Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Weekend Post - Changing your mind

A lot of people seem to think that changing your mind is a sign of weakness. It offends their sense of pride to think that they might have been wrong about something. I think that’s silly. Changing your mind, based on reason, rational discourse and, above all, new evidence is a perfectly respectable thing. That’s how humanity makes progress.

Unfortunately the pressure to stick with existing beliefs can be intense. We all know the stories about the Roman Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo for his support of the Copernican view that the Earth rotated around the Sun, not the other way round. He even spent the last decade of his life under house arrest for suggesting such a thing, after being bullied into recanting his scientific beliefs. For 75 years after his death the Church banned the printing of any of his works all because they couldn’t bear the thought that they might be wrong about the nature of the solar system. OK, it was probably more because they realised that once one belief was undermined then nothing was sacred any longer. All their other beliefs might be questioned.

The other extreme is a story told by Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book, The God Delusion. He describes an occasion when he was a student. An elderly and highly respected professor attended a lecture at which a visiting American academic publicly disproved the professor’s cherished theory. According to Dawkins, who was also at the lecture, instead of arguing with the American, or just ignoring his ideas, the elderly professor walked right to the front of the lecture hall, shook the visitor firmly by the hand and loudly said “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.”

Clearly I’m not going to say that all scientists are as generous and open-minded and this. Scientists aren’t immune from arrogance and self-deception but their method is. The nature of the scientific method is that someone proposes a hypothesis, scientists decide how to test it and then do their level best to disprove it. Its important to understand that they do NOT try to prove the theory, they actively try to disprove it.

In fact that’s one of the key tests of whether something is genuinely scientific or not. Just ask yourself, can an idea be disproved? That’s why Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic theories aren’t science, it’s why astrology isn’t scientific and why, despite what some political “scientists” will tell you, Marxism is many things but scientific isn’t one of them. On the other hand, Einstein’s theories of Relativity could be disproven tomorrow, they just haven’t been yet. It’s why Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection is scientific. It’s why evolution in general is a scientific concept. All it would take is a single fossil to be found in the wrong sequence and the idea would need to be reconsidered. That hasn’t happened yet.

The ability to change your mind is critical in science. Just a couple of weeks ago the New York Times published an article by Professor Richard Muller of University of California, Berkeley, a so-called “climate change skeptic” who had undergone a change of mind. Having previously identified problems with some of the research into global warming, he then undertook a thorough review of the evidence and found himself changing his mind. He said:
“I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”
His research took into account all the objections the various climate change deniers had recently raised but he was able to reject them all. He also then published all of his findings online so the rest of us can review them as well if we want. (You should have a look, it includes data from Botswana as well.)

I don’t want this to be about climate change, that’s another issue, the point is that this scientist did what science demands. He saw the evidence, in fact he gathered much of it, he analyzed it thoroughly and saw that in certain areas his skepticism was misplaced. Like Dawkins’ professor he did the honorable thing and admitted he had been mistaken and changed his mind.

Of course life would be a lot simpler if we all had the courage to do this. I know from personal experience that my political views evolved and there came a point when I had to renounce certain labels I had used to describe my politics. It wasn’t easy to do this. I was once called a traitor for changing my mind. And that’s just politics. When certain religious groups will cheerfully have you condemned to death for changing your mind and either adopting a different religion, or worse still, abandoning superstition entirely, I can understand why many people decide to keep it secret. They continue to regularly visit their place of worship and go through the motions even though deep down they don’t believe in the core beliefs any more. This internal psychological dissonance is toxic.

Maybe if all political, religious and cultural groups were willing to accept that changing one’s mind is a natural and inevitable thing then life might be a little more tolerable. We might have slightly fewer excommunications, jihads, fatwas and killings. We might even be a bit more rational.

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