I was just having a discussion about my nemesis, Donald Trump, with a libertarian friend of mine. An economist, no less. I informed him that the American deficit just reached a seven-year high! It’s amazing that Obama was working with a horrible economy given to us by (drum roll……..) the Republicans – and still had a smaller deficit than what we do in 2018. Stimulus spending was the order of the day back then. The GOP loves to claim the Dems are “capital-S” Socialists who will run us into the ground with profligate spending on Medicare for All and such. Yet, the record seems to show that the GOP likes to spend tax revenue, but they also like to cut taxes to please their donors and feather their own nests. My friend tried to tout the idea that when we cut taxes, revenue increases. It’s magic! Actually, George H. W. Bush, then running against Ronald Reagan, did call this phenomenon “voodoo economics”!! I claim that supply-side economics doesn’t have good support, but it was my friend’s contention that it does. It led me to want to write a blog about the risks of one keeping an open mind in today’s hyperpartisan culture.
Note: I came up with the title to this piece before scanning the web to see who has said what that is similar. I think if some idea is well-conceived, the chances that I would be the first person to think of it are slim to none. The inimitable Michael Shermer wins the prize for the most similar title with his “The Dangers of Keeping an Open Mind”. Thank you Mr. Shermer, great minds think alike 🙂 I love this quote of his:
“Being open-minded enough to make great discoveries, however, can often lead scientists to make great blunders. Wallace, for example, was also a firm believer in phrenology, spiritualism and psychic phenomena, evidence for which he collected at séances over the objections of his more skeptical colleagues.” He refers here to Alfred Russell Wallace, who, with Darwin, came up with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
Though Shermer has this good snippet, he doesn’t flesh this idea out very fully, I don’t think. He does deserve praise for this concluding paragraph: “How can we avoid such errors? Livio quotes Bertrand Russell: ‘Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.’ He then conveys a central principle of skepticism: ‘While doubt often comes across as a sign of weakness, it is also an effective defense mechanism, and it’s an essential operating principle for science.’” He is referring to Mario Livio’s 2013 book, Brilliant Blunders.
“An open mind need not be an empty mind….”
Any self-help guru will tout the benefits of keeping an open mind. And many Christians and Muslims are treated daily to sermons about how the devil will try to trick us into believing false things, and thus, steadfastness and faith that one’s beliefs are absolutely right is the path to follow. Both are trite and can be dangerous.
An open mind can best be thought of in regard to the masterful philosopher, Socrates. Before the stressed and foolish Athenians put him to death for asking the wrong questions in 399 B.C.E., he was notorious for going up to anyone – the equivalent of tapping a Senator on the shoulder, or a CEO – and forcing them to answer for their preconceptions, beliefs, and values. It must have been absolutely astounding. He believed he was akin to a horsefly, stinging the plodding and ignorant Athens into waking up. I think he longed for them to value virtue and character and wisdom above all else. They disagreed, as I mentioned.
The point of bringing up Socrates is that he had somewhat of an open mind, and yet he was indefatigable in his pursuit of true and deep knowledge – wisdom, essentially. That is, he would know what he knew and what he didn’t know, and he could sense when his partner in dialogue was reasoning honestly and humbly, or “bullshitting”, as we say in modern parlance. If you tried to bullshit Socrates, you were about to embarrass yourself. So, Socrates wasn’t absolutely sure he knew what values such as justice and wisdom were, but he was very confident that if you claimed you knew, he was going to show you that you were mistaken, and how. It was an elegant blend between the two extremes: believing one is never wrong, and assuming you don’t know a darned thing. Wisdom indicates that somewhere in between is the sweet spot.
“Openness to truth is a more rare prize that usually only comes from proper training and discipline. It comes from developing the right intellectual habits and skills under wise guides and through the practice of virtue. And even when one has become open to truth, it’s a quality that must be carefully cultivated, and will leave you if you neglect it.”
The virtue of an open mind is that you can learn new things, things about which you were mistakenly ignorant. It happens to us all. I’m referring to the virtue of making mistakes and learning from them, etc.
