Why wouldn’t you trust someone with an open mind?

Open MindIt’s considered very important to have an open mind. Everyone wants to be seen as open-minded, or at least not to be thought 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

SunriseIf 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.

Images courtesy of Avolore and gilderm, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

9 responses to “Why wouldn’t you trust someone with an open mind?”

  1. Sipech says :

    I like the hammer quote.

    It’s interesting how some more conservative people can be openly opposed to being open-minded. There was a chap at my last church who thought that to be open-minded meant that you had to accept anything and everything you were told. He thought it meant filling your mind with rubbish. Unfortunately, trying to persuade him that that’s not what I meant when I used the phrase open-minded was……welll……..I think you can guess where this is going.

    Sometimes, if I’m getting into such a conversation I might ask someone if they are willing to concede that they *might* be wrong, or else ask them when the last time they changed their mind about something. Another tack is to ask someone what evidence they would want in order to change their mind; this can give an interesting insight into someone’s epistemology, as well as helping to decide if they are worth the effort.

  2. mgm75 says :

    I concur with Sipech above; “keep an open mind” has become synonymous with “don’t think about it too much. don’t be too critical” which is of course the opposite of what it should be.

    I like Feynman’s phrase “I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I often find G.K.Chesterton rather grating, but I think he had it right when he said that the point of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close it on something solid.

      I suspect we’d disagree on the details, but as far as this quote goes, I can’t fault it.

  3. wallbngr54 says :

    I have been told “have an Open Mind” By people trying to convince me there is a god. Closed minded when I told them I don’t believe .
    I find those who are religious are narrow minded ,not open to the real truth .

    • anonymous says :

      You think you’re so open-minded just because you’re not religious. You know what? Thinking and claiming that all religious people are narrow-minded is a deluded lie. By claiming and blaming them for being closed-minded, you become closed-minded yourself.

      And if you think that you know everything, think again. NO ONE in this world knows everything and that’s the way it is.

      In case you haven’t noticed, there are religious people who can be very open-minded and tolerant. You just haven’t met many of them.

      If you want to be agnostic, fine. But don’t you dare shove your beliefs down other people’s throats ’cause they might get back at you.

      And if you retaliate at every religious fanatic, then you’ve become who you hate: a small-minded, self-righteous, and bigoted hypocrite. Plus, you could make many enemies and they could get revenge on you.

      So get off your high horse and learn to respect people who are different from you.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I thought about instantly deleting this comment because it’s nothing but kneejerk abuse, but then I decided that it would be better to leave it and respond to it.

        You obviously didn’t read the post very well (if at all), because I’m explicitly arguing against claims of open-mindedness. But let’s ignore that and deal with the substance of your complaint as far as I understand it.

        You seem to think I’m being dismissive of certain beliefs (presumably the ones you hold) and acting as if I’m superior in some way. Actually, here I get a bit lost and suspect a Poe, because you also accuse me of shoving my beliefs down others’ throats by posting them here where no one’s forced to read them, and of being a bigoted hypocrite for opposing bigotry. If these complaints are serious, I don’t think any response is likely to penetrate this level of industrial strength WTF.

        If you’d had a look around, you’d see that I’m far from feeling superior to anyone. I still don’t know exactly what I believe, I was a Christian my whole life and my entire family still are. There’s a tension between my beliefs and my respect for people who think differently, but no more than if I were a Labour member in a solidly Tory family. Much of what interests me is how sensible, rational people can disagree on fundamental issues, the very opposite of your portrayal.

        You could feel smug that you misguidedly gave me a piece of your mind, or you could stick around and find out what I really think and why your assessment was a long way off the mark. Your choice.

  4. hausdorff says :

    My first thought was that scientists don’t mention having an open mind because it is assumed that other scientists will have an open mind. But I like your answer better, that if they have actual evidence and good reason for it they don’t need to appeal to an open mind.

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