Open Up Your Mind and Let Your Brain Shut Off

05/29/2013 07:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2013
  • Sharon Hill Researcher, scientific consultant, Editor of

People tell me I should be more open-minded.

There is a clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: "Keep an open mind -- but not so open that your brain falls out".

This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It's plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It's well worth remembering as a rule of thumb.

Because I peruse paranormal-themed sites and various "water-cooler" forums on the web, I frequently see ideas thrown out there that would qualify as amazing and paradigm-shifting. So, what do I think about this latest crazy thing, people ask?

Here's a recent example. With all the recent speculation about "alien" remains, someone on Facebook mentioned Lloyd Pye who contends (for almost 15 years now) that a curiously-shaped skull he has is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the "star child" skull, Pye promotes the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings.

The plausibility of this idea is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty story. To accept it, we'd have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be stupid. Thus, to consider such an idea takes me about a minute before I realize that would be unreasonable. It's an imaginative idea, just like mermaids and remote viewing and time travelers. But in order to accept it, I'd have to discard too much (e.g., my brain and society's accumulated knowledge). The evidence clearly suggests another more down-to-earth explanation. Since the skull DNA tested as human, and we know that certain genetic conditions can cause the enlargement of the skull in just this way, I'm going to accept the obvious and not some far-fetched story just for kicks.

Calling skeptics closed-minded because we discard wacky ideas is a common ploy. It's often used as a personal insult because the skeptic has rejected a baseless idea that the promoters fancy. When you don't have evidence to support your idea, observe that the proponent resorts to derogatory tactics.

It's not about actually being open-minded towards new ideas. Instead, the proponent is accusing the skeptic of being stubborn, undemocratic and unfair. They see it as the skeptical person, being overly rational, ignoring a possibly worthwhile option to be considered. But all ideas are not equal. Not all ideas are worthy of consideration.

Let's take another example: energy healing. I should be open-minded, reiki practitioners say, and try these forms of energy medicine where healing energy gets channeled or manipulated for better health. If someone offers these treatments to me and I just say "OK! Sounds good!" (and hand over my money) is that actually being open-minded? No. It's swallowing what I'm being fed without a thought. The same would apply to homeopathy -- another prescientific idea about healing. I should try it myself, then I would see.

I pause for half a thought... if these ancient treatments are so good, why did we have to invent modern medical treatments (through science) that allow us to live substantially longer and better quality lives? The evidence that modern treatments are effective (or ineffective) have been demonstrated through accumulated evidence. The evidence for energy healing and homeopathy show that they don't work on their own. The basis for the treatments are not equal. So, I'm not going to "open my mind" to reject something that works and replace it with something that clearly does not work. I prefer to keep my brain intact.

When "open your mind" translates to "shut off your thinking," I'll pass. That's a recipe for disaster in today's world where we are awash in misinformation and unreliable claims.

I can tell you exactly why I do not think these poor ideas are any good. I can also give a description of what it would take for me to subscribe to them. Evidence. Show me evidence for this alternative that is greater than the accumulated evidence for the other interpretation and I may be swayed. There is the crux of genuine skeptical thinking -- I consider the option that my conclusion may be wrong. I very well might change my mind depending upon new evidence or a better explanation that comes along.

What will it take for the homeopath to give up his field? What evidence can be provided that will convince you that the explanation for the collapse of the WTC towers was actually the result of the accepted narrative established by investigative commission? What would make you stop believing in God and accept that nature is the explanation for earth and life?

Lloyd Pye didn't stop promoting his star child skull after the DNA tests came back human. Probably nothing will make believers change their minds. Investment in these ideas is not based on scientific evidence; it's based on faith or commitment to a worldview for various, personally important reasons.

If you refuse to admit you might be wrong -- rejecting the evidence and the plausible alternatives in order to hold on to a cherished belief -- and nothing can convince you otherwise... then who's the closed-minded one?