500 Words, Day 13 / by dan turner

When did "open-minded" start meaning, "I believe in X despite evidence"? I mean this of course in a descriptive sense, because there's a contradiction at the core of that statement. And when did people start holding this up as a point of pride?

Context: I've lived in the L.A., Boulder, and now the SF Bay areas, so there may be a sampling error in my observations. I did not notice this behavior so much in Boston, but I haven't lived there for over a decade. Probably making the issue more acute is that I'm basing my most recent observations largely on interactions via the SF dating pool; trigger topics tend not to come up in professional/athletic contexts.

Basically, the "open-minded" conversation tends to come up (often on a first date or in the conversation/emails/texts that possibly lead up to a first date) when Person X mentions leaving a job to study "complimentary and alternative medicine" (CAM), or how they're thinking of becoming an acupuncturist, or how she'll decide if we can go out based on what year I was born or my blood type or sign. All these things have happened. The conversation tends to go downhill from there, and I take responsibility. I must not have a good real or virtual poker face about this, and apparently I also suffer from "something is wrong on the internet" syndrome (note: I am not implying this is an actual thing). I try to acknowledge that some people find relief in their beliefs, but I can't help but add that I like to stick to things that science can prove.

Which almost inevitably produces a response along the lines of, "Well, I like to be open-minded". These open-minders (OMs) feel that requiring proof – proof from western science – is "closed-minded". You gotta believe.

Granted, it's never fun to hear "no" about something you care about, and many people take these "alternative" or "Eastern" (I've only seen white folks use that term) beliefs as part of their identityLINK. So I can understand that they may feel personally rejected by someone who doesn't buy in to their "open-mindedness". And though I admire The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and sciencebasedmedicine.org, there are plenty of studies that show that people can double down on their beliefs when presented with contradicting evidence.

But seriously: how are these OMs open-minded? If there were reproduced and peer-reviewed, double-blind evidence of its efficacy, sure, cool. But there's the opposite evidence – which I was open to. Here's an exercise: when faced with an OM, ask what could possibly change their minds. If the answer is "nothing", then we have hit on the contradiction that sits as the hole in the center of this definition of "open-minded".

Science shows us amazing and weird things in the universe every day. And I look forward to more. Peer-reviewed and evidence-based doesn't diminish the mystery and wonder.

And that's 500 words.