Changing My Mind

Lighthouse

No-one ever thinks that they are wrong. The closest we ever get is to acknowledge that we have been wrong (perhaps just an infinitesimal blink of the mind’s eye ago) and have now either corrected ourselves or maybe are still weighing the evidence. Wrongness for others may be in the present but for ourselves can only ever be in the past.

You will have noticed that I pride myself on being as rational as possible, and a vital part of my self-imposed rationality is a willingness to accept that any of my beliefs, no matter how cherished or strongly held, could be overturned at any time if subjected to the necessary falsifying evidence. There can be no special cases or exceptions.

Now I recently got to thinking that, if I really mean this, there must be examples in the past where I have been wrong, and accepted it and corrected myself. So in that case, what is the most important thing on which I have ever changed my mind? It would have to be on a non-subjective topic, so it couldn’t be what’s-my-favourite-song, or which-girl-at-school-do-I-fancy-most. It would not need to involve being wrong in any absolute sense, for not every belief is necessarily binary in nature. But there would need to be a sense of falsifiability about it, with the weighing of evidence and facts.

I have already written on this blog about how I came to change my mind on anthropogenic global warming. However, this isn’t necessarily the best example to cite as my initial belief was based more on a generalised trust of the pronouncements of scientists rather than looking at hard data for myself. As soon as I started to look the doubts crept in, and were followed by my changing my position.

I recall that while at university I became increasingly critical of qualifications based mainly on coursework rather than exams. This was mainly caused by observing how some of my friends studying other subjects had a much lower-pressure time of it than I did. Drafts of essays and dissertations would be passed to and from tutors until an acceptable standard was reached, with very little original thinking required. In contrast the final grade for my engineering degree was about 80% exam based. The stupid thing is that I realised at the time that even a couple of hours after an exam finished, once the need to retain information had gone, I could no longer recall it. I therefore missed the obvious conclusion: I wasn’t really learning all that much. However, because I was spending hour after hour desperately cramming my head full of facts, while my friends lounged around fiddling with re-writes, I mistook hard work for learning. It should be obvious that life is not a series of one-off crunch exams, it is a continuous cycle of work, and therefore exams are in general not the best way to test people’s knowledge. They smack of rote learning. The problem was (and often still is) that general quality standards applied to coursework (especially for original content) were low and poorly policed.

In 2003 I supported the Allied attack on Iraq, because I thought it was possible to plant a democratic seed in the Middle East that would set an example and lead to the overthrow of the region’s many sadistic, totalitarian regimes. However, events since the badly misnamed Arab Spring clearly indicate that the typical Arab is less interested in real democracy than he is in the opportunity to indulge his favourite sectarian hatreds. Looking back, it makes me feel that I was extremely naïve.

Even more shamefully, I will admit that for a while I would have supported the use of torture to extract information from captured terrorists. It was soon after I first became a father and I found it all too easy to imagine my child dead among the rubble of an attack, and over-reacted accordingly. I rationalised my stance by saying it should only be applied to those actually caught red handed, not just to general suspects, with legal controls and blah-blah-blah. At root I felt that if they were ruthless and we were soft then terrible ongoing loss of life would ensue. I have since come to appreciate that to take desperate and unpleasant measures in apparently desperate times can be the start of a very slippery slope, that the outrageous quickly becomes the new normal, and that there is always some sort of emergency that can be used to justify such actions. Such a course strips away our civilisation and we would emerge victorious but morally broken. I do not want my children to grow up into a world where anyone is tortured.

One problem we have is that people often mistake the benefits that arise if one accepts a belief (e.g. a feeling of always being supported and protected if one believes in God) with evidence for the truth of that belief. It is therefore all too easy to deceive ourselves, with apparent rationality, to believe in something for which there is little or no evidence.

Also, by publicly professing doubt one dons the mantle of virtuous rationality – “If the facts change I change my mind”. But a genuine doubt must arise because there is an appropriate reason for it, and must be resolved either by accepting a new, different belief or be dismissed as baseless, even if this takes time to think it through. Perpetually sustaining generalised ‘doubt’ for its own sake is not rational, it is merely applying mental camouflage and binding oneself closer to ones existing belief. I realise that I have done this myself at times, and now try to guard against it.

Simply to say that you doubt, or are willing to doubt your beliefs is not enough. The trick in genuine doubting is to seize upon every bit of evidence you come across that may disprove your belief, and examine it as thoroughly as possible. Ignoring evidence to support your position is acceptable, because the Scientific Method is based upon falsification, not confirmation. But always, the slightest sniff of disproof cannot be overlooked.

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4 responses to “Changing My Mind

  1. I have written a refutation of some ideas expressed in these articles.
    But I need your email, though, because what I wrote isn’t very small.

  2. I’m sorry Daniel but I’m not giving my email address out. I don’t mind a long comment, or you could provide a link to a website (or perhaps your own blog) that says what you want to say.
    Thanks for taking an interest.

  3. I don’t have a blog. It sucks to leave a reply here.

    Oh, BTW, typo here, not “these articles” but “this article”


    You will have noticed that I pride myself on being as rational as
    possible, and a vital part of my self-imposed rationality is a willingness to accept that any of my beliefs, no matter how cherished or strongly held, could be overturned at any time if subjected to the necessary falsifying evidence. There can be no special cases or exceptions.

    There could be at least some exceptions. You see, no human that rational has ever walked upon Earth. I don’t think you will be the first.

    If you really were that rational, you’d start creating an systematic psychological/pedagogical theory about your methods to attain such royal rationality. After you done some preliminary work, you’d send that material to other persons. I certain you did nothing of that. So, I conclude with high confidence your self-description is flawed.


    It would not need to involve being wrong in any absolute sense, for not every belief is necessarily binary in nature.

    What are binary beliefs? Do you mean beliefs that are either true or false? I am sorry, but that figure of speech won’t help anyone here. Actual beliefs are always true, in the sense they are real. What is either true or false are the propositions. And the truth-value of proposition is necessarily binary. Or are you perhaps talking about states of knowledge?


    I have since come to appreciate that to take desperate and unpleasant measures in apparently desperate times can be the start of a very slippery slope, that the outrageous quickly becomes the new normal, and that there is always some sort of emergency that can be used to justify such actions.

    I’d guess you are just overreacting. Can you give a example of such slippery slope existing?


    Also, by publicly professing doubt one dons the mantle of virtuous rationality – “If the facts change I change my mind”.

    Do you realize how stupid is that quote if taken literally? Facts never change. What changes is our knowledge of facts.
    The virtuous rationality you are describing doesn’t let you go anywhere. It is a car radio that only fits in cars without working engines. Not only that but, it nerves me that the language you used in the entire post shows undue self-gratification, even if at some points you tried an half-backed self-deprecation.


    But a genuine doubt must arise because there is an appropriate reason for it, and must be resolved either by accepting a new, different belief or be dismissed as baseless, even if this takes time to think it through.

    Why are you talking about how doubt must arise? Doubt, although intellectually relevant, is a psychological feeling nonetheless. How much control you think people have over themselves? One thing is being skeptical of a claim, because of something, and then conducting an investigation. Another thing is doubt, that might make you a skeptical of claim. Or just leave you confused. This difference makes me think you are talking about something other than doubt.


    Perpetually sustaining generalised ‘doubt’ for its own sake is not rational, it is merely applying mental camouflage and binding oneself closer to ones existing belief.

    False. An generalized ‘doubt-state’ is not camouflage for believing. If you are having doubt, you cannot saying you are binding yourself to your current belief. It is the exact opposite.


    I realise that I have done this myself at times, and now try to guard against it.

    I am fairly sure you never did that. As far as I know, that kind of doubt is hardly existing as phenomenon of human psychology.


    Ignoring evidence to support your position is acceptable, because the Scientific Method is based upon falsification, not confirmation.

    You just missed an implication. If you miss evidence to support your position, you are missing counter-evidence against other positions. In other words, confirming something, means falsifying the alternatives.

    By the way, that thing about the Scientific Method, about “falsification”. That was conceived by Karl Popper in the middle of the 20th century, very well after the establishment of science. It would be temporally impossible for Karl Popper’s ideas to influence scientists from the past. A causal paradox. This text snippet rests on the implicit assumption that Popper’s conceptions can be reasonably embedded in the actual history of science. Worse is, even if I take Popper’s conclusions as accurate, the snippet cannot really stand. Because Popper never said that scientists create hypothesis and them go on (the same who created the hypothesis) to attempt at falsifying them. [correct me if I am wrong, not that really matters, because if he said that, he is demonstrably false]

    He said that an scientific proposition must be falsifiable. Now, for the most part, scientists test
    hypothesis (unless you really dislike your “rival scientists” or the hypothesis-maker is masochist), by comparing observational results (from experiences or whatever) to previously available conceptions. If the previously available conceptions give good answers, they are in, and the new hypothesis rest on the bench until the next test.

    If there isn’t previously available conceptions, scientists make tests just to confirm theoretical answers to empirical results, and them you go on and on until scientists find an alternative hypothesis. Now key part: if scientists find a problem, they shouldn’t discard the science. What they should do is to make the hypothesis’ scope narrower, until the empirical divergence can be dismissed. Indeed, from the empirical divergence, one can create an alternative theory.
    [example: Uranus theoretical orbit conflicts with some empirical measurements of Uranus orbit. new planet is hypothesized, later Neptune is found. blahblahblah]

    In the case the science has any connections to policymaking, the honest thing to do is to say for the policymakers “the science is not reliable on point Y, it is only reliable at point X, and the practical consequences of that two facts are blahblahblah”


    But always, the slightest sniff of disproof cannot be overlooked.

    Ending on an seemingly pragmatic-but-not-really note, what counts as a “disproof”? After all, as soon you have a sufficiently high standard for what counts as a rebuttal, this obligation can be quite easily achieved by anyone who is actually attempting at an investigation of a topic. We could only detect an ‘disproof’ if we could analyze what comes to us to see if it lives up to the standard. It isn’t THAT hard to do that if you are actively making some inquiry.

    If you don’t have that high of a standard, by following that rule, you would lose many time answering illogical rants, baseless essays, even if you managed to detect what is essentially constant between the retorts in order to make your work easier.

    It might just be better to adjust your effort level proportional to your perception of virtue of the objection itself. Indeed, that is actually coherent position, because as you being to be more diligent at answering specific rebuttals, you put them at more or less equal standing to your own intellectual capacities.

    The first exception is one that hardly is a real exception, that is when you have didactical purposes in mind. In this case, you can spend your time however you want, even giving 10-minute answer to trivial questions. But this scenario has two unlikely premises:
    (1) You are very knowledgeable of the subject being addressed.
    (2) Your audience isn’t very knowledgeable subject being addressed.

    The second exception is when you fell the urge to tell someone else that she is wrong. Even if this person is right, whatever. In this case, what you are equating to your capabilities is not the rebuttal itself, rather it is the challenge of communicating with another person about certain ideas.

  4. Well, Daniel, you were certainly right about the length of your reply. Thanks for caring enough to make it. I’ll try to respond as best I can:

    First, you seem to think that I am claiming to be perfectly rational, but I know that no such human exists. That’s why I said ‘as rational as possible’.

    By a binary belief, I mean one that has only either/or answers that could be proven, not subjective beliefs such as ‘I think Nick Drake wrote the best music ever.’ Your statement that ‘Actual beliefs are always true, in the sense they are real.’ is true in itself but only in that very narrow sense. People hold plenty of beliefs that are demonstrably, hideously wrong. Anyway, in my laymen’s use of the term ‘non-binary belief’ the propositions are not true or false, they are subjective. I have no idea what the technical language for such things may be.

    You ask for examples of a slippery slope in the context I use (oh, and thanks for accusing me of over reacting, by the way, that was really polite). How about the imposition of anti-terror laws since 9/11 that erode civil liberties and lead to government activity such as the recently revealed activities by the NSA. If you don’t see that as a slippery slope I really can’t help you any further.

    “If the facts change I change my mind”: Thanks for accusing me of stupidity when it is quite clear to anyone with half a brain that it is our knowledge of the facts that is implicit in the quote in the first place. Do you really think that stating so publicly is some sort of insight on your part? Your metaphor of the car radio escapes me, I’m afraid. I also apologise if you mistake the tone of my post as one of self-satisfaction, that was not my intention. I genuinely do try to examine my own beliefs in a rational way, but I am quite used to internet discussions and know full well that the chances of me changing your mind on that are probably zero. People usually read what they want to into written statements and then refuse all further explanations.

    When I mention doubt, I am referring to a conscious realisation that an accepted belief could be wrong. This would then require further investigation either by weighing possibilities or seeking new evidence. This sounds like doubt to me. Again, there may be other more exact technical language that experts in the field use. I wouldn’t know.

    “Perpetually sustaining generalised ‘doubt’ for its own sake is not rational.”: I am referring to people (of whom I have met many) who claim to be rational thinkers and to self-doubt, but who refuse to discuss coherently any evidence that gainsays a stated belief. By doing so they claim intellectual virtue while shying away from the requisite heavy lifting.The whole point of the article is about trying to move away from this position myself, as I realise I have done this in the past. Again, I realise I will not be able to convince you but I do often doubt a lot of my own beliefs.

    “You just missed an implication. If you miss evidence to support your position, you are missing counter-evidence against other positions. In other words, confirming something, means falsifying the alternatives.”: This is a very good point and thank you for making it.

    I am well aware of the influence of Popper on scientific thought, and I find your reference to scientists that lived before him confusing, as it has no relevance to what I say in my article. By the way, for you to say “correct me if I am wrong, not that really matters, because if he said that, he is demonstrably false” is a better example of “undue self-gratification” than I think I have ever managed in my entire life. Well done.

    “…slightest sniff of disproof”: Your rather long section discussing my final line ignores that obvious fact that the article was written for a pretty general audience and is not intended as an entry in a technical journal covering phsychology or cognitive science. Each of us has an entirely internal bench-mark for the required level of disproof that will change from topic to topic and even day to day. That is the context in which the line was meant.

    Anyway, thanks for the reply. It was over-long, somewhat condescending in tone and occasionally downright rude (hey, criticism works both ways, right?) but there was at least one nugget in there.

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