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Posts Tagged ‘open mind’

The Myth of the Open Mind

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

The race of truly open-minded people is long extinct: To be open minded, I will suspend belief that that tawny blob over there is a leopard. Pounce, chomp, chomp. Even today, natural selection is working to remove the truly open minded from the gene pool: To be opened minded, I will remove any judgment of whether jaywalking and texting at the same time is a good or bad idea. Splat, crumple, crumple. As I said, the race of truly opened minded people is long extinct, if it ever actually existed.

You may complain that I am misrepresenting the concept of open-mindedness. That is probably true. When most people accuse someone of being closed-minded, they mean little more than that the person does not agree with them. Be that as it may, in general, the related concepts of open-mindedness and freedom from preconceived ideas are vastly overrated. But what about in science? Surely in science it is necessary to keep an open mind and eliminate preconceived ideas?  Perhaps, but here is what Henri Poincaré said on the topic:

It is often said that experiments should be made without preconceived ideas. That is impossible. Not only would it make every experiment fruitless, but even if we wished to do so, it could not be done. Every man has his own conception of the world, and this he cannot so easily lay aside. We must, for example, use language, and our language is necessarily steeped in preconceived ideas. Only, they are unconscious preconceived ideas, which are a thousand times the most dangerous of all.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail. Consider his statement: would it make every experiment fruitless. I have served on many review panels and refereed many proposals. Not one of them was free of preconceived ideas or was truly open minded. I guess such a proposal would begin: To be open-minded to all points of view and to avoid preconceived ideas and prejudice we have used a random number generator to choose the beam species and energy. As I say, I have never seen a proposal like that, but I can easily imagine how it would be treated. Not kindly. Review committees are notoriously closed-minded. They demand that every proposal justify the work based on the current understanding in the field.  The value of an experiment depends on how it relates to the current models in the area. The experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are given meaning by the standard model of particle physics. Every experiment at TRIUMF has to be justified based on what it will tell us, how it fits into the nuclear models.

What about the acceptance of new ideas? Surely, there, we have to be open-minded. Certainly not! Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This is not a statement of open mindedness. The idea here goes back at least to Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827): The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness. We saw this closed mindedness play out recently with respect to neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. The initial claim was roundly rejected; the proponents criticized for publishing such a preposterous idea. In this case, the closed-minded people were correct
(they frequently are) as it was subsequently found that there was an experimental error.

Even if we wanted to be, we could not be open-minded. Frederick II (1194 – 1250) is said to have carried out an experiment were he had infants raised without people talking to them to see what the natural language was. What he found was that infants treated this way died. Even independent of that experiment, we know most children are talked to and pick up language and other preconceived ideas from their caregivers. As Poincaré said, language is steeped in preconceived ideas.  A truly open mind free from preconceived ideas is an impossibility.

Continuing Poincaré’s quote: Shall we say, that if we cause others [preconceived ideas] to intervene of which we are fully conscious, that we shall only aggravate the evil? I do not think so. I am inclined to think that they will serve as ample counterpoises — I was almost going to say antidotes. They will generally disagree, they will enter into conflict one with another, and ipso facto, they will force us to look at things under different aspects. This is enough to free us. He is no longer a slave who can choose his master. If you like, we should choose our preconceived ideas and choose them wisely. Then we are in charge, not them.

Open mindedness and freedom from preconceived ideas are only positive in small doses. One has to be open-minded enough to accept the next breakthrough, but not so open-minded as to follow every will-of-the-wisp.  The real genius in science is in knowing when to be open-minded and when to be as stubborn as a mule. It is in knowing which ideas to hold onto and which one to discard.

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