July 31, 2013

A Skeptic is Open Minded

Skeptic (U.S. magazine)
Skeptic (U.S. magazine) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post is another in the ongoing series on skepticism. You can find the introductory post here and the previous post in the series, A Skeptic Embraces the Inevitability of Being Wrong, here.

A Skeptic is Open Minded

Skeptics are often depicted as being close minded, incredibly stubborn, and even somewhat hostile to novel information. This may be accurate for some individual skeptics (e.g., those who are extremely cynical), but it does not appear to be accurate for most. In fact, skeptics tend to be open minded.

The depiction of skeptics as close minded is based, at least in part, on a lack of understanding of skepticism among the general public. Some people seem to think that there is nothing to skepticism besides shooting down others' claims. It is also likely that this negative picture of skeptics is fueled by those who benefit from a lack of skepticism. Unfortunately, there are plenty who do in fact benefit from human gullibility, bias, and the lack of critical thinking.

Why does the depiction of skeptics as close minded fall apart on examination? A close minded approach would be difficult to reconcile with skepticism because it would mean that the skeptic was dooming himself or herself to incomplete data. The skeptic seeks evidence for the purpose of critically evaluating claims. By adopting a close minded stance, the skeptic would be depriving himself or herself of evidence.

The skeptic appreciates the importance of remaining open to new experiences, examining new data, and being willing to give consideration to new claims. The skeptic wants to see the full picture before making decisions, and this means that new material must be considered. Skepticism need not stifle creativity, exploration, and discovery. Being skeptical does not mean that one must miss out on the latest and greatest; it simply means that the skeptic will likely look before leaping.

While the skeptic is inclined to be suspicious of unexpected findings or claims that seem "too good to be true," he or she does not immediately discount the improbable as impossible. Instead, he or she poses hypotheses, asks questions, and seeks relevant information for the purpose of evaluating these claims.

What does this look like in practice? Consider the sort of questions a skeptic might ask when presented with a new or unfamiliar claim. Some of the most common include:
  • What is the source of the claim?
  • Is the source credible?
  • How can we evaluate the claim?
  • Do we have any evidence that might support the claim? Do we have any evidence that might not support it?
  • What is the probability that the claim is accurate or inaccurate?
A refusal to remain open to new experiences is not what skepticism is all about. The common refrain, "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts" is not the motto of the skeptic but of those who are not engaging in skepticism. When one recognizes that skepticism refers to an active process of critical inquiry, one should see that the skeptic must do far more than sit back and yell "prove it!" at anybody within earshot.

Many the technological innovations we rely on today probably seemed quite implausible when they were first being developed. Personally, I find the ability to charge batteries wirelessly as bordering on miraculous. I know it has been implemented successfully on a small scale, and I am sure more is coming. But I still have to remind myself that it is not mere fantasy. It makes sense to be skeptical of claims like this initially, but this sort of innovation requires open mindedness too.

For the next post in this series, see A Skeptic is Charitable.

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