What Does Open- Mindedness Mean?

The other day I was handing out flyers outside the Marriot Hotel in downtown Vancouver encouraging people to think critically about the event they were about to see. That event was a group reading by self-proclaimed psychic and medium John Edward.

The event was a success, we handed out a number of flyers, engaged a few people in conversation, had a few neat encounters, got banished to the sidewalk by hotel staff… for more information check out Radio Freethinker episode 76.

The general nature of the flyer we were handing out was structured around how anyone can be a psychic medium like Edward. It laid out step by step how Edward operates and makes it appear that he’s communicating with spirits.

This is what I explained to one man who came up to me and asked what I was handing out. I told him that this flyer can show how anyone could do what Edward does, I specifically mentioned how “you or I could use this…” To which the fellow I was talking to said no, he didn’t think I could. Why? I wasn’t open minded enough.
Which got me thinking, what does being open minded mean?

One of my favourite quotes about being open minded comes from a Tim Minchin song (which he apparently lifted from some book he read) “If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out”.

My definition of being open minded is being willing to consider new ideas and suggestions. A close minded person does not consider new ideas and is not willing to entertain new ideas. They make up their mind on something based on a preconceived notion of the world.

Being closed minded is probably the most common criticism I get as a skeptic. People assume that because I don’t believe in ghosts or mediums, it’s because I’ve made up my mind that such things could never exist and no amount of evidence could convince me otherwise. Unfortunately that’s such a misunderstanding of my position, which comes up so often, that I’ve almost lost all will to keep correcting people.

As a skeptic, I’m convinced by evidence. I proportion my belief to something based on the amount of evidence presented. It’s not that I’m intrinsically opposed to belief in mediums, however because more rational explanations exist to explain them in comparison to suggesting they have magical powers; I will come down on the side that presents the most consistent evidence and doesn’t require further assumptions/conditions about the universe (like magic) that will require further explanation.

There’s a really good video explaining open mindedness and critical thinking on YouTube, created by a fellow named QualiaSoup.

How do you describe what it means to be open minded? When someone accuses you of being closed minded, how do you respond?

10 Responses to “What Does Open- Mindedness Mean?”

  1. Nathan says:

    Great video!

  2. Rick Neil says:

    My experience has shown me that people believe what they want to believe. Their desire to believe is what they call “open-mindedness”. Demanding proof would only destroy their fantasy, because, no matter the result, they’d have to do some tedious critical thinking exercises. The possibility that they could be mistaken is the worm in their shiny apple. It’s much easier by far to call a skeptic “closed minded” than to entertain the premise that logical questions exist, let alone try to answer the simplest of them. Doesn’t this show that they’re not truly “open”, whereas the questioner’s mind is, by definition, definitely not “closed”.

  3. Big Ugly Jim says:

    I wrote a commentary about this a while back, sharing your frustration.

    http://www.meddlingkids.org/2010/01/closed-minded/

    I agree, it gets frustrating parrying that particular blow. Sigh.

  4. Ethan Clow says:

    I’ve suspected for a long time that there’s more to it than rejecting critical thinking. People who claim to be open minded (and assume skeptics are closed minded) are operating on an ignorance of skeptical scrutiny actually means. Many people are taught that to question something or someone is an inherent sign of disrespect. And who wants to be disrespectful? I think this leads to what could be characterized as polite credulity. No one wants to risk being rude or appear ignorant of other forms of belief and learning, especially if its a cultural myth.

    People want to assume that its rude to suggest that science and logic are universal. Cultures that value superstition and myth and divine revelation are equally valid to these people and to criticize them could be considered racists.

    How to deal with this is a difficult question to answer.

  5. John H says:

    I don’t get is that people get kind of irate when missionaries of any sort show up uninvited to tell you why you should believe as they do for whatever reason (“stop deluding yourself, your soul/karma/religion is in jeopardy” and… “stop deluding yourselves, your reason/money/society is in jeopardy” are exactly the same when you get down to it.) but the writers of these articles can’t seem to fathom why people might think they are close minded. Open mindedness is also an acceptance of another point of view, while actively seeking to disprove another point of view uninvited or for the purposes of demonstrating the supposed superiority of one’s own outlook is not. A dialogue can only be opened with people who want to have one, otherwise it is not a dialogue, it is an attempt at conversion. A mission to save others from their delusions for one’s own instead.

    To sum up, our personal beliefs are ours and valid, and while we may not agree with other points of view we should treat them with the same respect we expect for ourselves. Anything else is hypocritical.

