Blast it all, I’ve tried to thwart the inevitable but it looks like the dark ages are upon us (to use a variation on Godwin’s Law). Jane Jacobs, that wise, indefatigable social critic, tried to warn us, but would we listen? No. It turns out that only 48% of Americans believe in evolution (only 22% of Mormons!). More Americans believe in haunted houses than global warming, and there are still loads of wacky people running around scared of vaccines (often, all the while, holding up magical herbs and alternative medicines that will cure whatever ails you.) All of these represent a catastrophic failure of science education. It boggles the mind.
Well not completely. People like their beliefs. Changing them is uncomfortable and tiresome. I watch the climate change debates for example and stand dumbfounded that detractors misunderstand things so badly. Science works by ‘inference to the best explanation.’ It’s not individual pieces of the story that hold the structure together, it’s lots of little pieces of evidence, which in combination tell a coherent story and gives us a sense of how to bet on the physical nature of the world. That’s what science gives us, a sense of the way things probably are, i.e., how to make a wager. So the climate change story is not just global temperature measurements, it’s worldwide melting glaciers, ecological changes, rising ocean levels, increasing C02 above historical norms, shrinking ice caps at both poles, the world-wide dying of coral reefs due to ocean acidification, changes in species distributions (including plants, insects, vertebrates, and pathogens), changing patterns of drought and rainfall, satellite data, mathematical models etc. etc. etc.). There are all kinds of surges forward and backwards, (the world turns out to be much messier than we would like) but science gives us strong reasons to bet on a global changing climate. Detractors will often find one piece of evidence that does not fit the pattern and cry, “Refutation, refutation, refutation! We call refutation on you!” They aren’t required to make a coherent explanation of all the other things converging toward a single inference, no they have to just find something that breaks the pattern and discard the whole thing. Ignore the overarching story because a couple of things aren’t following the pattern (which in science we fully expect). Same with vaccine detractors. Find someone, somewhere, who has a bad reaction (and they occur at a rate of tens per million) by mining the internet and push it through as if this were the common story. Forget the harm from the disease, which occurs at the rate of tens per hundred if you get the disease, and just cry the ‘danger’ from the rooftops. Evolution skeptics follow the same pattern. Alas. What is to be done? Of course a goodly number of you have raised your hackles by this point and are ready to point me to people who are ‘unafraid to tell the truth’ and who will expose the ‘conspiracy of science’ to the light of reason. Blah blah blah. When they are ready to confront (and collect!) all the data in peer review publications, I and my scientific buddies, who have all been initiated into the Secret Society of Hidden Knowledge will be listening with open ears.
But this post isn’t about climate change (blessed be it), or evolution (All bow!) or the wonders of modern medicine (Hallelujah!). It is about why we believe the way we do. What structures our belief and more important when should we change our beliefs? Seriously, I worry about a culture that seems so unable to change its view in the light of new evidence. Once something is believed we seem to lack the chops to rethink, reevaluate, and reorient. The strength of science really lies in two things: An unrelenting openness and scrutiny (through a rigorous peer review process) that exposes its data, its methods, and its reasoning to the world; and a willingness to change in the light of new evidence. These don’t happen perfectly or without intransience, personality battles, stubbornness, cultural influences etc., but it’s the commitment to these things that has allowed science to push through its weaknesses to give us the benefits we enjoy on this side of the Middle Ages—you know, moon landings, ice cream, and cancer treatments, that sort of thing. But the popular trend seems to be heading towards a kind of superstition grounded in an inability to change ones mind in the light of new evidence, and to raise inappropriate suspicions based on misinformation, supposed conspiracies and malfeasance.
So for today’s topic consider the following questions:
How do you update your beliefs? Can new information change your mind? How do you assess the quality of that new information? Who do you grant authority to address your beliefs? If the information is abundant how do you decide what to pay attention to? Three areas: science, religion, what you believe about other people.
*** Note: I don’t want to discuss climate change, evolution or the evils of vaccination as such. We’ll discuss those later (and I’ll bring them up again, trust me), but now I want to understand what it takes to change your mind. Trolls on the above topics will be dismissed (mostly because of the grand conspiracy of science I’m secretly engaged in. I don’t want people finding out the truth about these topics).