Who Is Closed Minded, the Skeptic or the Believer?
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:
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:
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.
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