  6. Rick Neil says:

    They don’t want to be disrespectful, or think critics are? It’s only a matter of degree between calling a skeptic “closed minded” and calling the beauty who spurns one’s advances a “lesbian”.
    Asking questions is just due diligence, whether you’re buying a used car, getting a second medical opinion, evaluating politicians or buying stocks. Acceptance without question is a cover for the lack of even basic understanding, failure of courage, or pure laziness. Might I suggest this adds up to stupidity? Like the drunk driver trying to walk a straight line for a policeman, they’re simultaneously proving and denying their problem.
    Having bought the Brooklyn Bridge, they’ve put themselves in an untenable position. Their hands are caught in the proverbial cookie jars. Admit they’ve been scammed, or convince others that they’re correct. You and I see the choice they made, so we’re not on the guest list for their Christmas party. Anti-Sophists not welcome. Bullshit detectors must be left with the security guard.
    Let them continue to believe in the Easter Bunny, I’ve got a recently renovated Great Wall to sell them!

  7. @John H:
    “Open mindedness is also an acceptance of another point of view, while actively seeking to disprove another point of view uninvited or for the purposes of demonstrating the supposed superiority of one’s own outlook is not.”

    I think the point being made by the video and article is that open mindedness is the willingness to *entertain* another point of view and evaluate its validity, not just accept it without question. I’m not sure if that’s what you were trying to say, but I think it’s an important distinction.

    Also, I don’t think the author of the post or the producer of the video was endorsing the bulldozing of other people’s belief systems just to prove the superiority of their own. Rather, the message seems to be encouraging others to ask questions, evaluate ideas and claims on the basis of their evidence and plausibility, and draw their own conclusions from that, not just what the claimant wants you to believe about it. That’s a very different matter than just telling people to stop believing something and believe what I do instead.

    You also wrote;
    “our personal beliefs are ours and valid, and while we may not agree with other points of view we should treat them with the same respect we expect for ourselves”
    Respectfully, sir, you are quite wrong here. It’s very true that we are each entitled to our own beliefs, and each person deserves to be treated with respect. I’ll never argue about that. However, your statement seems to blur the lines between the individual and the idea. Ideas do not deserve respect or protection. Ideas should be challenged, questioned, and evaluated on their own merits on the basis of factual evidence and plausibility. The ideas we hold MOST sacred are the ones we should MOST scrutinize. That’s true of any idea, regardless of what book one finds it in. I may have a personal belief that the Yugo was the best car ever made by human hands. The strength of my belief in that idea does not make it true, and that idea does not deserve to be protected from the scrutiny of my buddies in the garage.

    In the end, encouraging people to think critically is not about telling them what to believe, it’s about asking them to think differently, if only for a moment.

    • Skeptikor says:

      Quite right regarding respect for believers as opposed to their beliefs. To quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

      Also…I just realized how close “Yugo” is to “Vega”. And look at the disturbing performance similarities! I wonder if kabbalistic numerology could explain that?

  8. Raimund says:

    I have to take this in another way. Having encountered ‘open mindedness’ in a similar context as the situation you describe with the man in front of the hotel, I have gleaned a different definition altogether and the confusion stems from an inherent difference in how we conceptualize the universe, our brains and how minds work at a basic level. In this situation, when the man says you are not ‘open minded’ enough, he is not insinuating merely that you will not look at evidence that’s contrary to your established beliefs, he means that your mind is closed to communicating with whatever mysterious spirit realm it is that mediums like Edward communicate with. The concept is that the mind is not purely self-contained, but is a sort of antenna to another realm. As to the origin of this notion of limitation, I don’t know but would assume that people have different ideas about it. This is also why many people believe that only some people can be mediums, presumably because they were born with the ability.

    So essentially I think the issue is that we are talking at crossed purposes and with different definitions. To further confuse things, many people have a poor ability to deal with conflation between meanings, so they will mix these definitions up for themselves and likely not be aware when they implicitly change the meaning with which they are dealing. And yes, I get this problem a lot when dealing with my fruitier friends who insist that the outlandish experiences they claim to have had come from elsewhere.

    Best of luck though, and good job jamming the event. Hopefully a few less dim people will have come away with a clearer understanding of what they are seeing.

  9. Christoph says:

    When talking to gullible people I’ve often made a critical error – stating my opinion on the stupidity of the person’s beliefs and then backing up that opinion with evidence. Unfortunately, people would immediately get defensive and wouldn’t listen and consider the facts. Now, I try to bring up the evidence first, in a non-confrontational way, to get people thinking.

    For example, rather than saying that all faith healing is bogus, I will discuss the case of a Preacher who was discovered to be using non-spiritual means (listening devices, wheelchairs etc.) to convince people he was channelling God. I will then suggest that it is difficult to tell when something is real and when it is fake – how do they tell the difference?

    The key, I think, is to be non-threatening so people listen.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.