Open-Mindedness and Skepticism in Critical Thinking

How the two traits work together.

Posted Apr 26, 2019

In my most recent post, 12 Important Dispositions for Critical Thinking, I presented a list of dispositions that are likely to enhance the quality of one’s thinking—specifically, disposition toward critical thinking refers to an inclination, tendency, or willingness to perform a given thinking skill (Dwyer, 2017; Facione, Facione & Giancarlo, 1997; Ku, 2009; Norris, 1992; Siegel, 1999; Valenzuela, Nieto & Saiz, 2011). Though there is overlap among some of the dispositions (e.g., inquisitiveness, truth-seeking, and resourcefulness), there are, of course, important distinctions. However, in one particular case—open-mindedness and scepticism—it almost seems that the dispositions are at odds with one another.

I received feedback on the piece, and one reader recommended that, though they agree that it's good to have an open mind, some viewpoints are simply foolish, and it would be a waste of time to dwell on them. I responded with agreement, to some extent. However, even if an idea appears foolish, sometimes its consideration can lead to an intelligent, critically considered conclusion. In this way, open-mindedness follows the same mechanics as ‘brainstorming’ ideas, in that no idea is a bad one because the ‘bad ones’ sometimes provide a foundation for a ‘good one.’ I advised, furthermore, that there are important subtleties that require consideration with respect to understanding the relationship between scepticism and open-mindedness.

To better understand this relationship, it is important to first operationally define the two dispositions. Open-mindedness refers to an inclination to be cognitively flexible and avoid rigidity in thinking; to tolerate divergent or conflicting views and treat all viewpoints alike, prior to subsequent analysis and evaluation; to detach from one’s own beliefs and consider, seriously, points of view other to one’s own without bias or self-interest; to be open to feedback by accepting positive feedback and to not reject criticism or constructive feedback without thoughtful consideration; to amend existing knowledge in light of new ideas and experiences; and to explore such new, alternative or ‘unusual’ ideas. On the other hand, seemingly, the disposition towards scepticism refers to an inclination to challenge ideas; to withhold judgment before engaging all the evidence or when the evidence and reasons are insufficient; to take a position and be able to change position when the evidence and reasons are sufficient; and to look at findings from various perspectives.

Though on a foundational level, the two dispositions may seem to reside on a kind of continuum (e.g., scepticism at one end and open-mindedness at the other end), they are distinct concepts, even if there is overlap. That is, an individual can be both sceptical and open-minded at the same time. Perhaps the key issue here is to recognise that open-mindedness doesn’t mean you have to accept divergent ideas, rather just consider them.

Even with that, isn’t consideration of a foolish idea still a ‘waste of time?' Well, the decision-making behind determining whether or not something is foolish is still consideration—some level of evaluation, no matter how easy, was required to make the decision. That’s where the scepticism comes in: rejection of the ‘foolish’ idea is the outcome of appropriate evaluation. However, knowing that the idea is foolish isn’t necessarily the end of the story. You may ask yourself whether anything can be salvaged from the bad idea or the thought process behind it, for the purpose of turning it into a good one; thus, being open-minded through idea generation, such as in the aforementioned example of the mechanics behind brainstorming. But with that, there’s more to open-mindedness than that.

Open-mindedness is about being open to changing your mind in light of new evidence. It’s about detaching from your beliefs and focusing on unbiased thinking void of self-interest. It’s about being open to constructive criticism and new ideas. People who are sceptical do all of this as well—they challenge ideas and they withhold judgment until sufficient evidence is provided—they are open to all possibilities until sufficient evidence is presented. Scepticism and open-mindedness go hand-in-hand, but they may not seem that way from the surface—not until they are adequately and comprehensively defined. Once described accordingly, it is hard not to equate both with critical thinking. Well, I’d be sceptical of it, anyway.

References

Dwyer, C.P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Facione, P. A., Facione, N. C., & Giancarlo, C. A. (1997). Setting expectations for student learning: New directions for higher education. Millbrae: California Academic Press.

Ku, K. Y. L. (2009). Assessing students’ critical thinking performance: Urging for measurements using multi-response format. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 4(1), 70–76.

Norris, S. P. (Ed.). (1992). The generalizability of critical thinking: Multiple perspectives on an educational ideal. New York: Teachers College Press.

Siegel, H. (1999). What (good) are thinking dispositions? Educational Theory, 49(2), 207–221.

Valenzuela, J., Nieto, A. M., & Saiz, C. (2011). Critical thinking motivational scale: A contribution to the study of relationship between critical thinking and motivation. Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 9(2), 823–848.