I am proud of something that is both very difficult to do, and critical to the success and flourishing of a democracy like ours. I have changed my mind. I have been persuaded by evidence and reasoning to revise my beliefs.
I will not go on here to describe the current climate of social discourse or the well editorialized impact of our social media echo-chambers. There is no doubt that we live in a unique time. Still, it has always been true that people are reluctant to change their firmly held beliefs.
The difficulty of changing one’s mind is escalated by some key factors, including, but not limited to:
- Public stance. The strain required to update a belief is proportional to the energy and vehemence already put toward arguing one side of the argument. If somebody has gone to the mat defending a position, especially in view of others, it will be quite hard for them to later admit that they wrong.
- Tribal lines. Whenever there are camps or well subscribed schools of thought, crossing the aisle is made seemingly impossible.
- Importance. When altering a given conclusion obliges one to reassess their world-view, then the task of conversion involves more work than at first glance. Think of the implications and historical debate around evolution, for example.
Beliefs that do not have these characteristics are more trivial. If you thought that K2 was the tallest mountain on earth, it wouldn’t take too much humility to pivot and refresh your operating knowledge if a quick Wikipedia search availed better info. Mt. Everest is the tallest peak on earth. Now we all know that and I don’t expect any contest. As long as you haven’t just challenged everybody at the dinner party on this fact, and you are not a part of a K2 elevation truther cohort, and your understanding of the cosmos does not change with this bit of topography, then there is no problem to go ahead and quietly upgrade your intel. Unfortunately, we all hold beliefs that are categorically different in their imperviousness.
Everybody has a blind spot, a figurative blind spot wherein, no matter how intellectually honest and fact-based they intend to be, they will reach wrong conclusions. I pride myself on being able to change my mind in the light of good evidence. Still, I’ve noticed major reluctance and unease when admitting that a belief I once held would require revision.
A recent case that helped me realize my own irrational stubbornness happened while reading Matt Ridley’s, The Rational Optimist. I noticed myself pushing back against a very compelling point. Simply put, Ridley argues that a belief that food should be sourced locally for the sake of environmental impact, just does not add up. I still suspect that sourcing food locally may have certain benefits along the lines of taste and health. But, to summarize Ridley’s point, there is not any reason to demand that the food supply-chain should follow different rules than, say, a laptop computer supply-chain. For a while, my intuition pushed against this idea. Food just felt like something that should not travel long distances – how wasteful! I was persuaded. It sure does make sense that avocados may most effectively come from Mexico just as processors come from Silicon Valley. My intent here is not to convince anybody on the specific point, but to demonstrate that I changed a belief with some of the characteristics that guarded it from rational critique.
This brief rant is a problem statement, for which I do not have a great or whole prescription. Though I do know some things we should do. We must provide a good off-ramp when we find that our interlocutor cannot pivot from a dearly held belief. This involves having respect. We must never belittle or create a strawman out of others’ positions. If you set out to “own” or embarrass someone, you are more likely to entrench them and to perpetuate bitterness and feuding.
We must change minds. Doing so may be hard, but it is not impossible. Conversations can do this but not without the right cocktail of civility, respect, and understanding to accompany the facts. Most importantly, we should all be introspective so as to notice when our own conclusions do not hold up under the scrutiny of cold hard logic.
I am enthusiastic about the opportunity SAM provides to make this happen. Everything I know about SAM and its leadership encourages me to believe that we will make a huge difference through respectful and fully rational discourse.