When do you change your beliefs?

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).

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  1. For me, it takes someone I trust and respect who has the evidence. I’ve had my mind changed about a few things. One of my brothers is obscenely smart and has a PhD in molecular biology to back it up. On some issues, he’s the king and if he can explain it and demonstrate it (sometimes with photos from the microscope, sometimes with a relevant study), I’m all for it.

    But, I only trust him on a few subjects. When it comes to economic matters, he’s on the short bus. That’s not to say he isn’t careful with money, but in economic matters he comes to me for advice. I try to be patient and explain issues, but I know there’s a certain amount he has to take on faith, just like I have to take a few things on faith with him. He’s spent his academic life in pursuit of biological expertise, and I’m a vice president at a really huge bank. But, the credentials aren’t everything – there are plenty of PhD types who would swear by homeopathic treatments, or who personally go to chiropractors. I guess the issue for me is one of credentials, trust, and if they walk the walk.

  2. I think Michael (1) hits on part of the answer — we trust people who are seemingly learned and knowledgeable, and we’re willing to accept their wisdom.

    I think that people change their beliefs when they realize that changing that belief won’t invalidate the rest of their life. (You see this with conversion to the gospel — when someone feels the spirit and realizes that the gospel won’t totally invalidate things or else will help them validate themselves more, they join more easily.)

    The OP laments that only 22% of Mormons believes in evolution. I see this as a great thing, because I consider that stat to be *increasing*. Ten years from now, hopefully a survey would show it to be 35%. Some beliefs take generations to die out.

  3. The basic process seems pretty clear. People use a few initial pieces of evidence — often shockingly bad support, but something which resonates with them — to construct a narrative. From there, additional facts are simply dropped into the existing narrative.

    The best recent demonstration was the test where they showed the same news stories to both self-identified Democrats and Republicans, and asked what those news stories showed about President Bush. The Republicans saw that those stories showed that Bush was doing a good job, and the Democrats saw that those stories showed Bush was doing a bad job. They were the exact same new stories, but people were dropping them into different pre-existing narratives. Or, as Simon & Garfunkel said, “a man hear what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

    How do we change belief? A person’s basic narratives are built relatively early in the process and are not usually reassessed very often. A person will look for a way to reconcile a new fact with an existing narrative.

    The rhetoric of exception is an extremely powerful tool in maintaining narratives. It was used by no less that Goebbels, who spoke various times about the idea that there were a few good Jews here and there, you might know one, but in general Jews were evil. This was just enough of a loophole that ordinary German citizens could fit their friendly Jewish neighbor into the exception clause, while still believing the overall message.

    It is difficult to evade the natural tendency (sometimes reinforced by discussion such as political rhetoric) to create exceptions which leave the underlying narrative alone. Contrary evidence in general does not help. People will simply classify a new contradictory fact as “one odd exception” to the existing narrative.

    In my own experience and observation, narrative reassessment may happen in cases where a person encounters a startling and significant fact which both does not fit existing narratives, and is startling enough to focus their attention. At that point, the person may search for a new narrative. Narrative reassessment is most likely to happen if the fact is one which is hard to sideline; and people may more easily abandon an older narrative if there is an alternate narrative available which comfortably fits the rest of the facts which the person has accepted.

    In my observation, there are typically no silver bullets, no “aha!” studies which make people say, “holy s**, I was all wrong about [global warming / gay marriage / health care reform / vaccination].” The dialog tends to focus on that sort of thing — “here is a study which clearly refutes your view, what do you say to *that*?” — but that does not appear to me to be an effective device in changing a person’s views.

  4. (I remember being a stubborn 10-year-old who thought a belief in evolution was evilevilevil because my primary teacher said so, until my microbiologist/professor father explained the issues to me very carefully, how it could logically fit within the stories in the Bible and from Church lessons on how the earth was created, how many Church leaders accepted it, etc., etc., etc.)

  5. I think changing beliefs takes a certain amount of humility. And I’m worried I’m in trouble because I haven’t changed any major beliefs in the last couple of years.
    When major beliefs have changed, they did so because someone I respected stated their educated opinion on the matter, and future evidence backed it up. The ability of that educated person to say “I don’t know” also helped me to take them seriously when they stated what they did know.
    Even if I respect someone, if they’re against the consensus in scientific matters, I’ll remain skeptical. Scientists aren’t always right, but they’re a much safer bet than the scientifically ignorant.

  6. I do think that simply relying on a study is a bad way to inform one’s beliefs. Studies are flawed/biased for all sorts of reasons.

    And the polarization of the media and the “experts” makes it tough, because so many politicians/scientists are just towing the party line. (I’m no longer shocked at how many scientists push crap that they don’t personally believe is valid, just because of the funding they get.) I’m much more likely to be impressed when a Republican is in favor of a so-called liberal viewpoint than when a Democrat is, and vice versa, or when a scientist is willing to stand up and say, “my colleagues are wrong, and here’s why”.

