It’s considered very important to have an open mind. Everyone wants to be considered open-minded, or at least not to be considered closed-minded, which is the ultimate insult to anyone’s intellectual honesty. I’m not about to argue with that – being prepared to be corrected or change your position in response to the evidence is the most basic element of the scientific method – but it’s a phrase that carries a lot of subtext.
Obviously, examining the evidence without fixed preconceptions – with an open mind – is a fundamental part of science. But when was the last time you heard a scientist pleading for someone to keep an open mind? Maybe it happens sometimes, but I can’t remember a single example. I find that very interesting.
The people who tend to put the most emphasis on people keeping an open mind are a different group entirely. They’re the conspiracy theorists, the woo-mongers and the like, people who ironically tend to be very, very certain of the truth of their chosen beliefs. Nevertheless, this poses a curious problem – if an open mind is such a good thing, as it is, what should we conclude from the fact that it’s generally advocated by fringe groups with wacky beliefs, and not mainstream scientists?
The answer becomes a little clearer when the question’s reframed slightly: Why would you appeal to someone to keep an open mind? Clearly, because the evidence isn’t sufficient to convince on its own. If there was good reason to believe something to be true based on the evidence, only an imbecile would neglect that to make an appeal which encourages people not to reach a firm conclusion. As the legal adage goes:
If you have the law, hammer the law. If you have the facts, hammer the facts. If you have neither the law nor the facts, hammer the table
If I wanted to persuade a flat-earther that the world really is round, I could appeal to the easily observable curvature of the Earth, photos from space, people who’ve circumnavigated the globe and webcams demonstrating that it can be night in one place and day in another. And that’s just for starters. What I wouldn’t do is plead for them to keep an open mind.
Scientists rarely if ever appeal for people to open their minds, not just because an open mind is the most basic of assumptions, as self-evident as breathing, but also because having an open mind is only part of the answer. The point of having an open mind is to ensure that you’re not clinging dogmatically to a position which isn’t supported by the evidence, but that still requires the evidence to make it work.
Having an open mind is a good thing, all else being equal, but perversely, if someone’s encouraging you to keep an open mind, it’s probably a good reason to be suspicious of their claims. In this context, an insistence on having an open mind most likely means that there’s no decent evidence to support their position, and what’s more, they know it.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a patron saint of the gullible (as there’s one for the internet, it might be unnecessary duplication), but if there were, Thomas should be right at the head of the queue.
Strictly speaking, it would probably be more precise to call him the patron saint of easy marks, but however it’s phrased, it probably strikes you as unfair. After all, Thomas was the one disciple who’s named as being dubious of what the others told him about the resurrection. It was an outrageous claim, and he was justifiably cautious. If anything, shouldn’t he be associated with scepticism?
But consider what happens next. John’s gospel says that he met Jesus and instantly changed his mind, going from 0 to credulous in the blink of an eye. His previous justifiable disbelief was forgotten in a single moment of astonishment, and he became a true believer. He even seems from John’s account to have turned down an open invitation to verify that the person in front of him – who apparently materialised in a locked room – was real. Hardly a poster child for careful, cautious investigation.
There’s a sense in which this is possibly harsh on Thomas, as we have little idea how others reacted, but there’s a reason why I bring this up – his behaviour is typical of a certain sort of convert, the kind of person who seems to apply critical thinking consistently up to a certain point, but drops everything and changes their opinion completely as soon as they personally experience something they can’t instantly explain.
It’s so common that it’s become a cliché – I never used to believe in UFOs until I saw one myself, I used to be an atheist until I felt God’s love, and so on. These solipsistic sceptics had previously heard endless testimonies from people who believed in their latest flavour of woo, but rejected it all because they knew that our feelings and senses are unreliable. Then as soon as they themselves get a funny feeling or see something unusual, they become enthusiastic converts.
Contrary to appearances, this isn’t a sign of careful scepticism or critical thinking – you don’t get credit for an instant reaction of disbelief to everything you’re told, and in the end, Thomas did absolutely nothing to verify the facts. For all his talk, his instant, immediate reaction was to believe that his perception and interpretation were both entirely accurate. Even if they were, that wouldn’t make his behaviour sensible or rational, it would just mean he got lucky.
His previous doubt doesn’t make his sudden belief any more reliable, it just means he’s more confident in it. Despite his headlong rush to believe, it would seem to him that he thought about it rationally, and he would confidently claim not to have been fooled in some way. What’s the betting that Thomas’s own account would have been along the lines of all those other stories of former doubters, now converted to their particular cause? “I used to doubt, but then I saw the light.”