It really is a high value to prize wisdom, and I don’t mean to besmirch it. I wish folks were more open-minded, not less. It would certainly cut through the thick fog of partisanship and tribalism and purposeful ignorance that Americans are often fairly criticized for.
Unfortunately, we elected (well, 49% of voters who voted and the Electoral College) Donald Trump, the anti-intellectual, immodest, narcissistic blowhard. He sets a horrible example for Americans when it comes to keeping an open mind and other intellectual virtues. Heck, not just intellectual virtues – values and ways of behaving that most fifth graders know! Daily he takes to Twitter to claim knowledge that isn’t true, boast about something he did not accomplish, and belittle others. It’s about as far from having an open mind as one can achieve.
So, an open mind = good.
“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it’s not open.” ~ Frank Zappa
However, it has its limits.
There are many folks who will either unintentionally or intentionally mislead you, manipulate you, and attempt to manage you. It’s difficult to know who you can trust. It is as though every person you meet needs to be held up to scrutiny. It can be very tiresome. Two words that describe someone who has poorly developed mental boundaries and a sense of caution in this regard are credulous and gulliable.
I myself have some preconceived notions about many of the folks on the “fiscally conservative” side of things, the “socially conservative” camp, businesses, the wealthy, many Christians, and of course folks who make a living from opinions Americans hold (e.g., advertisers, news outlets, salesmen, etc).
Thus, if you’ve ever seen Mad Men, you get that the name of the game for some folks is influencing the thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and feelings of others. Of consumers. That is a big red flag.
The ability of one to manipulate you for their own gain is directly proportional to the sense of honor and integrity that the person possesses. It’s ethics in action. Here is a great rule of thumb from the late, great businesswoman, Anita Roddick:
“A lot of companies say they are fair to their workers, but in fact turn a blind eye to bad working conditions, child labor, and starvation wages. Don’t believe the PR. Check how companies are really behaving.”
And few folks who have ever walked the face of the Earth can do a better job of characterizing the issue than a man whom I most admired, Howard Zinn. He wrote:
“I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you, as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.”
This mental discipline of taking nothing on faith is no easy skill to master – the balance between learning on the one hand and believing false information on the other. “We seem to continue to expect intelligence and knowledge to predict rational behavior, as if rationality was some kind of byproduct of intelligence,” Barbara Drescher writes. “Even skeptics can often be caught suggesting that if we just give people the right facts, they’ll change their minds about vaccines, E.S.P., and global warming. But that is not how people work.”
It seems, then, that there isn’t a quick and dirty rule one can apply to determine what to believe, when, and to what extent. It takes constant work. The ultimate punishment for complacency is when one is taken in by a con man or a sociopath, a cult leader or an unscrupulous President.
“A sucker is born every minute.” ~ P. T. Barnum
This “bowling lane of wisdom”, if you will, has two bumpers on each side: on the one is foolish gullibility and a lack of skepticism; on the other is a closed-mindedness and almost-fearful unwillingness to listen to views that are different from one’s own. There is a risk in both being too willing to accept what a persuasive other recommends we believe, and “simply rearranging our prejudices” in lieu of critical thinking.
It was football legend Knute Rockne who pithily said, “Most men when they think they are thinking are simply rearranging their prejudices.”
Keeping an open mind is a virtue, but one must be aware that an open mind is just what certain folks who are either purposefully or unwittingly able to fill our open minds with a load of bull are hoping for. We must leaven our willingness to hear and learn with a heaping dose of wisdom and skepticism. We can hardly do better than my late friend Cop Macdonald:
“On one end of a spectrum we find wise, open-minded, reality-seeking persons. Such individuals have come to the conclusion that their long-term comfort is going to be greatest if they understand what is as clearly as possible. This requires being open to new data, and new ways of interpreting them. It requires updating their worldview whenever they come upon a better, clearer, truer way of looking at things. They also understand that there are limits to our knowledge. When they don’t know, they acknowledge that they don’t know; they don’t ‘fill in the blanks’ and call it truth.”