  7. “I think that people change their beliefs when they realize that changing that belief won’t invalidate the rest of their life.”
    That’s essential. Having a science teacher who was also an LDS bishop tell me (and the rest of my class) that he didn’t have a problem accepting evolution made more difference than several weeks of learning about the evidence of evolution, at least to my 17-year-old mind.

  8. I grew up in a Daily Mail-reading family (British readers will know what that entails), one inclined to admire the righteousness of British foreign policy. I shared this view until May 1999. I was 23 and read an article in another paper about the cruel effect of UN sanctions on Iraq. In the space of an hour, I become much more cynical about the overseas entanglements my country sponsors.

  9. I believe if you track down the original survey, the question was not “do you believe in evolution”, but rather something like “do you believe that evolution is the best explanation for human life”. Big difference.

    An especially big difference for anyone who believes in pre-mortal existence or eternal spirits / intelligences, positions which are both rather unique to Mormonism, with a few notable exceptions.

  10. A signal that I look for is when someone of importance or relevance in the field changes their own opinion. For example, with global warming:

    As an economist, one of my favorite sources of news and information is (shocker!) The Economist–it’s a great weekly and does (imo) a fantastic job of presenting clear, accurate, fair analysis of most issues. For years, The Economist had held a position that Global Warming was not something to buy into at all. However, a couple of years ago, that editorial position changed, and it caused me to reconsider my opinion.

    In contrast, someone like Al Gore trumpeting global warming, or Michael Moore trumpeting social health care, will rarely convince me, because frankly, I think they would say the same thing independent of whether data supports their opinions or not. In other words, what I value is someone who has had, historically speaking, a vested interest in an issue, who changes their mind, despite the possibility of fallout or losing face because of the switch.

  11. Mark (#9) Even though the question might be badly worded, my experience outside of my department in the church would suggest numbers very similar.

    Michael’s (#1) and Scott (#10) views on discipline background is very important. My wife would no more let me handle the checkbook then she would drive an airplane. Knowledge in one area does not translate into knowledge in others (some of the biggest CC critics come from physics and economics). This use of authority as authority more broadly construed is a dangerous way to update ones evidence. Being a scientist, actor, politician, media personality, writer, does not confer expertise on everything. If you ever see me writing on economics, disregard it.

    Kaimi, (#2) overcoming deeply engrained narratives can be very difficult. And some sources of belief I believe are not open to objective scrutiny. My testimony is based on subjective experiences that I can tell you about, but you can never experience. That too is evidence that has to be considered in constructing a life’s narrative.

    Tim (#5), humility yes. Courage too. Queuno (#6) I’m glad your dad set you straight, but you are more skeptical than I am about the motivations of scientists. I’ve known many and have never met one that did not believe the things they said they believed or were teaching and writing about. Ever.

    RJH (#8) What allowed you to form that new belief? Was it just evidence or were you raised in an environment of questioning?

  12. SteveP (11.),
    Sure. But there is a fairly substantial difference between accepting the Economist a my principal source of truth and light regarding climatology and using it as a source of news information. As I said–seeing the change in direction they took caused me to “reconsider” my opinion–not dogmatically switch it.

    As a more extreme example, suppose that Fox News–a generally known source of conservative ideals–came out tomorrow with a huge set of pro-social healthcare stories and opinions. That might give right wingers something to think about, no? Would you find a textual analysis of the BoM that confirmed its ancient origins more exciting if it came from atheists at Harvard or CES folks from BYU?

  13. Good question. The perception of bias (regardless of the fact of the matter) would give me weight toward Harvard study because I would think to convince them the evidence would have to be extraordinary.

  14. Exactly. That is why the Economist’s opinion caused me to pause.

  15. psychochemiker says:

    I can provide some examples on how to ensure people won’t change their minds.

    Tell them:
    “The debate is over”
    “Only uneducated people don’t agree with me about X.”
    “You’re just buying into propaganda”

    And my favorite tactic practiced by many who claim to be enlightened and open minded.

    “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up, or I’ll ban you.”

    Lead by example, people.

  16. Ive been perplexed at why theres a general distrust of human caused global warming among mormons. I have to wonder if it stems from the beleif (among the majority of mormons) that science is wrong about evolution therefore it cant be right about global warming. Its terribly unfortunate that so many will not accept either. Its not a matter of if you believe, for me its just a matter of accepting the evidence or putting your head in the sand

  17. Belief is always relevant to the way we structure the world. It’s updating beliefs in light of new evidence that is the hard part. How is that done?

  18. Lee (16) – I think distrust of human-caused global warming among church members has more to do with a majority of church members leaning conservative politically. I think the distrust comes from the political end, rather than the church end.

  19. I think JT is right that it’s a political rather than religious thing, but there is something about the religion that produces more political conservatives, so isn’t that just pushing the cause back one notch?

