Bryan Caplan  

Optimal Openness

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There's something very appealing about Arnold's praise of thinkers who try to open readers' minds instead of closing them:
Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can

(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author

(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author

(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author

So, think about it. Wouldn't you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn't that sort of pathetic?
Still, all this reminds me of an old saying: "Keep an open mind - but not so open that your brain falls out."  In economic jargon: The optimal level of openness is not infinite.  When you're more open, you're less likely to dismiss truths, but more likely to accept falsehoods.

This isn't just idle theory.  Excessive openness is the root cause of many errors.  Obvious examples include belief in astrology, alien abduction, various conspiracy theories, ghosts, the health benefits of organic food, and the long-run benefits of war.  These beliefs persist largely because people are too reluctant to scoff, dismiss, or repeatedly say, "show me."

The right mental stance for thinkers to promote - for both "their side" and the "opposite side" - is not openness, but judiciousness.  Put your emotions aside.  Use common sense.  Look at the facts.  Look for counter-evidence.  Re-read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.  This is more difficult than promoting across-the-board "openness," but well worth the extra effort.
 

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Ted Levy writes:

"When you're more open, you're less likely to dismiss truths, but more likely to accept falsehoods."

A vital point less than a week after Justice Robert's opinion in NFIB v Sebellius...

Lord writes:

and have a healthy skepticism of the validity of your own beliefs, all judgments should be conditional and provisional

David C writes:

I thought this might be wrong, and so I went looking for research on it. The first thing I found...

"The personality correlates most associated with paranormal beliefs have been Extraversion, which was associated with higher belief scores (Thalbourne, 1981; Thalbourne, 1980; Eysenck, 1967) and Neuroticism (Thalbourne, Dunbar and Delin, 1995)."

The study's results:
"Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness and Agreeableness were not found to significantly predict paranormal belief"
http://www.ethesis.net/paranormal/paranormal.htm

Openness to experience does predict whether a religious person will lean towards orthodoxy or relativism. Zealots are closed-minded. Also, openness to experience is positively correlated with intelligence:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886903001612

I can't think of too many people who I would describe as too open-minded. I'm guessing it's more common in academia, but relativism is a difficult thing for most people to believe in. Only about 18% of the country practices secular religion.

John T. Kennedy writes:

@Lord: "all judgments should be conditional and provisional"

What's that one conditional on?

Lord writes:

Conditional on the present state of knowledge and the circumstances under which it has been derived, its reliability and the possibility, even probability, there exist better knowledge and explanations as yet unknown

John T. Kennedy writes:

What would persuade you that all judgements should not be conditional and provisional?

Gian writes:

The purpose of an open mind is to close it upon the truth.
CS Lewis

Stan writes:

While I agree one should be more judicious, what advantage does that bring? And is it worth it?

Lately I've been catching myself relying on mental shortcuts. This is especially the case in politics, "I know that's wrong because it's not libertarian".
Usually I try to give it more consideration, but if I did this for everything I wouldn't be able to function.

I think you discussed this at some length in Myth of the Rational Voter.

Mike Rulle writes:

Why do we immediately jump to politics when discussing open mindedness? Its hard to imagine a less relevant topic, in this country at least, to be "open minded" about.

The left and right are pretty clear to themselves and each other what they disagree about. Ultimately, it boils down to the weighting one gives to certain values plus self interest. Who doesn't know that?

This does not mean we disagree on much. I would argue, the number of things the left and right disagree on, relative to the amount of political things one could disagree on, is actually quite small, on average of course.

But just because our differences may be small, does not mean we don't feel strongly about them. For example, I will always believe that Arnold's implicit critique of the Krugman "all GDP units are equal" implied assertion is correct.

Of course, that is difficult to prove, but Arnold's fits my view of human nature better. It also suits my value system better.

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