Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
Qualia Soup said it better than I can, but I’ll still give it my best shot.
As a skeptic, I’m often told to be more “open-minded” because I question various claims, particularly supernatural claims. The problem with many such critics is that they’re often quite unaware of the fact that I did seriously contemplate the issue with an open mind. I weighed in the evidence available to me, explored several alternative explanations, and settled on the most probable-seeming hypothesis. This review process can be revisited if new evidence comes to my attention or a genuine fallacy in my logic is identified. That’s what I think of as open-minded, and it’s how you’re supposed to think about the issue.
But that rarely seems to matter. I came to a different conclusion than the critic: My disagreement in itself is often leads to people labeling me “closed-minded,” instead of giving me a chance to change my mind based on new arguments I might have been unaware of, or more accurate representations of the arguments I rejected as fallacious. Open-mindedness isn’t always going to lead a person to a particular answer. In a similar vein is the demand to “think for yourself.” Several people can think about an issue independently and come to different conclusions based on the evidence they find and their ability to interpret that evidence.
These tropes are easily adapted to condescension and demonization, rather than used for sincere argument. Someone who asserts that they are more open-minded for maintaining a certain position on the issue is essentially patting themselves on the back. Calling another person closed-minded for disagreeing seeks to explain that disagreement through a character flaw that may not have been demonstrated. Similarly, accusing someone of blindly favoring one position because they’re “sheeple” without good cause is similarly self-praising. Sometimes people agree on an issue because they independently arrived at the same conclusion, using similar lines of evidence.
There is no position on any issue that is inherently open-minded. It is not open-minded to agree. It is not closed-minded to disagree. Considering alternatives demonstrates open-mindedness, imagination, experience with the issue, or a combination of those traits.
Advice for my opponents: Never start with an accusation of closed-mindedness or an assertion of your open-mindedness. You’ll only make yourself look bad. Try to understand why an opponent came to a different conclusion and look for flaws in their reasoning or evidence. Quite often, people completely misunderstand what the skeptic’s actual position and reasoning are, so be willing to listen and ask questions before you begin a long comment about why you think they’re wrong. Volunteer the evidence and reasoning you used to reach your position. Expect people to question your rationale. Expect to be asked for evidence. That’s what an argument is: Finding out who has the more convincing case for their position by presenting evidence and tearing down bad logic. Open-mindedness requires a willingness to change your mind if you find you’ve made a mistake, and humility means knowing that everyone, including you, can make mistakes.