    As for the larger question about changing beliefs, I think it’s a question of trust. You have to have trust in the source of the information, or the information is not going to have any power to change your beliefs.

    In the global warming example, if you read broadly you can find a pretty good consensus on most of the major issues accross a broad spectrum of the scientific community, but if you don’t read broadly, it’s easy to get the idea that there is a lot of disagreement in the scientific community on many of the relevant issues. This perceived disagreement fosters distrust, and enables many to dig in their heels.

  20. Those who understand science understand its limitations, manipulations, etc.

  21. JT (18)

    Good point but I still find it difficult to distinguish the “political end” from the “church end”. So many of our political views are shaped by the church.
    When church leadership is silent on issues such as global warming, I think most members take it as a sign that it isnt anything to worry about and therefore they feel a religious justification to ignore the science.

  22. What an interesting question. I wonder what sort of personality determinant there is involved – a genetic component to being “questioning” or “teachable”.

    I’ve been helping my little brother work on a paper he was writing for his government class on same sex marriage, and it was interesting to me to see him explain his reasoning for opposing it. He relied heavily on church teachings and what his family believes, and things like “evidence” – scientific studies, news articles, etc. – were way down on his list.

    While I was editing, I was really conflicted – did I have a moral responsibility to point out what I thought were flaws in his position? Or was it wrong of me to try and change his belief because I thought it was incorrect? Is one person’s belief more valid than another? I think I am a questioning person, and it goes so far to make me uncomfortable in ever asserting that my belief must be Right. I can only ever say, this is the best I can do with the evidence we now have and it will likely change to some degree in the future. And to be honest, although my beliefs are updated (I don’t think change is the right word) frequently, I hesitate to try and change others’.

    I don’t know what made me that way but I think it had a lot to do with influencing me to go into biology. I think investigative research attracts that personality, wherever that personality comes from.

  23. Wow, I was just thinking about this. I recently wasted a bunch of time in an exchange on global warming with a bunch of libertarians. One of them actually claimed he felt justified in ignoring the science because he thought it was a government conspiracy that would serve to allow the “iron fist of government” into his life. Which is a really hard argument to take on because the justification for the belief is so disconnected from the actual evidence.

    I like evidence-based reasoning in determining my beliefs. When I’ve changed my mind on things (nuclear energy being a prominent example for me) it’s typically been because I sought out information on the topic and came away with a different opinion than I started with. Having done that a few times now I realize most of my beliefs are at least a little fluid and that fluidity doesn’t invalidate anything fundamental in my life.

    I don’t actually like the word “belief” for science, though–I don’t think it’s particularly accurate. When I say I believe in the Church or the Prophet, I mean I have a testimony, which isn’t something that is necessarily subject to the same level of rational scrutiny as science. When I talk about scientific belief, on the other hand, I mean the weight of scientific evidence/data convinces me the accepted explanation is correct. It’s a different thing in my mind.

  24. “So many of our political views are shaped by the church.”

    Very true, Lee. I wonder if the assertations that the church is True and contains the fullness lead members to ignore anything not taught specifically as doctrine.

    I also think that the concepts of learning line upon line go hand in hand with the long-term way science works, but can see how it can be viewed as being at odds with changing beliefs. For example, thinking that if we learn line upon line, our knowledge would grow, not be proven incorrect…

  25. I think that I will accept as fact a lot of things just because of who said it. It often takes a loss of faith in the person or organization that I believe in. Often our beliefs are structured by trust in someone or something. George Bush broke that trust with some voters so we have seen a shift to the other party.

    The denial of Global Warming is a good example of institutionalized belief and stems from our faith in the republicans and their political stand. And since the church aligns with the republicans on abortion and other issues we tend to go along with a lot of other things without any evidence to support that view point. We get entrenched with a group and feel we must be all in or all out so we go along with things and accept as fact things that we may not of if it was presented independently. I believe this acceptance is at the heart of the question you are asking.

  26. “I wonder if the assertations that the church is True and contains the fullness lead members to ignore anything not taught specifically as doctrine.”

    I wrestled with this type of thing for years. Ultimately science won and I was still able to make peace with God. Growing up mormon I never thought I’d feel like I had a minority viewpoint but I certainly do now. It offers a whole different perspective on life.

  27. It seems to me that part of the particular difficulty for Latter-day Saints is that our religion is so practical–we tend to believe that God is intimately involved in the day-to-day details of our lives, and that the church (and church authorities) should be, too. The church offers answers not just about how to govern our spiritual lives, but about what to wear, what to eat, how to order our finances. The Doctrine and Covenants is about everything from cosmology to personal economy, not just theology. So the dual magisteria solution (let religion answer spiritual questions, science answer physical ones) that works for many religious people is less available to Mormons, or at least requires some adaptation.

