Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Open Mind

The Open Mind – Is it a good thing?

Writing this was inspired by reading two articles in recent issues of the Nimbin Good Times - the “Conspiracy Theory #432” article by Brendan Hanley (November issue) and the “Chemtrails” article by the same author (September issue). Initially I took them as attempts at satire, but I have since heard people advocating an “open mind” about these claims because “some of it might actually be true”. I was tempted to write an article to refute or critically analyse these claims but I now think this is unnecessary and it is more interesting to focus instead on the concept of the The Open Mind.

To define what we talk about let us build a scale of open-mindedness. On the left end we will have zero open-mindedness aka the “closed mind”. Here we find the religious fundamentalists, the political and ideological dogmatists and the occasional scientists. This dogmatic scientist will mostly be found humanities since practitioners of the Natural Sciences know too well that no amount of wish thinking, lobbying, political or financial clout can suppress contradicting evidence forever.

At the right end of the scale we have the 100% open mind. This is perhaps slightly harder to define, but we imagine finding people here who believe in any absurdity presented to them without the slightest doubt or any sceptical analysis. Hopefully, there are no actual people living right at the extreme ends of this scale, but it still gives us a good idea of the scope we’re dealing with. If you like, you can assess yourself and find the spot on the scale where you fit in

Perhaps surprisingly, society has different attitudes towards these two extreme positions. Whereas people on the right side are charitably labelled na├»ve or gullible and their intellectual attitude is dismissed with a chuckle, the religious fundamentalists on the other hand enjoys the “respect for a person’s faith”. This dogmatic position actually manages to command some respect in society. This of course dangerously perpetuates the rather unhelpful mindset of “believing in something without evidence”. 

The two extreme positions do have one advantage and that is that their proponents don’t have to think a lot. As a closed minded person you already know everything. Once a person has chosen their particular believe system all the work is already done. No amount of evidence will ever unsettle their conviction or get them thinking. This is also true for the political dogmatist. Regardless of actual election results they just know their political ideology to be the best for the people. Similarly, the 100% open mind person just absorbs everything without any critical thought. Absolutely no effort involved. 

But of course this comes at a cost. The dogmatist will have to shut out increasing amounts of accepted knowledge or evidence that would threaten his position. They will not make efforts to understand emerging knowledge, so over time they become more ignorant. We can see this effect in some proponents of Intelligent Design Theory who keep raising objections that are easily refuted with only a basic understanding of the Theory of Evolution. Some Climate-Change deniers make the same mistake undermining whatever credibility their side had left. My guess is that these mental attitudes will eventually be left behind by society in the same way as alchemy has been replaced by chemistry, astrology by astronomy and medieval medical practices by modern medicine.

The 100% open minded person on the other hand will fall prey to people who are slightly cleverer than they are and hand over their money to sects, organized religion (quite an arbitrary distinction), faith healers and other quacks. There are real charlatans out there who consciously deceive the public for monetary gain like the Philippine faith healer using conjuring tricks to perform “surgical removal of sick tissue” from patients as well as the well-meaning persons who genuinely do believe that their methods work. 

What compels people into those extremes? The most common motivators are hope, wish thinking, intellectual laziness, refusal to mature mentally and lack of sceptical thinking ability. Also, people often accept ideas purely because they like them or they support their world-view. To get out of the corners of our scale we have to leave these motivators behind and replace them with a mindset that could be called “rational skepticism”. Applying this attitude is not easy as it requires some mental exertion and discipline.

When presented with a new idea you will sometimes find the pro-arguments of the more outlandish claims to be of the “deepity” kind. Statements that first may sound profound but are actually meaningless or trivial. Such as this spectacular example from spiritualist Deepak Chopra:
Consciousness is the driver of evolution. Every time you eat a chicken or banana it transforms into a human."
Null-statements like these or other scientifically unsubstantiated claims often borrowing terms like “quantum”, ”universe”, “energy”, “vibration” etc. – never prove anything. Unfortunately most “New Age” talk and justifications for alternative medical treatments consists to a large degree of such deepities. If you know what to look for you’ll see them almost everywhere.

We do have effective tools such as Occam’s Razor or considering the likelihood of alternative explanations. The latter one applied to astrology would for example work like this: Which is more likely, that an as yet unproven new form of interaction between planets and humans causes significant impact on an individual’s character or that the general and flattering content of astrological readings entice the subject to want it to be true?There is also the simple test of plausibility. Applied to homeopathy it might for example work like this: “ ‘Like cures like’ … does this seem even plausible? … what could the actual mechanism be? … are there any other examples in nature where the effect of a substance increases as it gets more diluted? ….how would a C50 solution work given that there is almost certainly not a single molecule of the active ingredient left once you get past C12? …is the alleged memory effect of water credible? …” and so on.

As an amusing aside with regards to dilutions, the actual number of molecules in a litre of water means that the cup of coffee you had this morning almost certainly contained a water molecule that passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell and that a sip of transmutated wine at mass actually does contain a molecule of Jesus blood.   

There is also the “vested interest” test. Why would the author want me to believe his claim? What is in it for them? Am I being manipulated into an action that benefits them more than me?

But why make the effort? One might say:
Isn’t Astrology for instance just a harmless entertainment?
Perhaps, but what if you are denied a job because the company astrologer has deemed you unsuitable? Or you’re sentenced in a court of law where the judge has read your horoscope in evidence (as has happened in the US)?

Why be critical about alternative medicine, or religion?
It is perhaps one thing for you to prefer sniffing incense to surgery when you’re diagnosed with bowl cancer and suffer the consequences, but children have died because their parents refused proven, conventional medicine in favour of praying (US again).

And what is wrong with a little superstition if it makes people feel better?
For one example, rhinos are now endangered because of the superstitious believe in the aphrodisiatic effect of their powdered horns.

There is always a price to pay for irrationality. There often is a victim.

Finally, let us come back to our original question: The Open Mind. Is it a good thing?
Well, I think we have to rephrase it now. What we really want to know is how open our mind should be? The answer of course depends on our purpose.

Do you want to live in the blissful ignorance of a stable, perhaps comforting, believe-system or in dogmatic denial of uncomfortable ideas coupled with minimum engagement of your prefrontal cortex? Then our mind should be rather closed. 

Do you want to embrace any exotic sounding idea because you find it entertaining or it serves your sense of self-importance, perhaps be taken for a ride by people who have something other than your best interest in mind? You can guess the answer.

If on the other hand you wish to form your opinions on observations and evidence, be an independent thinker who is difficult to manipulate and deceive, who values problem solving through reasoned argument over of falling back on dogmatic ideas, then you have chosen the hard way of committing a lot of time to thinking, critical reading, investigating evidence and drawing your own conclusions.
To get the balance just right. To becoming a rational sceptic.

As Carl Sagan once said:
Your mind should be open, but not so open that your brain falls out.

Further reading:
How We Know What Isn’t So                                  Thomas Gilovich
Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theories
Have Shaped Modern History                                  David Aranovich
The Blind Watchmaker                                             Richard Dawkins
Unweaving The Rainbow                                         Richard Dawkins
Flim-Flam                                                                 James Randi
Snake-Oil Science                                                     R. Barker Bausell
How Music Works                                                    John Powell
The Miracle Mongers                                               Harry Houdini
The Truth About Uri Geller                                      JamesRandi