As a skeptic, I am perfectly aware of one of the most common criticisms of skepticism: that it is close-minded. Skeptics are unwilling to accept new ideas; they are too quick to dismiss. They seem so sure of themselves in their scientific worldview.
In the interest of being open-minded to all possibilities, let us first consider this one: perhaps open-mindedness should not be a virtue at all. I, for one, am leery of all so-called "virtues", especially ones that are understood differently by different people. How can we unambiguously declare "open-mindedness" to be "good" without reference to any particular definition of "open-minded"? For example, if by "open-mindedness", we mean becoming the stereotypical reformed nerd in a stoner film, then it is a virtue I want no part of. However, if by "open-mindedness" we mean tolerance of other people's lifestyles, then I'm generally in favor of it.
When people criticize skepticism for not being "open-minded" enough, they can mean lots of different things. Sometimes it comes from woos who are bitter that we weren't persuaded by their favorite form of woo, not even a little. Sometimes it comes from people who simply think we're not close enough to being on the fence, that we are "dogmatic". Sometimes it comes from people who just think we are so darned disrespectful. There are a lot of disjoint ideas here, only really unified by the all-purpose epithet of "close-minded". A few brief and disjoint responses...
- Can't convince a skeptic? Try evidence.
- We're too quick to dismiss woo? Probably because the same pattern of mistakes is easily recognizable every time.
- Skeptics are dogmatic? Well sorry for having an opinion. Next time, I will close my mind to anything but the center of debate.
- Skeptics are disrespectful? Sometimes true, but it's nothing a few "yoursocloseminded!!!"s won't cure.
- Skeptics think only science can explain things? I have many reasons for thinking so, but maybe I will forget about them if I am open-minded enough.
- Skeptics will never convince anyone, so why do they even try? Perhaps it's because we don't project our own close-mindedness onto everyone around us.
- Skeptics never change their mind? Probably we only do it when you aren't looking.
My view is this: For every good idea out there, there are several bad ideas. To find a good idea is not a matter of picking up a large pile, but a matter of carefully sorting it all out and discarding the bad ideas. This process is highly nontrivial, error-prone, and almost hopelessly swamped by the shear number of ideas out there. We need to be able to tell the difference quickly and efficiently, even if that means being slightly on the dismissive side. To use a cliche, when we have solved all the mysteries of real phenomena, then we will worry about longshot paranormal theories. This way, I have a much greater chance of ever changing my mind.
And I have changed my mind many times, mostly in the lateral directions. Michael Shermer convinced me to care more about why people believe weird things. Bob Altemeyer convinced me of the importance of the authoritarian personality in today's politics. Plantinga convinced me that "sophisticated" apologetics really is junk after all. Sciam convinced me that the Many Worlds Interpretation is legitimate. BASS convinced me that organizations are worthwhile after all. My history professor convinced me that there is much more to religion than just belief. Greta Christina--well she convinced me of a whole lot of things. This is just to name a few examples that occurred in the last year (and a few of which I blogged about).
What more can I say? If this is close-mindedness, it has worked out quite well for me, hasn't it?