  28. I think there are two main things, that coincide with one another beautifully, that are needed in order to change your beliefs. These are humility and open mindedness. You have to be willing to say you were wrong and that there are other ways of viewing things; whether it be scientific, religious, or what ever else. And you have to be willing to listen to other ideas be open to theories and explanations of evolution, global change, vaccine issues, political issues, or whatever else comes your way.

  29. “which isn’t something that is necessarily subject to the same level of rational scrutiny as science.”

    Kristine (#23) is it the amount of rational scrutiny or is it that the kind of evidence changes? For me subjective spiritual realities are a kind of evidence that warrants my belief in things that have no scientific empirical support. But I think I do subject those things to a kind of rationality (like the seed metaphor in Alma 32). So I would say I bring to bear the same rationality, but the kinds of evidence that influence my belief change. For facts about the world, I have the rigorous standards of what I consider evidence, for facts about the ‘other world’ I have similar standards but the evidence is of a different nature.

  30. I’ve changed some major beliefs a few times in my life, never without difficulty. These include some religious ideas, some political, and some in other areas.

    For me, it involves a volume of evidence or indicators, from more than one trusted source. And finally, the really tough one, I need to be willing to give up the old belief for the new one. That to me is really the hard part, and I think it is reflected in some of the polling data quoted here.

    Sometimes it is easier than other times. I also think that due to some experiences in my education, under the right circumstances I am more willing to change beliefs than the average person. Let me give you a couple of examples.

    First, I minored in journalism in college. We discussed at one point the concept of a “fair witness” taken from Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”. It’s the difference in answers to a question like “what color is the house across the street?” Most people will say green, or white, or whatever, but the fair witness concept says that the correct response is “the front and side I can see from here are green”. Hence, we can sometimes infer things that we haven’t really observed, but we need to be clear about those conclusions, and realize that we could be in error. I try to evaluate ideas that represent paradigm shifts in light of that concept.

    Also, from my journalism classes, the concept of gatekeepers of information. To pick on the obvious culprit, if I get all my news from Fox News, I’m likely to have a different sense of things political, than if I am also reading the NY Times, listening to NPR, and watching NBC news. If I am watching Fox News, and reading the Wall Street Journal, I need to be concerned that they have common ownership by someone who has particular views, and can act as a gatekeeper in filtering what news gets through. The more diverse your sources of news, the more likely you are to get a better picture, and become that “fair witness”. The example given by Mark D in # 9 about how a polling question is asked is an example of the gatekeeper concept at play. The results are what they are, the methodology affects the outcome.

    The other concept comes from being on the debate team both in high school and in college. We would be given a topic for a year, research as much as we could about it, and be prepared to argue either for or against the topic on the drop of a hat, literally. It taught me that there are really almost always two sides to every story, perhaps more, and just because I have evidence and passion, doesn’t mean that the converse idea is without evidence, or passionate defenders. It’s made me a lot less certain about some things, and more inclined to listen to others and their ideas.

    You still have to be willing to change, and that often is more of an emotional decision than rational. It’s a messy world out there.

  31. MCQ (19) and Lee (21) – I completely agree that the issue is deeper than that, and our religious views certainly shape our political views. I find the phenomenon quite intriguing. I can see where many members of the church might align themselves with conservatives on things like abortion, marriage, and maybe even social welfare. The odd thing is where some then make the jump to things like environmental policy or immigration policy, especially when they have this assumption that the conservative political view on these issues is somehow implicitly endorsed by the church or accepted by most church members (well, the latter may actually be true). If anything, an argument could be made that the principles taught by the church actually go against the conservative view on these issues.

    Thus, as I see it, religious views shape one’s political views, which often leads one to accept an ideology that accepts those political views. This in turn can lead one to accept other unrelated political views within that ideology. Sometimes, these unrelated political views can then go back and shape the person’s religious views (rather unfortunate in my opinion).

  32. kevenf (#30), Very interesting point. I once spend a year reading Al Jazeera and the Jerusalem Post. What was interesting was not where they disagreed, but where they agreed. There is something to be said for this kind of open examination from multiple sources. As Cap (#28) says open mindedness goes a long way.

    Enna (#22) I feel that hesitancy too, especially when I know that some topics will cause deep divisions when I bring them up. It’s a hard choice sometimes whether to stand irresolutely for what I think is right in the face of good feelings I’m trying to nourish and that I know will be damaged.

    Kristine (#27) that tension in the way we expect God to tell us all we need to know, and His leaving us alone, does make it difficult to separate out the ways God should be involved in informing us about the world. I think that is why there are still some who try and read the scriptures as a scientific work and do not distinguish between metaphorical and scientific readings–they suppose God is the only source for knowledge about the world since He as spoken a few things about it.

  33. kevinf – great response. I love the idea of balancing your news sources rather than simply reading/listening to what you agree with. An undergrad worked in the lab I did research in and we were trying to point out bias in the media. I showed her a specific article in the NY Times she was reading, and she exclaimed, “But how can it be biased, if it’s right?”

