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  • It seems to be an extremely common experience

  • among people who don't believe in certain non-scientific concepts

  • to be told by others who do to be more open-minded.

  • This advice is typically based on highly flawed thinking

  • including an inaccurate understanding of what open-mindedness is.

  • In fact, being open-minded simply means being willing

  • to consider new ideas.

  • Science promotes and thrives on open-mindedness

  • because the advancement of our understanding about the reality in which we exist

  • depends upon our willingness to consider new ideas.

  • Indeed, scientific discovery

  • often requires entirely new ways of thinking.

  • However, not only does believing in certain non-scientific concepts

  • not automatically make you open-minded

  • it can often lead you to be the complete opposite.

  • A neighbour of mine once noticed a moving lampshade

  • in my front room and said it was a ghost.

  • When I told him it wasn't

  • he said, "You've got the evidence in front of you"

  • and said I was stubbornly closed-minded and had no curiosity.

  • When he'd finished his little outburst

  • I reached down and switched off the small fan heater underneath the lamp

  • to stop its currents of warm air from moving the shade.

  • It was actually my neighbour who'd had no curiosity in this situation.

  • He'd leapt to an immediate conclusion and dismissed all alternatives.

  • When you label an event 'supernatural'

  • just because it has no explanation that's obvious to you

  • you'll inevitably misinterpret evidence

  • and make invalid causal connections.

  • You'll eliminate whole realms of alternative explanation

  • before it's even clear which explanations might be appropriate

  • and that's the very definition of closed-mindedness.

  • People who tell others to be more open-minded

  • about so-called 'supernatural' concepts

  • often accompany this advice with one or more personal anecdotes

  • they claim can't be explained.

  • This is another flawed approach.

  • Even if your experience can't be explained

  • that in no way strengthens the case for any supernatural concept.

  • All it shows is that your experience can't be explained.

  • Trying to suggest that a lack of explanation is evidence

  • that supernatural powers are at work

  • is actually a contradiction.

  • In effect what it's saying is:

  • "I can't explain something, therefore I can explain it."

  • The unexplained is just that: unexplained.

  • Furthermore, although it's quite reasonable

  • to describe an experience and say you can't explain it

  • telling your audience they can't explain it is senseless

  • because your audience has no independent access to the events you describe

  • nor any way of investigating which details you may have missed or edited out.

  • If my neighbour had told other people they had to accept his ghost story

  • because they couldn't explain the moving lampshade

  • how would anyone be able to agree or disagree without knowing anything about the fan heater?

  • Expecting others just to take your word

  • that you've had a brush with the supernatural is simply unrealistic.

  • Even if I saw someone disappear right in front of me

  • I'd recognize how unreasonable it would be

  • to expect a complete stranger just to believe me without corroborating evidence

  • however personally frustrating that might feel.

  • Someone once tried to suggest to me

  • that scientists who ask for evidence

  • before accepting claims are as closed-minded as witch doctors.

  • The idea that requiring evidence makes you closed-minded is a fallacy.

  • A willingness to consider new ideas doesn't commit you to accepting them unconditionally.

  • If someone you love was lying injured and unconscious

  • and a complete stranger told you she had some magic powder

  • that would cause instant healing if poured into the wounds

  • would you just accept this stranger's claim?

  • Would it be closed-minded

  • not to let her pour a substance you know nothing about

  • into the open wounds of someone you love?

  • We're all sceptical about SOME things.

  • If Alfie isn't sceptical about the existence of ghosts and Beth is

  • it may be that Beth's experience

  • of other people's flawed evidence and logic

  • has given her strong reasons to be sceptical.

  • Now, if Alfie develops a valid operational definition

  • for what ghosts are supposed to be

  • and produces valid evidence

  • Beth might one day re-evaluate and accept their existence.

  • But it's important to remember

  • that unless Beth says something like, "Ghosts do not exist"

  • she's made no factual claim requiring justification

  • or indicating a closed mind.

