Friday, May 19, 2006

Doggerel #4: "Closed-minded"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

One of the most common complaints newage people like to say about us skeptics is that we're "closed-minded" when we don't instantly accept what they say as absolute truth. I believe this is mostly an instance of what psychologists call "projection," but I'll get into that, later.

There are probably plenty of blind nay-sayers out there, but I never see them in these sorts of arguments, unless the topic is the Holocaust or evolution, in which case, it's us skeptics who usually argue against them as advocates, citing evidence, which they typically hand-wave away, rather than addressing, like a skeptic would.

"Skeptic," as we use it, doesn't refer to simply naysaying. Skeptics are people who take a very sensible approach to their conclusions about whether something exists or not: For extraordinary claims, we tenatively assume "not" until evidence is provided. This is what's known as the "null hypothesis" in science. The goal of an experiment is to see if the null hypothesis can be falsified: Shown to be untrue.

Take, for instance, Sylvia Browne's "psychic" powers or Rochelle Gordon's astrology: I can't prove they're bunk. Doing so would involve me analyzing each and every prediction and showing all the failures, as well as proving the alternate explanations for the apparent successes.

But I don't have to do that. The burden of proof is on the person making the positive claim. If someone claims that he can fly like Superman, it's not my job to prove otherwise. Why would claims of psychic powers be any different?

As a skeptic, I'm always willing to discuss what it would take to prove me wrong. I'm a fallible creature, and recognize that I'm fully capable of being mistaken. Sometimes I ask the believers what it'd take to prove them wrong. I seldom get an answer, suggesting that they never contemplate the possibility. Other times, they overtly tell me that it's impossible to convince them otherwise. One would think the latter sort would have their pictures inserted into the dictionary definition of "closed-minded." I have a great deal of confidence in things like evolution, but I never get to that level of certainty.

What I have about psychic powers and the like is what I like to call "negative confidence." I've seen woos perform all sorts of acrobatics to avoid being tested properly (such as refusing to allow measures to prevent cheating, information leakage, etcetera). I've seen them change the subject to things like my alleged emotional state and employment. Despite centuries of effort and research money, no convincing evidence shows up in discussion threads. I could go on, but the picture of these sorts of woo is not looking pretty.

But, unlike a woo's closed-minded certainty, my negative confidence can be overcome by solid evidence. I rather enjoy it when something unexpected happens.

One psychological red herring (and likely another act of projection) that woos like to claim is that we skeptics don't want our worldview overturned or some such drivel: If that were true, there'd be no scientists. Also, if we didn't want our worldview overturned, we wouldn't be willing to test these people and pay them large sums of money if they succeed.

It'd be supremely nifty if I could levitate by focusing my chakra, place an order at KFC with my mind before I arrive, or summon my remote control by invoking the spirits. Until the woos get off their collective [duff] and prove all that is possible, I'll settle with the much more reliable results of science: High-power magnets lifting up frogs and trains, online ordering, and that thing that makes your remote beep if you clap your hands.


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bigdumbchimp said...

It appears I've angered the master of all angles.

He decided to visit my lowly blog.

Thomas Winwood said...

Anybody measured the angle between those two lines hanging the sign to the wall?

optimistic said...

Yeah, I was posting counter arguments on a blog (BedlamBlog)that was somewhat left of center, counter arguments about global warming and some economic issues. David Schneider, the owner, basically asked me to leave saying my comments were a nuisance -- so I have. While he wouldn't censor my comments (there was no objective reason to do that, e.g., hate speech, personal attacks), he made it clear he would not enage in any sort of debate and resented the challenges to his position. That's a shame: research shows the best blogs are those that are not only tolerant of other views but are willing to engage them are the ones that usually thrive and grow (see Demopoulos's "What No One Ever Tells You About Blogging"). Closed-minded blogs and websites usually just whither and die.