“As a girl, she’d been very gullible, but she had always learned more that way.”

I keep thinking about the above quote, which is from the Lorrie Moore story, “Community Life.” I’ve read some Lorrie Moore from time to time, but I found out about this particular story by hearing it on the New Yorker fiction podcast (which I absolutely love, but that’s a topic for another post).

What struck me about the above quote was the idea that you can learn more from being gullible than from being guarded.

Or, to put it another way, that you can learn more from being open-minded than from being skeptical.

It reminded me of this quote from Steven Pinker that we’ve discussed before, supporting “a measured approach to scientific replication: Rigor, of course, but put a lid on the aggression & call off the social media hate mobs.”

I’ll get back to Pinker in a bit, but first let me continue on the theme of the benefits of gullibility or open-mindedness.

To start with, the idea that you can learn more from being open-minded than from being skeptical is one of those paradoxical-sounding statements that have the ring of truth. It reminds me of the advice they give in brainstorming sessions to just toss in ideas without filtering them. I’m a pretty skeptical person sometimes, and skepticism has its place—for example, I don’t think the government should be spending millions of dollars on unproven ideas such as ESP or the power of bottomless soup bowls. (Sure, all those Wansink claims could be true, but recall Daniel Davies’s principle that good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance.) Nor would I recommend spending any more taxpayer dollars or grad student hours on “power pose” or the much-debunked-and-so-ridiculous-it’s-sad-that-anyone-had-to-waste-any-time-debunking-it critical positivity ratio.

But those are specific cases. Thinking more generally, and operating under a veil of ignorance where we purposely don’t investigate these claims in detail, it can be appealing to keep a generally gullible attitude in order to let the thoughts flow more smoothly. Being credulous about the critical positivity ratio (according to one of its proponents, “Just as zero degrees Celsius is a special number in thermodynamics, the 3-to-1 positivity ratio may well be a magic number in human psychology”) might be silly in itself, but it could free your mind to come up with more interesting and actually true theories. Similarly for vaccine denialism or Holocaust denialism or flat-earth theories or magic magnets or subliminal smiley faces: these models of the world fall somewhere on the continua between silly, offensive, and dangerous, but to on purely intellectual grounds, there could be a benefit to entertaining the most ridiculous ideas, in the same way that an expert debater is supposed to be able to take any position on any issue.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s accept the view that we can learn more from being gullible (or, to put it more politely, open-minded), which is related the Chestertonian principle that extreme skepticism is a form of credulity, and let’s accept that instead of poking holes in statistical claims, we should frame everything positively.

I’m willing to consider that position. It’s not the position I’ve taken—I’m ok with saying negative things about other people’s published work, if I think that work is flawed, and I’m also ok with other people saying negative things about my work, indeed I’ve learned a lot from negative comments (for example these harsh comments which led to this work)—but I’m open to the idea that we should be doing things differently. Sure, the lack of negative feedback would slow down my own research progress and others’ too, but maybe it would be worth it for the countervailing gains.

The big probem with generic open-mindedness

The big problem with open-mindedness is to decide what to be open-minded about. A few years ago, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology wanted us to be open-minded about a claim that Cornell students have ESP—but I’m guessing they wouldn’t have wanted to be open-minded about spoon bending, astrology, etc. Or maybe spoon bending and astrology, but not the flat earth and Bigfoot.

To return to Steven Pinker, in his above link he’s supporting a call to be open-minded about power pose and critical positivity, and elsewhere he and his friend Alan Dershowitz have recommended that we be open-minded about torture for terrorism suspects.

That’s his call—but then why does he not want to be open-minded about other controversial scientific positions such as “blank slate” theory or creationism, or other controversial policies, such as, I dunno, torture for white-collar criminal suspects or sex traffickers?

In Pinker’s memorable words:

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas — ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order.

My point here . . .

I’m not arguing that all theories are equal. My point is that open-mindedness exists only in context: you have to decide what to be open-minded about.

To return to the example of “brainstorming”: In a brainstorming session, we agree to share ideas without criticism—but this only goes for ideas submitted from people inside the room. Steven Pinker wants to be open to ideas submitted from “inside the room” of Harvard or of various circles of pundits—but only some sorts of pundits. Pinker’s open to the pundits who say that cops should be allowed to torture terrorism suspects, but not those who would torture embezzlers or sex traffickers.

Again, at some level, that’s fine. I’ll read just about every email that’s sent to me, and I’ll respond to all sorts of blog comments—but some ideas are expressed so incoherently, or are so far out there, that I’m not going to bother with them. That’s unavoidable.

Let me also emphasize that the boundaries of acceptability, for any person, are fuzzy. There’s no way that any of us can precisely lay out exactly what ideas we’re willing to support, even without any good theory or evidence, and what ideas just tick us off. Pinker’s ok with the positivity ratio but not with blank slate; conversely, I’m fine with people studying and thinking about ideas that , but racism ticks me off. That doesn’t make me “right” and Pinker “wrong”; each of us is just willing to be open minded about different things.

I don’t think complete open-mindedness is possible. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible, for reasons analogous to Russell’s paradox. For example, it’s hard to simultaneously be open-minded about an attack on critics of bad statistics in science, while being open-minded about the proposition that some areas of science have become saturated by bad work, in part because of a clubby unwillingness to accept criticism of bad work.

Again, I can accept that Pinker and the other defenders of open-mindedness have a legitimate position, even if I don’t agree with it. Maybe the nitpickers such as myself really are doing net harm (see also here), and maybe we’d be better off “sticking to sports,” as it were. It’s possible.

My point here is only that open-mindedness is relative to what we’ve decided to be open-minded about, and who we’ve decided to let into the room. Is everything published in Psychological Science or PNAS considered to be above any harsh criticism? What about lower-tier journals? Arxiv papers? Blog posts? Work that hasn’t been endorsed by an Ivy League professor? Similarly when considering what police tactics to be open-minded about. There are not easy questions.