Claims about “closed” and “open” mindedness get tossed about with considerable enthusiasm, with the former being BAD and the latter being GOOD. Many of those tossing the terms about are persons who either object to, or have little or not capacity for, basic logical rigor or critical thinking. There are concepts involved that do merit rather more praise or blame than purely neutral indifference, but matters are a little more subtle than folks sometimes allow. This seems like a good time to touch on these subjects.
Closed mindedness, in its severest form, is straight-out dogmatism. Dogmatism is one of the seven categories Robert Altemeyer uses in characterizing authoritarian style thought processes in his book. Given that I’ve touched on some of Altemeyers ideas in these previous posts, it might seem more natural to include a discussion of dogmatism with that collection. However, for my discussion here it is more appropriate to pair the concepts of open and closed mindedness with one another (which Altemeyer does not particularly do), and the specific concept of closed mindedness I’ll be looking at here is rather more than just the extreme case of dogmatism. But dogmatism is certainly a case – an extreme one – of closed mindedness, and by the nature of its extremity it draws the lines of our topic in particularly sharp relief. So let us begin there.
A particularly telling exchange occurred between Bill Nye and Ken Ham during their recent debate in Ham’s creationism museum. Ham, arguing for creationism against Nye, who stood for established science, was asked, in essence, what, if anything, would cause him to change his mind? Ham’s answer, buried in a lot of padding and distraction, was basically, “nothing.” (The padding and distraction was a piling on of circular reasoning that amounted to, “I believe in the Truth of the Bible, therefore I believe in the Truth of the Bible. I can’t prove the Truth of the Bible. But if only you would believe in the Truth of the Bible, then you would believe in the Truth of the Bible, and therefore there would be no doubt as to the Truth of the Bible.” It hardly requires a subtle, logical mind to recognize such nonsense for the fatuous twaddle it obviously is.) When Ham handed the same question to Nye, Nye’s response was, “Evidence.” Nye expanded that to touch on some of the many places that evidence would have to interact with known scientific facts. But the difference between Ham, the dogmatist who will not change his mind on any account, and Nye who explicitly set out some of the many avenues of demonstration that could provide a compelling demonstration – were there, in fact, even a scintilla of evidence to support such a demonstration – is astonishing in its absoluteness.
(The entire debate can be viewed at YouTube, but I cannot in conscience recommend it. The problem is not just the inherent issues of debating with a dogmatist like Ham, though that is certainly a problem – why offer someone who essentially rejects every standard of logic, principles, evidence and facts the patina of legitimacy? No, to me the larger problem is the form of the “debate” itself. A debate is not a method of inquiry, it is a kind of performance art – and nothing else. It is a “dancing with the stars” show where popularity, presence, and audience appeal (are you not entertained?) determines the “winner,” not rational inquiry. That debates are organized to produce “winners” and “losers,” rather than the determination of truth or falsity, is entirely sufficient to demonstrate the real “qualities” and intentions behind debates.)
There are obviously more dramatic forms of dogmatism than Ken Ham’s (Ham, at least, made a token effort to clothe his cognitively vacuous opinions under a sham of modesty that might be mistaken for self-reflective reasonableness. There are many other who clearly would not dream of moderating the presentation of their position, regardless of the audience or situation. A quick glance at talk radio will demonstrate this latter fact.) But what about less extreme forms of closed mindedness?
Examples here are people who reject certain types of scientific evidence or economic proposals on purely ideological grounds, while disregarding the evidence (which can oftentimes be quite substantial.) This pattern is certainly akin to Ken Ham’s overt dogmatism, but it need not be driven by such bald-facedly circular forms of argument (one hesitates to call it “reasoning” in Ham’s case.) We see it, for example, in anti-vaccine (also, “anti-vax” or “anti-vaxxer”) people, for whom no amount of exposure to scientific facts that do not admit of even the abstract possibility of REASONED dispute will persuade them off of their ideological fetish. It is worth noting that the claim that anti-vaccine attitudes are a peculiar phenomena of the political left, while widely reported in the media, is also entirely lacking in substantiation when it comes to actual facts. (The article from Mother Jones contains a nice summary and multiple links.)
A similar example comes from the “anti-GMO” crowd. “GMO” means, in this instance, “Genetically Modified Organism,” and refers almost exclusively to genetically altered food crops. Like the anti-vaccine crowd, there is an evident political orientation for this movement toward the left side of the political spectrum. Unlike the case with the anti-vaccine people, there is no substantive evidence demonstrating otherwise. (In other words, anti-GMO people appear to be politically liberal, but we’ve no actual evidence to support that assumption, and we’ve seen examples already where that assumption was demonstrably false.) Regardless of possible political leanings of the anti-GMO movement, a simple search on “anti-GMO lies” will pull up a significant number of citations, many of which will track back to genuine scientific studies, that completely debunk the myths and falsehoods spread by this movement. The few “studies” the anti-GMO people do appeal to are either fatuous twaddle that have been forcibly retracted by their journals of publication by an overwhelming volume of real evidence, misrepresentations of studies that have (at least) some scintilla of legitimacy, or outright fabrications.
A personal confession: it is this latter that finally knocked me off the anti-GMO bandwagon; and nothing in this world, either real or imagined, infuriates me more than discovering that I have been duped by a calculated lie. As a further confession, I suspect (but cannot prove – which is to say, it is my opinion …) that much of the antipathy toward GMO crops is born of an extreme distaste for large, profit-driven corporations like Monsanto. I confess to sharing such an antipathy. But just because an organization is large, corporate, and profit-driven, it does not therefore follow that what they produce is universally evil. This is an example of the genetic fallacy: just because X came from M (and we REALLY don’t like M) this does not prove that X is bad; X must be evaluated on its own merits. And the real science about GMO crops (as opposed to histrionic drivel and fatuous nonsense) strongly indicate significant benefits.
It is hypocrisy of the worst sort to denounce, say, conservatives for denying the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, yet embrace anti-GMO nonsense in complete defiance of equally compelling scientific evidence. Since I do not especially like hypocrites or hypocrisy, I grudgingly changed my tune on GMO crops. Barring real, peer-reviewed, scientific evidence to the contrary (and the anti-GMO people have had decades to come up with even a little) I am incapable of taking the anti-GMO twaddle seriously. This is not an example of me being closed minded; rather it demonstrates the closed mindedness of the people in the anti-GMO movement in their steadfast refusal to permit logic and evidence to inform their conclusions. Closed mindedness is inevitably about cherry picking evidence, and willful disregard of countervailing facts.
But there is one last point to add here: if closed mindedness is a vice, open mindedness (by itself) is NOT automatically a virtue. (CLIFF HANGER!!!)