  • I've watched a number of people work themselves up into a froth

  • about me having a closed mind on some paranormal issue

  • only to realize, when they start listening carefully

  • that I don't actually hold the views they've rashly attributed to me.

  • For example, when I say "I don't believe X"

  • I've not said, "It can't be true".

  • All I've said is, "I've not yet been presented with persuasive evidence for X".

  • Now, if someone describes an entity to me that's logically impossible

  • then in those specific cases, I might well say, "X cannot be true"

  • and I'll back up my statement.

  • But it's a classic debating trick to exaggerate

  • and therefore misrepresent another person's position

  • and when you treat someone's statement of non-belief

  • as an assertion that something 'cannot be true'

  • this is exactly what you're doing.

  • If you have difficulty accepting that other people don't share your beliefs

  • then that's unfortunate for you, because there's a lot of difference out there.

  • But if knowing that someone's beliefs differ from yours

  • causes you to lose a sense of perspective when talking to them

  • so that as soon as you hear certain trigger words

  • you start grafting inaccurately assumed attitudes onto them

  • you're no longer communicating.

  • You're merely rehearsing your own prejudices.

  • And that's truly closed-minded

  • In the course of my life

  • I've been told to be more open-minded by people

  • who believe in a god but not reincarnation

  • and people who believe in reincarnation but not gods.

  • Both groups seem quite happy

  • for others to express scepticism when they do

  • but not when they don't.

  • For these people, open-mindedness seems to mean 'agreeing with me'.

  • Then there are others whose idea of open-mindedness

  • is accepting the unreliable testimony

  • of any random person with a spooky story.

  • These people are often also fiercely sceptical of science

  • certain comments can quickly reveal their poor understanding of what it is

  • and this results in two supreme ironies:

  • One is that they're guilty of exactly the same sceptical attitude

  • they criticise in other people.

  • The other is that what they're reserving their scepticism for

  • is a domain that emphasizes scepticism.

  • In other words, they're sceptical of scepticism.

  • Again, open-mindedness isn't about believing things

  • so believing in more paranormal things than the next person doesn't make you more open-minded

  • though it can be a sign that you're more gullible

  • and despite what some people would have us believe

  • it's not a virtue to be easily persuaded by people.

  • Those who say it is, and that requiring evidence is closed-minded

  • clearly wouldn't survive one day in a court of law.

  • After all, what does the person with that attitude do in any situation

  • where there's more than one version of events?

  • And is it closed-minded

  • to require evidence of someone's guilt

  • before locking them up?

  • These attitudes don't stand up for a moment in the real world.

  • It would be absurd to suggest we need evidence for everything we're told.

  • When a friend tells us about their day at work

  • we don't ask them to back up what they say

  • And we don't stop enjoying films and stories

  • just because they contain incredible events.

  • But when someone's trying to persuade us to accept something as fact

  • or take some sort of risk

  • demanding valid evidence helps us distinguish true claims from false ones,

  • and that's an invaluable ability in a world where believing false claims

  • can seriously damage your wealth and your health.

  • Critical thinking is not incompatible with open-mindedness.

  • On the contrary, it empowers an open mind.

  • Even though demanding valid evidence may lead you occasionally

  • to reject ideas that are poorly supported but nonetheless valid

  • if and when evidence accumulates for those ideas

  • an open mind will allow you to re-consider them

  • and possibly dislodge false ideas

  • you'd previously accepted as true.

  • This approach is promoted by science.

  • By contrast, when you have an open mind

  • but demand little or no evidence before accepting things

  • you leave your understanding of reality much more up to chance.

  • Even worse, if you've accepted false ideas uncritically

  • and close your mind to anything that contradicts them

  • you won't recognise true ideas even when the evidence is overwhelming

  • and you'll sabotage your own capacity for learning.

  • If you believe in pseudoscientific and supernatural concepts

  • that's your privilege.

  • If you want to put forward your personal reasons for believing in them

  • understanding that whoever's listening