The curiously closed mind

September 9, 2019

open-mindVery few people have a truly open mind, I’ve found.

They’re programmed by rigid beliefs based on schooling, religion or something else.  They have a hard time with the question, “what if?” They look for “proof,” for statistics way early on. They judge and ridicule beliefs that do not meet their standards.

They never just sit with the “what if?”

And yet, those brilliant minds who actually sat with the what if, even in the face of ridicule, have been responsible for some of the most significant discoveries in history.

It’s said that all truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed, then violently opposed and then, finally, it’s deemed self evident. Arthur Shopenhauer said this and it seems right to me.

  • When William Harvey first discussed blood circulation in the 17th century he was thought mad. And yet, he was proved correct, eventually.
  • Gregor Mendel’s genetic discoveries weren’t appreciated, either, for a very long time. But now, every grammar school student learns about him.
  • Ignaz Semmelweiss was a physician who understood the need for basic hygiene and sanitation in the mid 1800s.  Physicians of the time were offended deeply that they were thought “dirty.” In the end, though, he was right.
  • William Coley discovered that immunotherapy was effective against cancer way back in the 1890s, but he was ridiculed his entire life. Later on, his work was the basis for modern immunotherapy.
  • Francis Peyton Rous was one of the first to investigate the role of viruses in cancer in 1911. He was completely discredited–until he won the Nobel Prize in 1966.
  • Barry Marshall was a doctor who posited that gut bacteria could cause stomach cancer and ulcers, yet it sounded impossible.

Even Copernicus refused to publicize his discoveries during his life for fear of ridicule.

These men were masters of deduction. Their observations told them something that didn’t fit the beliefs of the time and they paid the price. Some turned to alcohol. Some were incarcerated in lunatic asylums of the time. And yet, these men were on to something that eventually became accepted truths.

These are important object lessons and point to the wisdom of a truly open mind. Imagine if scientists let their imaginations run wild and didn’t slam and debunk others’ work–allowing the fullness of time and further investigation to play out before judging. Imagine if the response to results that don’t make sense in our current world were “that’s interesting, I’d like to see more.”

Instead i see people with scientific background misuse the world “skeptic.”  In the original Greek, skeptikos means inquirer. It does not mean “one who debunks something.”  I think the concept of inquiry –“let’s see more”–opens the mind to the impossible–and is far more useful than trying to disprove something. Which, by the way, is not what the scientific method is about.

I read widely in those one-off worlds. I look at things that traditional science considers either on the edge or over the edge. My lack of scientific training is an advantage–I don’t feel compelled to slam doors shut. Instead, I walk through them to see where they might lead. I formulate beliefs and am perfectly willing to change them as more information becomes available.

When something strange is debunked widely. I encourage you to not slam the door shut too soon–but to instead ask the question, “what if?” and see where it might lead you.


4 comments on “The curiously closed mind
  1. Diane says:

    A marvelous attitude, Carol! We would all benefit from a ‘wait, wait. Let’s see where this is going’ attitude. When the ‘magic’ or ‘outlandishness’ of yesterday becomes simply the ‘science’ of today!

  2. Laurie Stone says:

    History is full of “madmen” (and “madwomen”) who could see things others couldn’t, were ridiculed, and then later idolized. Thank God for them.

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