Skepticism vs Open-mindedness



The IB learner profile promotes the idea of open-mindedness; it presents it as a virtue. I have always wondered that, in some ways  the nemesis of this ‘virtue’ is skepticism. Perhaps its better to imagine open-mindedness and skepticism being on some sort of continuum with two twin polarities. The question is whether or not a healthy balance of both poles is a better standpoint than to position at one or other of the extremes. Surely it is better to intelligently moderate the interplay of the two dispositions as we more often do between divergent and convergent thinking?

John Horgan has written an engaging article for Scientific American on the role of skepticism in Science and outlines a cautionary tale of how we should question the array of “latest studies” that make huge claims after what he says are often unconvincing research and trials. More interestingly he discusses claims that the wilder the scientific claims, the more likely we are to hear about them in the media, and, more alarmingly, the more likely they are to be wrong.

He says …. “Tetlock found a correlation between the prominence of experts and their fallibility. The more wrong the experts were, the more visible they were in the media. The reason, he conjectures, is that experts who make dramatic claims are more likely to get air time on CNN or column inches in The Washington Post, even though they are likelier to be wrong.

For comic relief, I tell my students about a maze study, cited by Tetlock, that pitted rats against Yale undergraduates. Sixty percent of the time, researchers placed food on the left side of a fork in the maze; otherwise the food was placed randomly. After figuring out that the food was more often on the left side of the fork, the rats turned left every time and so were right 60 percent of the time. Yale students, discerning illusory patterns of left-right placement, guessed right only 52 percent of the time. Yes, the rats beat the Yalies! The smarter you are, the more likely you may be to “discover” patterns in the world that aren’t actually there.”

Another interesting topic of debate in this piece is around the question “How far are we along the path of knowing everything? How much more is there to know?”. He also discusses radical paradigm shifts and the likelihood of current paradigms being toppled in the near future. A great read – well worth absorbing in whole.

Read the full article on the Scientific American blog here

This great TED-ed film explores the inherent flaws in different types of epidemiological studies and by implication makes the case that the scientific method is quite frail at times. It encourages skepticism when faced with news of the next miracle cure or positive outcomes from the “latest studies”. This very much links to points made in the previously discussed article above.

Michael Shermer says the time for open-mindedness about the World’s major religions is over

Read this truly provocative article by John Horgan

Related resources


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