Tons of people have written on this, but as this blog is really for me, I wanted to get these thoughts down. Further, the focus elsewhere has mostly been on how skepticism is, in fact a more open minded position than the woo flavor of the day. This video sums up that position perfectly, so I won't go into that here.
What I wanted to discuss is why people think that. Recently, I have been encountering a lot of this "Don't be so closed minded" attitude from people around me. When I examine my own speech, and try to put myself in the other persons shoes, I can see why they might think such a thing.
These aren't stupid people, and they aren't making money by selling alternative medicine, nor are they chiropractors, astrologers, or anything like that where they have a financial advantage for promoting a particular brand of pseudoscience. They honestly believe that Joe Mercola is a good source for health information, or that vaccines cause autism, or that doctors have one single modality for improving health (a pill).
They didn't get there through blind faith, when they read something crappy or dangerous like Natural News, they think they are doing research. How can they know differently? They didn't go to school for science, they haven't done a PhD where you necessarily have to drill down deep to get a fully understanding of a concept, they have never had a need to understand multiple perspectives of a concept (especially perspectives that you don't already agree with)in order to wean out what claims are supported by evidence and what are not.
These are tasks that skeptics tend to do all on their own, without guidance. But without that tendency shared by skeptics, or without some sort of training to do it, or without the desire to even listen to perspective that go against their preconceived notions, how can those people (and let's not fool ourselves, we are talking about the majority of people) know that doing some reading, or listening to someone who looks like a doctor, or listening to a trusted friend, isn't the same thing as weaning out truth?
So when a person has a knowledgebase, that includes something like "there is energy in your body that can be manipulated by needles", and a skeptic says "that's not true", it's not really a surprise that they would call the skeptic closed minded. Further, the person, for the most part, will not know how many blog posts, how many journal articles, how many test results, and how much research the skeptic has gone through to actually get to the position he or she holds. Without that knowledge of how the skeptic has acquired their disdain for the woo, the skeptic does in fact just seem closed minded.
For the most part, I don't think skeptics enjoy dissecting claims without having the outlet to share. That is why some of us have blogs, some do podcasts, some simply get into conversations on topics. However, if we really want to teach, if we really want to make any sort of stride into the mind of a person who is wasting money or harming themselves with pseudoscience, it is important to get your thoughts compiled into the realm of their preconceived notions.
For example, when someone talks to me about a soul, I often ask what color it is. I haven't said, "souls don't exist". When they tell me its invisible, I ask the next question about weight, then the next about size, then location, etc etc. I'll sometimes ask about how it works with twins, or miscarriages. For the most part, I can enter into a conversation on an equal plane as the woo, and not appear closed minded. These sorts of questions don't say "you are wrong", they say, "tell me more about it".
That isn't to say I can bring people to the light each time I try. Hey, I can't even be sure it has ever turned someone totally off of woo. But it sure is better than having the conversation ending with "You are being closed minded".
From my experience, if someone tells you that you are being closed minded, you are probably coming off that way. Step back, ask some questions based on your knowledge, or delineate how you came to your conclusions.