The open-mindedness of skeptics

Today I’d like to briefly discuss the issue of open-mindedness, since I grow more and more alarmed by the rate at which this issue comes up in debates between skeptics and “believers” in alternative medicine, religion, the paranormal, the supernatural, and all sorts of other products of human imagination.

At this point the astute reader might point out, “Aha, you’re already presupposing that these things are products of imagination, so your mind is already closed to other options!” This is not the case. I believe that these things are products of imagination because that’s what they appear to be, based on all available evidence, so they are very probably imaginary. Is it possible that they are real, and not imagined? Of course! Show me evidence that is convincing enough (that is, evidence that’s as grandiose as the claim itself), and you’ll make me a believer (that is, you’ll make me believe that your claim is very probably real)!

I have changed my mind regarding various claims plenty of times in the past, precisely for this reason: I was shown convincing evidence (or found it myself) that made me reverse my views on a particular subject.

A brief analogy. Okay, not so brief.

When I was younger, I used to believe that I exerted some sort of energy that made street lights turn off exactly as I would drive underneath them in my car (this is apparently a common illusion). This didn’t quite sit well in my mind: why me? Am I really that extraordinary? Why doesn’t every driver cause street lights to go out? Then I decided to research the facts: I found out how street lights work, and I read up on some of the workings of human psychology, namely selective memory. And before long, I understood that the light bulbs are on a duty cycle (they periodically turn on and off to prevent overheating), and that my mind was assigning special significance to the times when a street light happened to turn off directly above me!

Did I feel saddened by the notion that I was no longer extraordinary? Maybe for a brief moment, but the reality check was soon overtaken by a feeling of enlightenment. It felt good to understand the real reason behind a phenomenon that was poorly understood (by me, at the time). Instead of living with a superficial pseudo-understanding of how things work (where I am endowed with street light powers), I felt extraordinary because I gained a much more meaningful understanding of the real world.

So what does this have to do with an open mind? Well, consider this. Suppose I meet a person (let’s call her Alice) who absolutely insists that the street light phenomenon is actually genuine — that people do, in fact, emit an energy field that causes street lights to turn off above them.

When I present all the research I did regarding street lights and human psychology, Alice dismisses it as inconclusive and insufficient. When I say that there is a perfectly good natural explanation for the phenomenon, Alice claims that her explanation is better because it feels right to her. She gives me a list of testimonials from her friends who have also experienced the phenomenon, and says, “they can’t all be wrong, can they?” When I show her the mathematics that proves how statistically likely it is to see a street light turn off during any drive, she insists that the number of times that she’s seen it can’t be a coincidence.

When I ask her to show me peer-reviewed publications on the reality of this effect, she says that she doesn’t have access to them at the moment, but assures me that they exist. When I ask her if she would be willing to perform a blinded test of her abilities, she refuses, saying that the street lights turn off only when she doesn’t think about it or least expects it.

When I ask her to explain the physical processes that she thinks are behind the phenomenon, she begins talking about quantum mechanics, saying that all particles are entangled, that our intentions can change the course of quantum reality, and that we, as observers, can choose the outcome of wavefunction collapse.

When I try to correct her naive understanding of quantum mechanics, she says that science doesn’t have all the answers. When I tell her that I used to believe in the same explanation that she does, except I learned better, she proceeds to state that I am hopelessly closed-minded and, with a tone of pity, says that I will never be able to control street lights like she can, because I don’t believe in it enough.

Sound familiar?

While the above analogy is a bit of a straw man (or straw woman in this case), the vast majority of debates between skeptics and “believers” take on exactly the above format. The believer, frustrated by the skeptic’s unwillingness to accept her extraordinary claim without sufficient evidence, resorts to calling the skeptic closed-minded.

Let’s think about the definition of an open mind. I would consider an open-minded person to be someone who is able to objectively evaluate new evidence, and integrate it into his or her framework of theories regarding the world. “Objectively” evaluating evidence means evaluating it regardless of personal interests, emotional appeal, profit motive, or peer pressure.

It is abundantly clear that, in the above scenario, it’s Alice who is closed-minded, because she is either unable or unwilling to honestly evaluate the real reasons for the street light effect.

However, the question remains: Am I closed-minded for being unwilling to consider Alice’s theory that she has psycho-kinetic powers? Well, that’s a bit of a loaded question. First of all, Alice does not have a theory that explains the effect. Saying that the effect is caused by telekinetic powers is a bit like saying, “It’s magic” — it doesn’t constitute an explanation, because it doesn’t explain how the process actually works.

Alice would have to define what exactly her powers are, their range and intensity, and how these powers can be reconciled with currently known laws of physics. If she claims that current physics are insufficient to explain her powers, or that she has tapped into a “new” law of physics, she suddenly has an entire world of physicists to contend with, all of whom agree on well-established physical laws that preclude such powers.

The only thing that would pique the interest of the world’s physicists is a simple test — an experiment that shows, repeatably, that the laws of physics do not apply to Alice. Is that too much to ask? As long as such an experiment does not exist, we have no reason to believe that Alice has any powers except an overly active imagination.

Replace the street light effect with any other extraordinary claim (energy medicine, life-force, zero-point fields, astrology, dowsing, etc), and the conclusions turn out the same: if the claim is real, it would undermine one or more laws of physics. In any case, the evidence for such a claim would have to be at least as spectacular as the claim itself.

In short, I am open-minded to any new evidence, whether it supports my worldview or contradicts it. However, I have some sensible constraints on what passes as “evidence.” As the immortal saying goes, I have an open mind, but not so open that my brain falls out.

If you are making extraordinary claims that are not supported by our current theories about the world, all I ask is that you demonstrate something, anything, that supports your claims, and shows that whatever you’re demonstrating isn’t just in your mind.