Are Skeptics Closed Minded?

Here at Ottawa Skeptics, we encounter all sorts of strange claims and ideas.  Being skeptics, we tend to doubt first, until the evidence sways us.  That’s the basis of skepticism.  Unfortunately, this does not sit well with many claim proponents.  They just want their claim to be accepted, for whatever reason (e.g. money, fame, ego, or a profound personal experience).  Some ideas pass muster and become a part of the ever-growing body of scientific knowledge, while other ideas fail to provide the necessary evidence.


Sometimes, promoters of a given claim will search long and hard for evidence to support their claim.  This is good; this is how science works.  Science and skepticism support the search for truth, and sometimes this involves making seemingly odd hypotheses.  The next step, though, needs to be a search for evidence to support the hypothesis.  What happens when all efforts to find evidence are expended, with little or nothing to show for it?  Some choose to abandon their hypothesis, which can be a very painful thing to do, especially after devoting years of time, effort and money.


Some people, on the other hand, frustrated with mainstream science’s rejection of their claim, will concoct excuses for why their weak evidence is not accepted.  The most common excuse is that the skeptics are too closed-minded to accept this “wonderful” new claim.


Is this true?  Are skeptics missing out on wonderful new, interesting and useful discoveries because they are closed-minded?  Let’s take a look at two examples.  First, the claim that ghosts exist is pretty extraordinary.  If it were true, it would cause science to rethink everything.  If it were true, it would be a huge discovery!  Surely, the person proving such a claim would win fame, not to mention a Nobel prize.  So what evidence has been proposed?  Some blurry photographs and some random noise on tape recorders.  This is not what I would call “extraordinary evidence”.  Every skeptic that I have talked to who has visited a supposedly haunted site has been disappointed in not seeing a ghost.  Maybe ghosts are scared of skeptics?  The only place I know of where skeptics actually see ghosts is in Hollywood.


Okay, so that’s an example of skeptics not being convinced by the evidence, is there a case where skeptics have changed their mind due to evidence?  Published in today’s Ottawa Citizen is an article about a scientist who was skeptical of the hypothesis that a comet exploded over North America 13,000 years ago.  Anthropologist Ken Tankerley joined the team examining the comet hypothesis hoping to find evidence against it.  Instead, he found evidence for it.  The proponents of the hypothesis succeeded in convincing that hardened skeptic of their claim through the use of evidence.  Once their paper is published, we’ll see if the rest of the doubting scientific community is swayed.


So to the question in the article’s title, “Are skeptics closed minded?” the answer might be, “Yes, but!”  Skeptics’ minds are initially closed to accepting new claims until requisite evidence is shown.  This is where the skeptical maxim, coined by Carl Sagan, comes in useful: “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”  Now, if only we could convince the proponents of extraordinary claims that they may in fact be wrong!  Unfortunately, for some, no amount of counter evidence (or lack of positive evidence) will convince them of that possibility.


07. July 2008 by Jon
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