Recently I was chatting with someone about nutrition and I noted how factory farmed meats pose health hazards. He was skeptical and asked, “Is there any scientific evidence for that?” I replied that there are many studies which confirm this and told him that I was willing to direct him to some of these publications. But my friend smiled and shook his head, saying “You can’t trust scientific studies. You can use them to prove just about anything.” I was dumbfounded. First he demands scientific evidence for my claim, but when I oblige he tells me that he can’t accept it because science can’t be trusted! At this point I realized that I was dealing with a closed mind, so we went on to discuss other things.
I once heard someone say that aging academicians often suffer from “hardening of the categories.” After graduate school, they become locked in their theoretical paradigms and are less and less likely to explore new ideas and engage new perspectives in an open-minded way. I would say this is a universal human tendency, not just a pitfall for scholars. But it certainly is more disturbing to observe this in people who are supposed to be serious about the quest for knowledge and understanding.
I have had some colleagues over the years whose views on major issues—from ethics to politics to theology—changed very little since their college days. It occurred to me that for such a person the “wisdom of their years” is partly a sham, at least as this applies to their supposed exploration of ideas. They might be in their fifties and appear to be the mature product of decades of academic growth. But since they haven’t changed their views in thirty years, how can we call them models of serious inquiry? Their students might as well be listening to a peer.
Have you changed your view on some important issue in the last few years? I’m not talking about beliefs as basic as the existence of God or even whether you are a political liberal or conservative. But if you are a genuinely teachable person, committed to the quest for understanding and willing to consider fresh perspectives, then your mind should change from time to time on various issues. If this is not true of you, then perhaps you are experiencing “hardening of the categories” yourself.
It is understandable that those who are older should change their views less frequently than the young. After all, in most cases those who are older have already reviewed more ideas and are familiar with arguments on both sides of many issues. However, even experienced folks who are very well-travelled in the realm of ideas have not been exposed to every idea or argument. So if they are truly teachable and open-minded, there should be evidence of this in the form of a conversion to a different belief every once in a while, even concerning important issues. Otherwise, I can only conclude that they are not really open to new ideas. And this is sad. A mind is a terrible thing to close.