Keeping an Open Mind

I know some people who believe some pretty ridiculous things.  I know people who buy into astrology and tarot cards.  I know people who insist the Earth is only 6,000 years old.  I’m friends with someone who believes the Moon Landing was a hoax, and recently I had a conversation with a 9/11 truther. That conversation got uncomfortable real fast.

The thing is, whenever these people find out I’m a huge science enthusiast, they always end up throwing science back in my face. It’s a basic principle of science, isn’t it?  You have to keep an open mind, don’t you?  Scientific theories have been disproven before, and scientists should be prepared to admit when they’re wrong.

Whenever I get the “keep an open mind” lecture, I respond with a quote that’s often attributed to Carl Sagan: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

Because in science, the consensus opinion does change.  Old theories do make way for new ones (though it’s rare for a well established theory to be overturned in its entirety). It does pay to keep an open mind, but that doesn’t mean switching off your critical thinking skills.  And when a hypothesis doesn’t stand up to questioning and scrutiny, when it doesn’t agree with experimental or observational evidence, it’s probably not because my mind isn’t open enough; it’s probably because your hypothesis is wrong.

Just my two cents for today.

20 thoughts on “Keeping an Open Mind

  1. I think that scientific logic can be applied to so many things. As soon as anyone hears that I write, they espound their words upon me while try not to let my brains leak out.

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  2. I read somewhere that superstitions form when an event is random or out of a person’s control, but also very important to them. They seek a pattern or a cause/effect to provide some control, and find one no matter what!

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    1. I’ve heard things about that as well. It makes sense. We wouldn’t have made it far as a species if we didn’t find patterns in nature and recognize cause and effect relationships. But we also tend to find patterns that aren’t really there, so a healthy dose of skepticism is important too.

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      1. That may be why it’s so hard to follow a proper scientific method – the first rule is not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool! Science is not intuitive for us humans. We seek the tiger in the pattern of shadows in the grass. Even if you can be rigorous in one field, you fall back to intuition in others. It’s too hardto keep a grip all the time

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  3. There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” -Isaac Asimov, scientist and writer (2 Jan 1920-1992)

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    1. The U.S. once had a political party called the Know-Nothing Party. People aren’t always that overt about it, but yeah… anti-intellectualism is a big part of American culture. I don’t expect that to change, though I do think it needs to be resisted as much as possible.


  4. I had a couple of conversations late last week along these lines. I think it’s worth attempting to explain what science is actually about, but there’s a short limit on how productive a back and forth will be with people like that.

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  5. Some things we believe came from our youth. Some things we believe came from a favorite parent, aunt, or someone who we deemed important in our lives. Some things we believe were born in fear, perhaps unexplained, but the unwillingness to question has an emotional attachment. Say someone fear aliens may come an take them away. There’s no basis in fact. We could “imagine” aliens coming to get us, following comics an television shows, but what set the idea inside is an emotional reaction. Then it’s stuck. Can’t explain. Can’t stop worrying. So, someone asks me, “Do you believe there is life on other planets?” “I don’t know. I’ve never seen such and television is of no hope. I choose to answer I don’t know. And I’m not going to wonder about it unless it occurs to me it’s something to consider. At this time, I don’t care.” Everyday life has it’s own issues, and those who live in the present have responsibilities.

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    1. I get that. I’ve known people who got very emotional when their beliefs were questioned or challenged. I know I’ve gotten very emotional when that happens. But I think it’s hard to grow as a person if you’re unwilling to question your own beliefs and opinions.

      And sometimes, if you believe something that’s truly out of step with reality, that can start to make a mess of your daily life. At least that’s been my experience, both with certain belief systems I used to subscribe to and the belief systems of certain people I’ve known in my life.

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      1. See if you agree with this: I think some of how react we’ve been culturated to react that way. We see those around us getting frustrated, so we learn that behavior. Rather, what would happen if we didn’t react, could listen and hear disagreements, but go on?

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      2. So you’re saying we’re socially conditioned to react a certain way when our beliefs are challenged? I guess a lot of human behavior is a result of social conditioning, but for this… I’m not so sure.

        I remember hearing about some psychological research on this. Supposedly having your beliefs challenged triggers a fight or flight response in the brain, meaning that on some primal level you feel like you’re in danger. Maybe social conditioning contributes to that feeling of danger, but I’m not sure if that’s the whole story.

        Are there societies out there, either current or historical, where people were more passive when their beliefs were challenged? If so, I’d be more willing to accept this idea.

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      3. It’s something I’ve become more aware with time. As I’ve lived and visited many places, I’ve noticed certain behaviors and ways of reaction common. When in New York, do as New Yorkers do, and so forth. Even in work, when changing jobs, there’s a certain way of talking and agreeing which goes with fitting in. Those who don’t seem not to last as long. It’s a conditioning. We still have our own beliefs and understanding, but some is altered along the way. Realizing this is a beginning. Have you noticed drivers behave differently whether your in the country or city, or a busy city?

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      4. Well sure, I know what you mean. A lot of our behavior is a result of social conditioning, and that conditioning can be changed. Even deeply held beliefs can be changed, given time. I guess what I’m saying is that we tend to cling to whatever belief system we happen to have, and most people don’t like having the beliefs we cling to challenged.

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      5. One other thought, and I’ve done this. Thinking too much. Nothing wrong with observing, listening, and understanding, but we also have to have our “fun” side. Sometimes understanding doesn’t come all at once. Sometimes years later.

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      6. You’re welcome. I hope you don’t think too hard. It’s really easy, but I understand the need for answers in this society where the rules seem to change daily sometimes. I think it’s important, over time, to know what you believe without forcing it. I’ll say this. Honesty, integrity (standing behind your words and promises), and responsibility.

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