    And I really love this “It taught me that there are really almost always two sides to every story, perhaps more, and just because I have evidence and passion, doesn’t mean that the converse idea is without evidence, or passionate defenders. It’s made me a lot less certain about some things, and more inclined to listen to others and their ideas.”

    Lee – I always feel like I have the minority view point anymore. Too liberal at church, too conservative every where else! :)

  34. SteveP–Let me try and say it differently. I don’t worry as much about the parts that don’t fit together when it comes to religion. I can accept that the church is true without accepting certain teachings I don’t find in agreement with the paradigm I accept from the remainder of my experience.

    I expect science to fit together into an elegant whole that I don’t expect of my religion (though I love it when it does–the parts of my religious belief I hold to most strongly are the most elegant, most self-reinforcing portions). I’m more accepting of the existence of contradictory religious evidence–probably because of its subjective nature–than I am of scientific evidence. Which is to say, I’m much more easily convinced something’s wrong scientifically than that my belief in this church is misplaced. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a strength of testimony or a weakness, but there it is.

  35. I think that getting balanced information is the key. Someone who changes their opinion because of Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity alone is very misguided, in my opinion. Someone who purely believes Al Gore on global warming without at least considering the points of view on the other side is also misguided.

    I think a similar thing should take place religiously. When younger, perhaps my only religious experience was within the Mormon sphere. Perpetuation of this leads to comments looking down, overtly or more subtly on non-Mormons. In the past few years, as my religious study has expanded far beyond Mormon beliefs, I have come to appreciate the beliefs of others far, far more. I truly see everyone as children of God, regardless of their beliefs. I have felt the spirit as I have read the Qu’ran or the Gita or the teachings of Buddha. I think there are FAR, FAR more similarities between people of different faiths than the differences we expound upon.

    Has this been good? I don’t know. I am far more loving and understanding of others and respectful of their beliefs. At the same time, I would make a far worse missionary now, trying to convince someone that my way was “better” than their way. We obviously believe in priesthood and authority, but in many, many things, other religions are better suited to make people better people. So, I suppose whether my change in “beliefs” has been good depends on your viewpoint.

  36. Kristine, (34) that is probably the right approach, if just because the two are apprehended differently and are used differently in our life. I feel like the things that I can know religiously come to me in very different ways. If I want to know something scientifically, I can approach the question directly and chase after it until I’m satisfied with the answer or at least know how to go about finding an answer. Religious questions may not have an answer that I can reach directly or that I can reach in mortality so I sometimes have to be content and accept things on faith rather than twist them apart until it yields to my searching. So I’m on board with the way you handle the two ways of knowing.

  37. holding up magical herbs and alternative medicines that will cure whatever ails you

    Funny you should mention that; I’ve got some organic coconut oil here that you really should try.

    Anyway, I can think of at least two beliefs I’ve changed. Upon reflection in both cases I hadn’t ever really thought about why I believed what I did in the first place, so when I heard opposing arguments I fairly painlessly jettisoned them.

  38. So I’m on board with the way you handle the two ways of knowing.

    Which makes me smile :)

  39. I agree with others who have commented about trusting the source.

    As the years have gone on, I’ve learned that there are more and more “deceivers” to be sifted through before the truth can be determined on a given issue.

    The out right lairs and disingenuous leaders in government and business have created a culture of disbelief in America.

    Many of the most skilled at obscuring the truth have advanced degrees in their particular discipline, and have taken to sophistry to advance their own career and financial goals at the expense society (Proverbs 6:16-19).

    Some of the victims in all of this are the honest and well-in tensioned in government and business. Their contributions get lost in our culture of disbelief.

    How does one deal with this? Prayer, study, and a believable source.

  40. Natalie B. says:

    I think that we are biased towards personal experience, both in that we tend to accept what resonates with what we observe and that we are more likely to trust and to listen to people who we personally know and like.

  41. Sheesh, Global Warming and Evolution are being used to beat on the heads of your political opponents, all so you can make yourselves feel above the fray of your political opponents who like to get so nasty and political with their science…

    Don’t you see you’re doing the same thing?

    How about this, as someone who believes Global Warming, as it is being sold to us, is overblown. There must be some effect on the environment, but it’s not as much as said, and the cures being proposed are worse than the disease (as almost always seems to be the case when science/technology about any given area is young). But I could be wrong about it. I think this is a similar position to most people who are demonized as “antis”.

    I’m not an expert on Evolution theories, but it tells us a lot about natural selection, and how species evolve based on genetic differences that allow certain “mutants” to thrive because they have a genetic advantage. I don’t think this fact -necessarily- man descended from apes. I’m open to the idea, but not entirely convinced and 100% certain that absolute knowledge one-way-or-another will not change much of what I do on a day to day basis so I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I think many people categorized as “antis” in this case are also on the same page as me. Perhaps they don’t express themselves so nuanced because so many people just want a black/white debate so they can pick sides and fight over them.

