Sometimes I can't help but change my mind about something, like I did after hearing Dan Pallotta give a studied, persuasive talk about how we tend to apply a double standard to charities and non-profits. I've changed my thinking on several things, particularly over the past 18 months. Sometimes the experiences are gradual shifts. Other times they're more acute, almost like an awakening.
One of those abrupt shifts happened for me on one of my most closely guarded views about education. I had a firmly held position on creationism: People are free to believe it, but it belonged nowhere near a science classroom.
Well, I changed my mind about that.
To understand why, it's useful to remind ourselves that 4 of 10 adults in the United States believe that the God of Abraham created Earth, and everything in it, less than 10,000 years ago. That is an intellectual catastrophy in my opinion. However, drawing a hard line at the classroom door and ignoring it within the context of teaching science, says MacEwan University Professor P. Lynne Honey, is at minimum a missed opportunity, if not a mistake entirely.
Prof. Honey makes it clear that "teaching the controversy" is not the same as inviting a discussion of creationism into the classroom. She argues it is a valuable illustration of what science isn't, aids in students' critical thinking capacities, helps them understand the language of science, and how to recognize logical fallacies. It is presented, in her words, "as a sociopolitical controversy rather than a scientific controversy."
In short, rejection of the Teach the Controversy movement is based on two key principles. First, there is no controversy. Evolution is a robust and well-supported theory that has undergone rigorous testing, and is a unifying theory in science. Second, creationism does not belong in science curricula. Entertaining non-science notions is dangerous because discussing those notions in a science classroom risks legitimizing them. While I completely endorse the first principle, I have changed my mind about the second principle.
In this passage, Prof. Honey explains one of her exercises...
Although it feels ironic, the following anecdotal evidence illustrates my approach. I presented an ad hoc reasoning fallacy, in which some creationists have responded to fossil evidence with statements that those fossils must have been put there (by supernatural forces) to trick or test the faith of believers. After I pointed out that original statements are revised in order to preserve the key belief (creationism), a student indicated that he was confused. He thought that being able to revise your thinking was important in science, and he couldn’t understand why a creationist revising his thinking was bad, but a scientist revising her thinking was good. I could see several other students tilt their heads to ponder this point, and realized that I needed to back up and revisit the concept of falsifiability: using evidence to reject a hypothesis is scientific, whereas creating an explanation for evidence in order to defend the original hypothesis is not scientific. Scientists use ad hoc reasoning to refine and strengthen theory but not to insulate a weak theory from valid criticism.
We then discussed several situations, including decisions about medical treatments or support for political parties, in which people should reject their hypotheses based on available evidence, but instead create additional explanatory layers in order to avoid changing their minds. Students have often told me that they knew that creationist arguments were flawed, but they didn’t know how to articulate their discomfort. Students have expressed appreciation for being given the tools to better argue their positions.
Reading about her rationale caused me to change my mind about engaging creationism in a science classroom. But it also made me step back and contemplate on the very nature of what it means to change your mind, and how that can happen.
Changing your mind is hard
Science subjects itself to a scrupulous standard of testing. Hypotheses are strengthened, adjusted, or discarded depending on the evidence. It is not concerned with what we'd like or suspect, it is concerned with what is. It is amenable to revision and even disproof. I think mind-changing itself resembles a scientific process.
The problem is that's not how our heads work. The human mind tends to arrive at many of its ideas in a faulty manner, and then hold onto them – some pretty tightly. And it does all that in the face of data and evidence that directly refute those ideas. How? With all kinds of tricks. Changing your mind can even be discouraged and penalized by social pressure. If a U.S. politician changes his or her mind on an issue in light of strong evidence, they are branded a "flip flopper" – no term of endearment. Religious-minded people experience similar pressures, and are considered virtuous by not changing positions, no matter the evidence (or absence of).
How do you change your mind without being credulous?
I'm not certain how, but I suspect one thing is true: If changing your mind is dependent on the evenhanded acceptance of strong contradictory evidence, then being tuned to when you are dismissing or distoring that evidence is a key trait to have. It might be helpful to think of it as a skill. So knowing when an argument that sounds convincing to the ear but is actually bad is a core competency to that skill. Once you become familiar with some cognitive biases and patterns of bad arguments, you start to see them in a lot of places. Like cable news. But also in your own thinking. I know that in my work I am susceptible to favoring a design because it looks nice, or appears to be superior to other options. But when put to the test, it underperforms compared to a less "elegant" alternatives. Despite the clear data, it's difficult to let go of the design I've already come to prefer.
What are your stories?
Whether or not it was for emotional, irrational, or logical reasons, when was the last time you changed your mind? What caused it?