No, sorry. Previous doubts don’t mean anything if there’s no evidence of scepticism or critical thinking in your conversion. If anything, it makes you more likely to be fooled, out of a misplaced confidence in your own critical faculties. Frauds and charlatans love people like Thomas, because they have a misplaced confidence in their ability to question what they’re told, and will believe all sorts of things rather than admit that they could have been fooled.
Richard Feynman put it best: “The first rule is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
xkcd 386, that is.
I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a while, because I think it’s an important issue, but I’ve got round to it now because it’s all been going off online, with huge and messy arguments raging across blogs, Twitter and seemingly the whole of cyberspace between (among others) Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, Thunderf00t and Coffee Loving Skeptic.
I’m not interested in thrashing out the arguments involved, because they’re readily available elsewhere if you’re interested. And I have absolutely no desire to get involved in the argument because it’s got far too deep into who said what when, I don’t really identify as either a sceptic or a skeptic (although I consider myself a fellow traveller) so my opinion isn’t worth squat, and I think the whole situation is unlikely to benefit from anyone else taking sides. For now, my interest is limited to the question of how and when to argue online, and some of my thoughts may or may not apply to this situation.
First, an admission: I have a temper on me. I do get angry and sarcastic when people I’m debating with argue dishonestly, malign or misrepresent me, and that goes double in the blogosphere, where this can be the reward for putting a lot of thought and effort into what I thought was a carefully crafted post. I find it useful to keep this xkcd cartoon in mind, remember Wheaton’s Law and Sayre’s Law, and generally take a step back whenever the situation starts to take on more significance in my mind than some people sitting at computers and exchanging different views. I’m very far from perfect, and this is written for my benefit as much as anyone else’s.
It’s a given that no two people will agree on everything. It’s important to air that disagreement as part of our shared quest for truth, but it’s also important to consider how we’re most likely to persuade people that we’re right, to recognise and acknowledge the things we have in common, and to govern ourselves accordingly. Angry, aggressive retaliation to perceived wrongs can feel satisfying, and it will probably entertain our own side, but it’s almost certain to alienate those who disagree, have mild concerns, or are just undecided. If we want to persuade, rather than simply win, it’s not a great approach.
Of course, it’s a judgement call. Just as people will be bound to disagree on the right answer to a question, they’ll also disagree over how important that question is, and how much fuss it’s worth making when this person or that person disagrees. I have no intention of telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t consider an important issue, or how they should argue their case, but I hope to offer a note of caution. There are plenty of issues which are worth making a fuss about, but it would be ridiculous to start a war over which end to break our eggs if we generally agree on everything else.
This is especially true when the people who are arguing share an obvious common purpose. For example:
There are reasons why they’re fighting, and I’ve got no doubt that both sides believe they’re clearly the good guys. Maybe if you spent a long time listening to both sides putting their case, you might decide that one side or the other was in the right, but the number of people who’ll ever do that must be vanishingly small. To everyone else, this is just a load of clergy having a big old ruckus. The rights and wrongs are long forgotten, and all that remains is a bunch of Orthodox priests fighting with brooms. The one thing that suffers is the reputation of the church, the thing they all have in common and ironically something both sides would want to protect.
If we want to avoid harming the very thing that we have in common, the thing that brought us together in the first place, maybe we all need to be careful to ensure that our disagreement is measured, proportionate and respectful. That doesn’t mean all arguments should be conducted in the detached beard-stroking style of an academic symposium – there will always be people who need a brisk smackdown – but if one of my friends said something that could be construed in a racist way, my first response wouldn’t be to shout them down or tell them to go and join the BNP, but to check exactly what they mean by it.
Because I have common ground with my friends. I don’t want to fall out over something trivial, and our friendship means that I’ll take the time to listen, and possibly to talk it over. It might be that at the end of that discussion I’d feel that the comment revealed genuinely racist sentiments, in which case I’d end the friendship or at least make it a fair bit more distant. But I’d check first, and while I’d make my views clear, I wouldn’t give them a mouthful of abuse, in recognition of the things we agree on and the hope that I’d eventually persuade them to think again.
Maybe I’m just being naive and idealistic, but I’d hope that it’s possible to let go of the idea of “winning” an argument and cut each other a bit of slack. If the things we agree about are too flimsy to make for a meeting of minds, or our differences are too glaring to be pushed aside, at least it should be possible to deal with the facts and give each other the benefit of the doubt, rather than leaping to the worst possible conclusion and letting fly with both barrels. It’s possible to be respectful even while disagreeing, and at the very least we can all aspire to be free of dickishness.
It’s very easy to get drawn into a flame war where the need to win eclipses the initial reasons for the argument, but if that flame war goes nuclear, there are no winners, only survivors.