    What’s the difference between me and some of the proponents of these two theories that I’m supposedly “anti” about? Well, me, I don’t care if you believe it, and if you do or don’t I’m not asking you to change your life one bit. The proponents? Well, they want to do all sorts of things to the economy, industries, jobs, lifestyles, etc. With evolution, it’s not so potentially damaging to society, but it certainly does get used as a stick often enough to beat over the head of “religionists”.I still remember my high school biology teacher I had proudly proclaimed that no perfect God could perfectly create something so weak and frail, etc. as the human body.

    And that’s the problem as I see it. Believe what you want, just don’t use your beliefs, backed up by an imperfect, but still impressive scientific methodology as a stick to beat over my or my kids heads.

  42. #40-

    I had a great example of this in high school. I grew up in a town where most of the LDS kids were not the sort with whom good people hang out, so I spent a lot more time with the evangelicals. They had good morals and good values, but depending on what their preacher was throwing at them, they could be pretty heavy anti-Mormon at times.

    So the science teacher at school was openly hostile to LDS students. Therefore, the logic in many heads was thus:

    1. Mrs. Morris is the science teacher and openly preaches creationism.

    2. Mrs. Morris also claims that Mormons have horns, eat their own young, kidnap young virgins for sacrificial ceremonies, and believe in the Jesus who lived in East Nazareth, not West Nazareth.

    3. Therefore, Mrs. Morris is an uninformed idiot and shouldn’t be trusted on matters of creationism.

    I’ve since learned that while Mrs. Morris might indeed be an idiot, even a stopped clock can be right twice a day. Even if my brother can’t make heads nor tails of his 403(b) allocations, he *does* know his stuff about medicine. And, I can respect his opinion about exercise even if he did vote for Obama. (He’s since repented.)

  43. Natalie (#40) brings up something important, what’s the evidence for the beliefs we have about people? How is that structured and updated? Have you ever taken a dislike (or like) to a person without being willing to update your beliefs based on evidence? One thing about science is this continuing attempt to update belief in light of further evidence. How willing should we be willing to do this with people? If someone has let us down, when should we be willing to examine subsequent events and update our beliefs about that person? I see this kind of belief based updating happening less often with people than beliefs about the world. We seem to get entrenched (I’m speaking to myself as well) with our sense of people and it is hard to bring ourself even to look for evidence.

  44. JT (31)
    I couldn’t have said it better myself

    And, thanks Enna (33)

  45. do you believe that evolution is the best explanation for human life”. Big difference.

    Not really. It just means that our membership hasn’t really thought through the symbolism and every asked themselves, “OK, so God did it. Now how?”

    Good point but I still find it difficult to distinguish the “political end” from the “church end”. So many of our political views are shaped by the church.

    Really? Not in my state.

    (I can’t think of any other political views right now that the Church may be trying to influence, except abortion and SSM and gambling. What other views am I missing?)

  46. queuno,
    Not sure how much the Church is trying to influence the abortion debate–if the pendulum swings the other way on that one, the laws may be more restrictive than the guidelines the church gives for abortion.
    My state just voted to allow casinos in a few select cities. The church didn’t make a statement (although we don’t have a large LDS population in this state); I imagine most members voted against it (as did I–my city has enough problems with poverty already, and it certainly doesn’t need more).
    The church has been active in trying to expand religious freedom in the US (Elder Oaks, representing the church, made statements about Employment Division v. Smith). The church sided with three of the most liberal members of the Supreme Court on that decision (and disagreed with all of the conservatives and moderates on the Supreme Court). That was a few years ago, but I think in similar situations the church would again speak up.

  47. I agree with Mark D. — that the question of belief in evolution might have been framed a little better.

    As for the post: I’ll change my mind when science stops changing its mind. And by changing my mind I mean moving toward a pole rather than floating around the middle somewhere.

    I think one of the big problems with science today is that it sometimes tends to cross the line from inference to something more (shall we say) predictive — and that’s when I find myself wanting to jumping off the band-wagon.

  48. I update my beliefs every morning after reading this blog.

  49. I have very few things that I am willing to categorize as beliefs. A thing has to feel ‘exactly right’ for me to commit to it at that level. Most things, and people,I accept with reservations. Wishy washy? Maybe so but I prefer to think of myself as open minded.

  50. As for the post: I’ll change my mind when science stops changing its mind.


    First, you’re obviously getting your information about the fickleness of scientists from non-scientists.

    Second, scientists tend to change their mind when the weight of scientific evidence shifts or when some discrepancy comes to light that forces us to reevaluate previously accepted models. I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing. In fact, I think that’ the question SteveP was asking–at what point does the weight of evidence sway our beliefs.

  51. My favorite response to those who think science should have an unchanging stance to the things it studies is John Maynard Keynes’. When he was accused of changing his position he said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

    Science can only tell us how to bet. The kind of certainty some expect from science is also a failure in understanding what science does and how it does it.

  52. Kristine,

    I do tend to follow the consensus on most things, albeit at a distance sometimes — a great distance on AGW.

    One need only look at the history of science over the last hundred years or so to understand why a layman (such as I) would think the science community might be a little fickle. Thank goodness we’re no longer perfoming lobotomies on the clinically depressed.

    SteveP, as far as the facts changing and all that–

    Do facts change? Or does our perception of them change? Why has the AMA’s food pyramid changed over time? And if it’s changed in the past whats not to keep folks from presuming that it might change in the future?

    The only belief that I can stand on squarely is that scientists (collectively) are doing the best they can with what they think they know.

  53. For me I have a few huge examples. First I was an atheist for all my adult life until my late 30s when I began flirting with the idea that God might exist after all, that I had been mistaken. The way it happened is that first I knew that many of the people I most admired were religious. I thought at first that this was some sort of coincidence, that they were just wonderful people by nature, who happened to have some odd mistaken beliefs. Then I began to realize that I had no idea how to live and that I was unhappy. Finally I decided to take their word for it that perhaps, just maybe, they were right about where all their extra love, joy, caring, and happiness was coming from. This put me in the state of mind to be able to pray, even though I didn’t really believe yet, and I felt very foolish talking to the air as though someone were there who could hear me and answer. But the funny thing is that I did get answers in the form of feelings that came over me that weren’t from inside me. Thoughts that wouldn’t have occurred to me by myself. I tried and little by little I began to perceive someone there listening. It’s not something that would convince anyone who hadn’t experienced it themselves, of course. None of this fit with my worldview which was basically scientific. But I had to fit it because it was unmistakably true. So then I realized that it actually does fit if I allow observations that are personal and subjective, and possibly only happen once, along with the other type which are shareable and objective and repeatable. I began to see that without this new sort of knowledge (which was actually foundational and not new at all, just I had never recognized it before) I didn’t know the first thing about the world. When a baby learns what meaning means, when we suddenly aha understand something we’ve been struggling to see without enough information, the same sort of knowledge is often how it happens. So that was a huge change that was also paradoxically not really that much of a change, for my former entire worldview now fits neatly inside my new worldview, which serves as its foundation.

    So that was one enormous tiny change. =) The next is smaller and more recent. I read a book called The China Study which changed entirely my beliefs about what is a healthy diet. I was extremely reluctant to change at first, but huge peer reviewed study after study discussed in the book from very credible sources opened my eyes. I then adopted the diet recommended, and it made me feel hugely better. So that was a second big example.

    In both cases I had an impetus (dissatisfaction with my life in the one case and sickness in the other). Then I was exposed to ideas from sources that I was willing to find credible (my religious friends in one case and the giant peer-reviewed studies in the other.) Next I made a trial of the new belief systems, and in both cases with spectacular results (turning my life around in the one case, and improving my health in the other). Q.E.D.

  54. So, Jack, you do realize global warming was predicted over a hundred years ago by Arrhenius, right? And there are many lines of independent evidence showing it’s happening. At this point scientists are arguing over the magnitude of warming and how it’s going to impact regions or species, or the hydrologic cycle.

    We’ve learned quite a bit in the last 100 years, not least of all how to measure things better. Most of the changes that have happened came about because we learned how to make certain measurements, or learned how to measure things more precisely. Figuring out quantum mechanics had a huge impact on a number of fields, including my own (geology), all within the last 100 years. Stable isotope geochemistry (which I do) relies on quantum mechanics, and has proven an important tool in figuring out a lot about geochemical cycles, biology, ecology–the way the world around us works. We really weren’t able to accurately measure isotope ratios accurately enough to use them until midway through the last century, so that alone has caused quite a bit of upheaval–mostly in terms of answering outstanding questions. And that’s just one field, and not any of the ones you’ve mentioned. (medicine’s kind of a special case, by the way, since in many cases the kind of experimenting you’d have to do to truly answer a question is frowned upon.)

    I can guess that you don’t consider working scientists good sources of information on the scientific consensus. That’s fine–as has been pointed out above, we all trust different sources for our beliefs. I can see how you might mistrust a message about science from scientists. However, I would highly encourage you to do some digging on your own–develop more than a layman’s understanding of the scientific consensus and then ask why (and really how much) scientific thought is changing on certain questions. I suspect that as you do that, you’ll come to understand more why we scientists say we’re right all the time and you’ll be able to be more critical–in a useful way–when it comes to scientific claims.

  55. I think I’ll change my beliefs when nature causes some random mutation in my belief gene. If that mutation proves successful I’ll likely pass that along to my 11 offspring (oh, wait…it’s too late for that…) Until then I’ll just assume that I’ve evolved to believe what I believe (primarily that rootbeer floats are really yummy) and let natural selection figure out if the earth warmers or the earth coolers will ultimately prevail (actually I almost always skip the plastic shopping bags — doing my little part to save the planet).

    That evolutionary biologists spend any time at all wondering why more people don’t believe in evolution (or global warming or root beer floats) has always escaped me. Is natural selection taking care of the big picture or not? And if so, why all the ultra-short-term panic?

    Seriously though being in a culture with such a strong belief structure (really a Certain Knowledge structure — we KNOW things, not just believe them — despite 12 of 13 articles of faith beginning “We believe…”) and OBEDIENCE structure, does make it hard to set certain beliefs down to pick others up. But just like evolution, it seems to happen, if very slowly. So all you enlightened scientific minds — just have a little patience with the rest of us. :)

  56. Kristine,

    Most skeptics believe there’s some kind of warming going on. I don’t need to change my beliefs on that. Indeed, I’m not totally against some measure (however small) of AGW. But I don’t see myself ever going through such a radical change in beliefs as to accept the plausability of oceans rising by 22 feet because of AGW.

  57. I think love is a powerful motivation for change. Pain is a powerful motivation for change. Seeing someone close to you suffer can help you reevaluate your beliefs. I am really a fan of sitting down with someone compeltely opposite of your views and talking about the weather, your most embarassing moments, your spouse, gardening tips..whatever-getting to know the opposition on a personal level makes it harder to see them strictly as opposition. A personal approach to reading both sides of the story.

    Being willing to try things out and roll them around in your head for a while…being willing to act on different ideas…even things you don’t want to be right.

    I ate raw foods for six months this last summer and was shocked at the difference it made in some health issues-especially a tooth ache. I really didn’t want that to be the answer-I really love bread-but there you are, it worked like crazy.

    On that note though I strongly feel that some people have a revelatory experience for one and assume it should be applied en masse. That drives me nutty.

    My favorite global warming tidbit is related to volcanoes-somehow at the time of volcanoes errupting and releasing all their atmostphere wrecking gasses, plants in their area somehow “magically” know to up their photosynthesis and balance it out. I think that’s neato

  58. But I don’t see myself ever going through such a radical change in beliefs as to accept the plausability of oceans rising by 22 feet because of AGW.

    Why not? Oceans have risen and fallen by much greater levels over the geologic past. Also, time scales are important here–I’d agree it’s unlikely we’d see a 22 foot rise in sea level over the course of a year (though I admit, I don’t know how quickly sea levels have risen in the past so my perception could be off here), but over the course of a decade or century I’d think it very plausible. Do you think it’s implausible that much ice will melt? Or that we’ll raise temperatures that far? Or is there something else that causes you to disbelieve that claim?

    Where did you get the number 22 feet, by the way? I don’t follow predictions for sea level rise very closely, so I’m curious what your source for that claim is.

  59. Why is it so difficult for Mormons to believe in global warming? After all, it says right in Malachi “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven;”

  60. Kristine N,

    I guess anything could happen. An asteroid could hit the Earth and cause all kinds of fun things to happen — and I’d certainly be a believer. At this point, though, I just can’t see anthpogenic warming causing the kinds of things that Gore talks about — and the 20 or so foot rise in sea levels is mentioned in his movie, by the way. (Plus, I think there’s a climatologist from NASA who’s predicted a possible one meter rise every twenty years or so. I think these ideas are based primarily on the the future collapse of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland.)

  61. “anthropogenic” that is…

  62. “Lee – I always feel like I have the minority view point anymore. Too liberal at church, too conservative every where else! :)”


    #35 I have had a similar experience and find myself both a better and worse missionary if that is possible. Better because I am able to connect with a wider range of people but worse because, as you expressed, I am much less insistent on my beliefs over the other person.

    One of the positions that I have shifted slightly on is abortion. Someone mentioned this above that many of the anti-abortion groups take a stand farther right than that promoted by the Church. I don’t know if many of those at Church are aware of this. For example prior to the election I rode to a meeting in a car where 4 LDS women discussed the upcoming presidential election. One woman was dismayed that her sister was supporting Obama and said she didn’t understand how she could support him with his position on abortion. I wondered how she could support the McCain/Palin ticket with Palin’s position on abortion but just kept my mouth closed.

    I have always felt conflicted with regard to the treatment of homosexuality and now gay marriage and where I thought I had solid answers before no longer feel so confident in them.

  63. “Why is it so difficult for Mormons to believe in global warming? After all, it says right in Malachi “For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven;”
    I agree that a lot of Mormons simply align themselves with the republican view point by default. I think the bigger problem actually has to do with this very idea Cliff brings up. They simply don’t care enough to evaluate their alignment – the earth is ending anyway, these are the last days, why care?

    Not knowing when the end of the world will come about, I tend to lean towards conservation… paradisaical glory may be some ways away…

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