“Sensational and inaccurate information can be disseminated more rapidly than ever before thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, reinforcing dangerous beliefs and isolating people and limiting people’s open-mindedness and respect for truth.”
I once knew a man who would say, if someone were trying to “get one over on him,” I was born at night – but not last night. Reagan made famous the dictum, trust but verify. I think the best way to be, as in the case I began with (a friend touting the merit of supply-side economics), is balance 1) a sense of skepticism about new ideas and received wisdom with 2) a willingness to listen and to learn and be humble. We do not know everything we need to know, and we all have some of our facts wrong. Wisdom can, ideally, help us to decide if the person we are speaking to (or reading) is offering us “the greatest thing since sliced bread”, or mere snake oil.
What follows are some quotes about belief, skepticism, truth, and lies. I have so many quotes about such subjects in the Wisdom Archive that I am only going to include thoughts by authors whose names start with the letter “B”.
I might be accused of bias here, but the first quote about an open mind is from a Republican who is willing to speak the truth about supply-side economics (i.e., cutting taxes actually, paradoxically, grows the economy enough to fill our coffers. Help the rich and help everyone else! A rising tide lifts all boats! It’s an economic miracle!). The man is Bruce Bartlett, and he actually wrote a book about truth and lies that puts the modern media and politicians on trial. What he writes that I think is directly relevant to the question I was sparring with my friend about is the following:
“Virtually everything Republicans say about taxes today is a lie. Tax cuts and tax rate reductions will not pay for themselves; they never have. Republicans don’t even believe they will, they are just excuses to slash spending for the poor when revenues collapse and deficits rise. There is no evidence that tax reform raises growth, although it may improve fairness and tax administration.”
That is a simply amazing breath of fresh air. It separates truth from misinformation and disinformation like a scythe. Below are a few other “B” quotes about an open mind as well as a careful instinct:
I believe that love of truth is the basis of all real virtue…
~ Bertrand Russell
We live in an age of professional liars willing to say anything if it “wins” them the news cycle, an age of cowards who hide behind the gruff bravado of the bully to conceal their own crashing inadequacies, an age where shamelessness passes for policy and corruption is the coin of the realm. In times like these, we must hold fast to an old truth: A small group of dedicated people can indeed change the world.…Nothing happens, however, without knowledge, without facts free of taint or moneyed leverage.
~ Bill R. Pitt
I believe democracy requires a ‘sacred contract’ between journalists and those who put their trust in us to tell them what we can about how the world really works.
~ Bill Moyers
It is natural for the mind to believe, and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.
~ Blaise Pascal
Educators believe it is up to them to teach critical thinking and drum into students certain habits that will offer some protection against being scammed by fake news themselves. They were alarmed by a 2016 study by Stanford University that found even bright, well-educated, tech-savvy students had great difficulty separating news from advertising or figuring out where a piece of information came from.
~ Bruce Bartlett
If the concept of fake news is not new, its current techniques are. The Internet and social media have made it very easy to peddle and promote lies. Although theoretically these same methods ought to enable truth to win out in the end, in practice this has proven not to be the case. Political scientists have found that when people who have been exposed to lies are confronted with the truth, they often believe the lie even more strongly. One reason is that simple repetition of a lie, even in the course of refuting it, lends it credibility. Another reason is confirmation bias — people believe what they want to believe.
~ Bruce Bartlett
Politicians peddle falsehoods routinely as part of their modus operandi. Whether a falsehood is a lie depends on whether someone knows it is a rank falsehood and falsely presents it as truth. Reporters believe that detecting this requires the ability to read minds and know a speaker’s motives. They are also rightly fearful of a libel suit that could be costly and damage their reputation.
~ Bruce Bartlett
I have found that my best defense is the old adage: If something is too good (or outrageous) to be true, it probably is. That is, try to resist gullibility and credulousness; be skeptical and agnostic until you can determine the truthfulness or validity of some news item, especially if it confirms something you want to believe.
~ Bruce Bartlett
Here is another blog you might be interested in: