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.