Reclaim Open Mindedness!
A Twenty-First Floor campaign.
How many times have you found yourself in the following situation? The setting could be anywhere, from a few quiet beers down the pub to a dinner party conversation over coffee and mints; the conversation could be between two people who have just met, or between people that have known each other for years.
Yet the outcome is nigh on always the same.
When a sceptic becomes embroiled in a conversation about woo – anything from physics and ghosts to alternative medicine – the same old canards are raised time and time again, broadly falling into the following categories:
1. Science doesn’t know everything!
Well, but of course science doesn’t know everything! If science knew everything, what would be the point of having science? It’s a self correcting method for explaining how the world works. The amount it knows increases over time and, more importantly, what it knows is falsifiable – it can be shown to be wrong.
In my experience, this argument is generally erroneously employed in order to imply that ghosts/psychics/alt. medicines work, and science just hasn’t yet explained it. This crucially ignores the fact that in many of these cases, science has already provided satisfying explanations, and in fact can show how these things are supposed to work. For instance: infra-sound/cold reading/the placebo effect, respectively.
2. Science has been wrong in the past!
The idea that you can discount whatever bits of science you don’t like on the basis that science has been wrong in the past is similarly nonsensical. The scientific method involves using evidence to back up claims, and each claim is backed up individually. Even if people thought the world was flat, it has no bearing whatsoever on any other piece of science. Science progresses by people being wrong – it’s a feature, not a bug!
In my experience, this generally follows a failed attempt at claiming that “science doesn’t know everything”.
3. Scientists are just arrogant know-it-alls!
Which of these seems more arrogant: coming up with a hypothesis, then testing to see if it works before asserting whether it does or not ,or merely boldly asserting something to be true? If scientists come across as arrogant because they have done the legwork to back up their assertions, then so be it. The personal qualities of scientists have no bearing on the evidence they present.
In my experience, this is perhaps because in polite conversation, you are expected to cede to other people’s opinions and viewpoints, or to at least acknowledge that they have some validity. Unfortunately, when people start denying some basic scientific facts and natural laws that we have discovered govern existence, then it is perhaps worth reminding folks that they are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.
4. Science is just one way of looking at the world!
Well, yes, technically you could define science in such terms, but it is at best a trivially true statement, and makes no real wider point. For if you accept that there is an objective and measurable world out there (and if you don’t, Sokal’s window is always available to you) then the logic, philosophy and practices that underlie science and the scientific method are the best way of measuring and modelling it. The human race has yet to come up with a better way of understanding… well, anything, really.
As I’ve experienced it, this argument tends to be deployed as a means of validating a position or belief that is untenable if evidence or proof are required.
5. You’re just being closed-minded, you need to be more open-minded!
Surely one of the most vexatious, frustrating and ultimately ironic statements a sceptic can hear! It is not us who are close-minded: we look at the evidence for extraordinary claims– things like homeopathy, the existence of malevolent poltergeists and claims that former footballers can talk to the dead. We rarely accept these at face value and we investigate claims before determining their worth.
There is nothing about being open-minded that says you should blind yourself to evidence, and stubbornly refuse to change your beliefs when confronted by said evidence. Really, if you think about it – refusing to look at, or even consider, evidence is a pretty damn closed-minded thing to do.
That is why when I heard Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics on the radio debating with a homeopath I was punching the air in celebration.
Because he turned the tables on the homeopaths by telling them they needed to be more open-minded.
This is something which we, both as sceptics and scientists, should be telling those who peddle or believe in snake-oil, psychics and ghostly goings-on when we enter into debate, discussion, or an out-and-out argument. These people need to be more open-minded about science and evidence- more open-minded about statistics, and about interpreting their own experiences in ways that challenge rather than reinforce their prejudices.
Which is why we at the 21st floor will soon be launching our campaign to reclaim open-mindedness for the evaluation of evidence, science and scepticism- rather than the ignorant ad-hominem attack it has been reduced to.
True believers in homeopathy, reflexology, reiki, acupuncture, chiropracty, ghosts, psychics and all sorts of wo – open your minds to scientific, rational and critical thought. You need to be more open minded.
The world will thank you for it.
For more details on open mindedness, see Qualiasoup’s excellent youtube video on the subject: