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Photo by Ana Filipa Neves

I once had a conversation with a “Psychic” Sally fan.

When I expressed skepticism towards their claim that Sally actually has psychic powers, I was told that I should be more “open-minded”. I found this interesting, because I really was being open-minded. Open-mindedness and skepticism aren’t mutually exclusive. So, there would seem to be different ideas about what it means to be open-minded.

The first is openness to claims, which is the kind of open-mindedness our Psychic Sally fan wanted me to embrace. The problem is that not all claims are created equal. Some have been proven. Some have been disproven. Some have no evidence either way. Some are incompatible with the facts as we understand them. Some are complex. Some are simple. And (leaving aside the possibility of an infinite universe), there is only a finite number of true claims, whereas there is a potentially infinite number of untrue claims.

The problem, then, with being completely open to claims, is that it seems to be an incredibly inefficient way of figuring out what’s true. If you’re looking for water in a desert, you don’t dig at random. You start wherever you see the most green stuff.

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

Christopher Hitchens

When it comes to truth, the “green stuff” is evidence. If you’re able to seek out evidence, assess it rationally and accept whatever it tells you, then you will always be drawn towards accepting those claims that are really true, regardless of what you or anyone else believes. So, the second type of open-mindedness is openness to evidence.

No, I was not open to the claim that Sally Morgan has psychic powers. But I was open to evidence that could have led me to accept the claim. In this case, given the extraordinary nature of the claim, the evidence would have to have been very robust. If they had shown me an instance where Morgan had repeatedly demonstrated her psychic powers under scientifically controlled conditions, they’d have got me.

As it happens, the James Randi Educational Foundation offered just such an opportunity—there was even a $1 million prize. Over a thousand people put themselves up for the challenge over 51 years, but none succeeded. Unfortunately, Morgan refused to take part, presumably denying us the most significant scientific discovery of the century in the process, not to mention evidence that would have led me to accept my friend’s claim.

Openness to evidence is the sort of open-mindedness we should always strive for. While the claim that some people are psychic is an extraordinary one; it’s just as, if not more, important that we’re open-minded when it comes to ordinary, scientifically uncontroversial claims. Was Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 shot down? Is the gender pay gap real? Has Donald Trump ever grabbed a woman by the pussy? These questions aren’t matters of opinion. They have real answers that can be revealed by evidence. And, in the absence of evidence, “I don’t know” is not just an acceptable answer. It’s the wisest answer.

That said, bring completely open-minded is a tall order. We still have our biases, things we would like to be true, world-views we’re attached to; which we need to be mindful of so that they don’t compromise our judgement. Then again, no one is completely closed-minded. It’s a spectrum, and it’s a skill. The aim isn’t to suddenly become completely open-minded; but simply to get better at it. To do that, we need to be honest with ourselves, and to challenge ourselves. To look for the evidence, without taking it personally. And, most importantly, to follow it, wherever it leads.

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