I’m periodically involved in discussions about claims of miraculous healing in answer to prayer. My typical position, unsurprisingly, is to be extremely dubious, and with good reason. The condition being “healed” is often minor, self-limiting or liable to spontaneous remission. When more extravagant claims are made, the story tends to be hyped, at least in my experience, but little effort is made to verify details. If I was going to tell people that God made me walk again, I think I’d want some sort of medical opinion to show that even if I’m mistaken, at least I’m not crazy.
Actually, this is one area where I respect the Roman Catholics. Whatever else they might get wrong, they instituted a thorough process for confirming any claimed healings at Lourdes over 100 years ago, with detailed investigations and so on. The investigating committee is so rigorous that only 67 healings have been given the church’s seal of approval in the last century. It makes you wonder why people are so desperate to make their pilgrimage, and pales into insignificance when as many as 5 million pilgrims visit the site each year, but that’s another matter. To be honest, those few “official healings”, and a few from other sources where there appears to be a genuine medical record of a dramatic change, do make me wonder. Even though it would make no sense theologically, and the overwhelming body of evidence is that miraculous healing doesn’t happen, it’s hard to simply dismiss stories like that as fabrication or exaggeration. But I’ve come up with an interesting new angle of attack – homeopathy.
Basically, homeopathy is pseudoscientific drivel. Although science interests me, I’m not really a science blogger, so if you want a more comprehensive treatment of it you might be better off trying here or here. But in summary, homeopathy starts out with the not-quite-completely-implausible idea that like cures like, and then piles on more and more ridiculous ideas, like the belief that diluting the cure makes it more potent (but only if you bash, or “succuss” the solution repeatedly – no, I’m not making this up), or that the water “remembers” that it used to contain the cure, even when diluted to the point that not a single molecule of the cure is left. If homeopathy were ever proved true, the resulting rewriting of our understanding of science would make faster-than-light neutrinos look like a minor niggle.
This is relevant because homeopaths and supporters of homeopathy will often resort to anecdote to support the efficacy of their magic water. They’ll point to people who instantly got better from their bad back, or saw an improvement in minor chronic ailments. Very occasionally, someone will ascribe an unexpected improvement in their cancer prognosis to a course of homeopathic treatment with precisely no active ingredient. And this range of “cures” is very interesting.
Although the details aren’t exactly the same (homeopathy doesn’t tend to lengthen many legs, which God seems to specialise in), the mix of cases is basically the same as the Christian healings, with most being self-limiting conditions, some serious recoveries being obvious misunderstandings or misrepresentations, and just a few cases which merit serious consideration. But basic scientific investigation can tell us that homeopathy is total nonsense, without even the possibility of the old “God works in mysterious ways” defence. Isn’t that interesting?
Because I’ll say it again – homeopathy is obvious nonsense from start to finish. Any claims made by homeopathy should be the baseline comparison for any form of healing, just as the magic water itself is tested (and repeatedly fails) against placebo. And that’s bad news for the church, as it leaves the claims of miraculous healing looking much less convincing. Where I used to think that the few serious claims which hadn’t been debunked deserved consideration, even if they looked suspiciously like another God of the Gaps, now I’m increasingly likely to say “Is that all? I could get that from homeopathy!” Given that homeopathy is obvious nonsense, and has been repeatedly shown to be no better than placebo, that’s not exactly something to aspire to.
I got sent yet another implausible urban myth by email recently. As usual, it had been forwarded several times by different people around the world before reaching me, a brief Google of a few key words from the text was enough to find a comprehensive debunking, and the sender was a Christian. The last point is a pattern I’ve only just noticed, but from a few discussions I’ve had, it seems that it may be a general trend, and it got me wondering why that should be. A cynical voice in my head immediately suggested that if you’re prepared to unquestioningly swallow huge chunks of religious doctrine, it probably indicates that your facility for critical thinking isn’t as developed as it might be. An amusing thought, possibly with some truth in it, but my kneejerk fair-minded sense of balance leads me to wonder whether it’s really the best explanation.
The first thing that occurred to me as a counter-argument was conspiracy theories. Again, going by my own experience and anecdote, Christians are relatively unlikely to believe in conspiracies. At least, they don’t generally seem to believe in the usual ones – JFK, moon landings, 9/11, Princess Diana and so on – which I’d expect if they were just believing anything they were told. There’s a complication here, because taking things on trust could possibly be considered consistent with either belief in conspiracy theories or rejection of them, but I think uncritical acceptance ought to result in a certain level of belief in conspiracy theories, depending on the dominant narrative among your friends and acquaintances. So there may be something else going on.
One possible explanation is that it depends on your exposure to the myths. The more friends you have who might receive an email, believe it and pass it on, the more opportunities there are for you to pass it on yourself. Christians tend to know lots of Christians, and these messages tend to have been forwarded many times, so if there’s even a small increase in the likelihood of an individual Christian passing it on, it might lead to a big difference in the number you eventually receive from Christians, although that still doesn’t explain why Christians might be more likely to believe these myths.
It also appears that a lot of emailed myths are specifically Christian in nature, usually being either modern parables related as fact or an attempt to raise awareness of a non-existent threat to Christianity or act of oppression. So it may be that they’re started and circulated by (or at least among) Christians, resulting in a disproportionate number of myths in circulation in those circles. That could explain the imbalance by itself, although it doesn’t address the question of why that should be true. I suspect that Christians are fertile ground for establishing myths, for various reasons, but I’m not so confident about who starts them. I may come back to this another time.
There’s also an interesting psychological aspect to this. It’s well-understood that people are prone to numerous cognitive biases, which make it hard to correctly evaluate new information. In particular, this may be an example of confirmation bias, or possibly in-group bias, manifesting in an overeager acceptance of “facts” which confirm existing beliefs, or an increased tendency to believe stories which appear to come from “your side”.
Of course, this is all predicated on my experience being typical and relevant. My circle of friends may not be typical, and it is a fairly small sample, so I’d be grateful for additional feedback. I’m also aware that we all have cognitive biases, and my perception may be coloured by my own, together with memories of the time many years ago when I was briefly (and very embarrassingly) taken in by the hoary old story about NASA and the sun stopping still.
I’m not ashamed of those biases – as we all have them, the worst thing we can do is pretend that they don’t exist, but I want to do what I can to keep my brain under control, and stay as objective as possible. So please let me know if your experience matches mine, and hopefully, I’ll end up with a more accurate picture than my own rather narrow experience.
Following up on something The Aspirational Agnostic posted recently (part two here), I’ve been mulling over an idea that I hadn’t really considered before, about whether psychics, the paranormal and other crazy stuff can provide evidence in support of God’s existence, the idea being that if there’s something that isn’t explained by rational investigation, it increases the chances that there might be other things out there, beyond the bounds of reality as it appears. I like that idea, and I can see the sense in it, but I think it’s fair to say that I have something of a different approach to the subject.
Cards on the table – I don’t believe in the paranormal. After a brief period of curiosity about ghosts and unexplained phenomena when I was younger, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in it, and have subsequently become a lot more confident in that position as I’ve discovered rational, mundane explanations for more and more mysteries. That goes double for psychics (who rarely seem to come up with anything that even qualifies as a mystery) and a whole lot of other supernatural hokum. In fact, I think the evidence weighs so strongly against this sort of supernaturalism that my typical reaction to any new claim is to assume it to be false, and look for proof of that.
On reflection, I found that my attitude to supernatural claims from the church is much the same – suspicion and provisional disbelief pending a comprehensive debunking. I can’t be sure whether this is due to a scientific mindset or knowledge of a large number of such claims which turned out to be based on speculation, misunderstandings, exaggerations, or simple fabrication. If asked directly whether supernatural events can occur, I wouldn’t deny the possibility outright, as I don’t fancy the challenge of proving a negative, but I’d evaluate the probability as vanishingly small and argue that if they occurred with any sort of frequency, they’d be natural, not supernatural.
I’ve sometimes told myself that I’ve got unreasonable standards of evidence, and that effectively prejudging the issue like this betrays a closed mind. But I never have any such qualms when I apply the same criteria to other supernatural claims. As far as I can see, another story about someone whose leg grew slightly when he was prayed for is on the same level as another story about someone who took a homeopathic remedy and was instantly cured of a cold – the same thing has been claimed so often that it makes no sense to devote any serious effort to investigating it. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the latest claim is a baseless as the previous ones.
But that still leaves me with a problem. While I don’t want to rule out something I can’t disprove, I’m effectively denying any possibility of being convinced by demanding a substantial body of evidence to balance the enormous weight of non-supernatural events and false claims of miracles. Fair enough, but as stated above, anything that occurs with that sort of frequency is surely moving away from the supernatural towards just natural, so probably wouldn’t qualify.
So I’m caught in a bit of a bind. I can hold open the possibility of occasional supernatural influence in cases that haven’t yet been debunked (a sort of expansion pack for God of the Gaps, a position I’ve always found very suspect), or I can dogmatically reject that possibility, despite the logical impossibility of disproving it. Most of the time, I seem to straddle the two positions, acknowledging the general possibility, while denying the specific, but that’s not a very satisfactory position. Actually, it’s entirely unsatisfactory, being exactly the sort of woolly middle ground I’d like to move away from, but I can’t see another more robust option.
Maybe the answer’s to stop worrying about watertight logic, but I can’t see myself doing that any time soon! Russell’s Teapot probably opens up a relevant and productive line of thought, but while I find Russell’s reasoning intellectually satisfying, I find it very hard to apply to beliefs I grew up with, which are shared by family and friends. Maybe I really am a cowardly appeaser after all.