Asking “why” opens your mind

Posted in Society at 14:42 by RjZ

Oh, all right, I am a skeptic. That can be a challenge, living in Boulder, Colorado. It seems that, in spite of the large proportion of scientists and engineers living and working here, Boulder’s famous quirkiness attracts all kinds of ideas and beliefs. That’s one of the great things about it! The problem arises when I doubt ghosts or Reiki treatments or the Atkins diet. “You’re so closed-minded!” “You scientific types are all the same; if it’s not already in one of your books, it can’t be true.” “You don’t believe anything that science doesn’t accept; it’s like a religion to you… That’s just as bad, you know…”

I am a skeptic, but that doesn’t make me close-minded at all. And it doesn’t make me afraid of new ideas. Scientists are not quick to accept any new concept, but it would be completely false to characterize them as unwilling to accept new ideas; in fact, they revel in them. (It would also be false to say that all scientists are the same, but bear with me.)

In our last few years of college, a few of my fellow students and I were fretting what we would do if we were to pursue a Ph.D. In order to get a doctorate, the physics student must discover something new and novel. We were all facing the fact that the only way we were going to be able to do this would be to get so impossibly deep and esoteric about some tiny corner of physics that, while we’d discover something novel all right, no one, not even we, would care. Then along came cold fusion!

Woo-hoo! This turned everything upside-down! They’d be handing out doctorates left and right, now! We’d all be able to study something new and exciting and get a Ph.D. for free, practically. We’d study something that really would change the world! I imagine that, all over the nation and world, students and scientists were thrilled that the very foundations of what they thought they knew were being shaken! We weren’t close-minded about something new, we were thrilled to embrace it! And so we began looking at papers and trying to test it, looking for places where we’d be able to do some work, get Ph.D.s, and have as good a time as a physicist is likely to have. (We’d have to go make friends with the chemistry department, too, but there are worse things…) Quickly our group and many around the world started to discover problems with the claims of Fleischman and Pons. Damn. Bad scientist! No biscuit for you!

It didn’t work out, and I never did get that doctorate, but I did learn something from the experience. Good scientists and good skeptics are far from close-minded. Their interest in these subjects stems from wanting to learn and explore more and more. I’ve always been this way. As a kid, I took things apart to see how they worked. Mechanical things, electrical things… I wasn’t satisfied just using them. (Maybe all the electrical shocks explain why I am so intense now.) I am almost never satisfied with “That’s just the way it is.” I never really grew out of that age where kids ask “Why?” to nearly everything. I think that is what attracted me to study physics, and what attracts so many to study similar subjects and later become scientists and skeptics.

Those folks who complain to me when I roll my eyes at their claims that dowsing is possible and remote viewing really works think that we skeptics simply deny these claims out of hand. The tiresome reality is I couldn’t do that if I wanted to! It’s just not in my nature not to ask if these things are possible. Indeed, I am amazed at how much time is wasted by me and others researching these claims, probably because we feel compelled to. Come up with some new crazy claim, and off we go again, checking to see if it’s valid, just in case! What the proponents of psychic surgery and UFO abductions think is that, just because they haven’t explored the likelihood of these assertions, skeptics haven’t, and that we’re just close-minded when we doubt them.

1. close-minded
– not ready to receive new ideas
narrow-minded, narrow – lacking tolerance or flexibility or breadth of view; “a brilliant but narrow-minded judge”; “narrow opinions”

Honestly, I don’t see the difference between lacking tolerance for the view that wood nymphs do exist and lacking tolerance for the view that they don’t. They’re both close-minded views, aren’t they? Believe whatever you wish. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I just wish those frowning anti-skeptics would let me do the same!


  1. Rachel Robson said,

    March 1, 2006 at 20:09

    You write: “We were all facing the fact that the only way we were going to be able to do this would be to get so impossibly deep and esoteric about some tiny corner of physics that while we’d discover something novel alright, no one, not even we, would care.”

    Alas, so true. And this is the reason why so many grad students (present virtual company included) so passionately hate their projects by the time they’re writing their dissertations.

    And if you ever want to hear some nutty conspiracy theory B.S. and then get criticized for being “narrow-minded” for calling it nutty conspiracy theory B.S., try teaching undergraduate biology. It’s insane how many freshmen believe that they “have a right to [their] own opinion[s]” on whether the earth is 6000 years old, or whether the MMR vaccine is a government plot to give kids autism. You have a right to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. There is a difference.

  2. Traveling Hypothesis » Understanding webstats: how’d this happen? said,

    April 3, 2006 at 16:17

    [...] The Reiki Page was shown in my webstats as a “requestor” for my post “Asking why opens your mind.” Can anyone who understands webstats explain this? How did that page, which is rather out there and barely worth debunking, because it says so little concrete in the first place, has much to do with my post. I get the skeptic connection, but I wonder which person was reading both pages? Was it the skeptic or the believer who was interested in both views? (That’s a good thing either way!) [...]

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