of neither fault, and yet be unable to distinguish a well-supported conclusion from mountains of poor evidence. Focus on the method behind the conclusion. Focus on the quality of evidence that supports the conclusion. The ad-hominem attack of "He's closed minded" says nothing at all about the quality of evidence.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Achinstein, P. Scientific evidence: Philosophical theories & applications. Baltimore, MD.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Burton, Robert. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008.

Gorski, D. "Sunday Fun: On Being Open Minded." Science-Based Medicine. Science-Based Medicine, 5 Apr. 2009. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/sunday-fun-on-being-open-minded/>

Kruglanski, A.W. The psychology of closed mindedness. New York: Psychology Press, 2004.

Shamoo, A., Resnik, D. Responsible Conduct of Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2009.

Shermer, M. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2000.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Who Is Closed Minded, the Skeptic or the Believer?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 30 Dec 2008. Web. 17 Sep 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4134>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 63 comments

Also David Hume's insight-believe the lesser miracle- can get one more often to the very elusive truth.

joe, winnipwg
December 7, 2009 8:48am

Todd,

I'd prefer to go to a doctor that will certainly have made a larger investement of time learning from a rigirous body of knowledge. Otherwise it is like taking your car to be repaired by your accountant.

Robert Mcbride, Columbia, MD
December 7, 2009 10:27am

Robert M.
Perhaps, although western doctors training is funded by pharmaceutical companies who cannot own the rights to natural remedies, therefore cannot make their billions from it so they debunk it.
Most doctors have as much knowledge about nutrition as a monthly Cosmopolitan reader. It's just not taught to them as it should be.
Open minded about both modern and natural (which is not new but has been around for centuries)is the best possibility but as I said, western medicine is ignorant.
Despite all this, the problem isn't in the medicine anyway, it's in our diets.

Todd, Orillia
February 15, 2010 9:13am

I like Skeptoid because it reassures me that I'm not the only sane person in the universe.

Thanks for this episode.

Abby, Austin, TX
February 22, 2010 3:24pm

Now there is a fine concept, you like skepticism because you are sane.

By the amount of obsessive and compulsive contributors I see here (including moi) I have evidence to the contrary.

Back to the mice..(we will rule the world).

Henk van der Gaast, Sydney
November 14, 2010 4:30pm

As a Christian I have to say that skeptics are not consistently skeptical of their skepticism. They assume as a presupposition that science as an empirical tool is the primary doorway to knowledge about reality. This epistemology of the skeptic is assumed not logically arrived at. The epistemologically self conscious christian also has presuppositions that lay at the foundation of his world view. The real test of world views lies in the pragmatism of building civilization that is logically consistent with ones world view presuppositions. Ones epistemology is correlative with ones metaphysics, neither is the starter, they start as a unit and self support. We cannot have an infinite regress in presuppositions. As a christian I can account for induction as a principle, but chaos gives no philosophical warrant for induction which is the basis for science. All attempts to give warrant sneak the first premise into the conclusion. Bertrand Russel and David Hume Both spoke of this and I think it was Russel who said "you have to give us the inductive principle intrinsically". Intrinsically used here is very telling to those who study logic and philosophical argumentation. The christian's first presupposition is that god exists and controls an ordered universe,hence faith in induction. the Atheist has as first presupps chaos or something from nothing or static infinite physical universe. Either way induction is not warranted as a practice to confidently use to reach truth. It could end

Bill F Wade, Lieghton,AL
April 5, 2012 9:49pm

That was nicely stated Bill. Now take a torch to your apostate laptop.

Damn logic based machines!

But why contradict your entire post in the last two sentences?

mud, Sinful shire, sin city, Oz
June 12, 2012 5:03am

Debating topics that don't have a definitive truth is one thing..Debating the truth or facts engraved in stone...exercise in futility. ..there's two things that are hard to overcome , math and ignorance. ..you cant disguise ignorance with proper sentence structure and debating etiquette. ..skeptics and believers...one in the same ..comman sense and rational thinking...is the ingredients that makes a debate a true platform for both sides to continue to be enlightened for alternative solutions and truths...when one side has diminished capabilities for comman sense and rational thinking and beliefs. ..save your breath. .they'll trag you down to their level and beat you with their experience. ..

dave festa, florida
January 27, 2014 5:33pm

The value of debate on various topics is to establish an ongoing truthfulness about whether a certain fact about said topic is still as true today as it was yesterday.

Many truths have been found to be questionable at best, and sometimes, wholly false when fair and honest debate is allowed to continue, with both parties researching their "facts" as they see them.

There is never a futility in debating a fact engraved in stone unless it is immediately self-evident, e.g. you breath, you live, you don't, you die.

Many facts that indeed are said to be cast in stone, are quickly revealed to enjoy that status in the minds of only a few people.

That doesn't automatically prove them as being wrong, far from it, but removes immediately the impression implied by the promoters on the side of said fact cast in stone that it is a commonly held view that "everybody knows".

Fair debate will often get to the bottom of the story or question, so long as the debate is engaged with the rules of a dialectic examination with proof of assertions debated.

The debate quickly breaks down when the fact cast in stone continues to be used as self-proclaimed proof of the fact itself, and in particular the descent into ad hominem attacks upon the opposition.

At that point, the debater has all but lost any credibility regarding his debated position, and in fact has done that position a gross disservice, because that position now risks not being taken seriously by the observers to the debate.

Macky, Auckland
January 27, 2014 9:33pm

And when the debate has thus degenerated to one or both sides engaging in mere ad hominem attacks upon each other, it becomes entirely evident to the audience that the original issue under debate has not been discussed from the point of view of genuine enquiry at all.

There was no interest in examining all the available evidence for and against, hence coming to a consensus for the current proof of what the truth really is.

What has really taken place has been the preliminary actions of presenting each side's "facts", with or without evidence to back them, and when that has failed to gain any advantage, the dummy has been spat, and the frustrated ad hominem attacker vents his spleen in what was really only his emotionally-held beliefs, nothing more.

The evidence on Skeptoid of these displays of the above are numerous, and on many subjects.

They reflect a close-mindedness or those who would often call themselves skeptics, and rationally-minded clear thinkers.

Many demonstrations of said irrational thinking, and "proof by repetition" have been nothing but assertions of faith, that the Official Story is true because it comes from "authority" of some sort.

Given that "authority" itself has often been proven to have acted in a criminal and unethical manner towards those that it supposedly protects, such expressions of faith are not dialectic debate at all, and often reflect a close mindedness among those who believe themselves to be anything but.

Macky, Auckland
February 10, 2014 1:48pm

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