Monday, June 01, 2015

I change my mind. A lot.

I watch out for students have to say not only because it is my job, but also because sometimes students don't appreciate the profoundness in some of the thoughts they express.  Thus, when I bring their own words to their attention, they all the more realize the value-added over the term.

A couple of days ago, a student wrote:
After reading the material what I thought before has changed now. I thought any development in low-income countries is better then [sic] no development. But after watching the video “ The poverty environment;” my thoughts have changed.
I wanted to make sure students paused to take in that remark about changing one's mind.  I wrote:
It reminds of the classic statement by John Maynard Keynes, who said "When the facts change, I change my mind"  Education often has that effect on us--a well-reasoned argument with supporting evidence can make us change our opinions, or at least seriously question what we previously might have considered as the truth.
"An eternal skeptic" is how I recently described myself to the friend.  To me, there is simply no other way.  However, rarely do we view education, and life itself, as challenges to our gut instincts. and even our well-reasoned opinions.  To quote the X-Files, the truth is out there and we have to forever keep searching for it.

In an essay at Slate where the author is promoting his book on Max Planck, I came across this changing one's mind approach:
I just spent three-plus years writing a biography of the German physicist Max Planck, and I was most struck by one of his qualities. Yes, he was incredibly rigorous, mathematically adept, and intellectually fearless. But what stands out is that this rigid Prussian gentleman could and regularly did change his mind.
It is all the more impressive that an intellectual of that caliber did not try to defend his views and theories while keeping the new ones away but always welcomed the challenges and then even changed his mind.  How wonderful!

As the author notes,
We live in an age—perhaps the age—of confirmation bias. And given a turbulent sea of information, who can blame us for latching onto the familiar while looking away from anything jarring or mismatched? We yearn for the comforts of our main tribe, be that tribe political, religious, scientific, or economic. If that’s a failing, it is probably a hominid design flaw, far beyond evolutionary recall at this point.
For us regular folks, it is all the more a temptation to stay comfortable with what we know and whatever feels correct.  We click "like" on the memes that our Facebook friends post, watch the programs that reinforce the views that we hold dear.  What's the point of education if that's all we do in life?

Back to the author and the final point he makes in that essay:
Now I try to ask myself as often as possible if I am following his example. Am I nodding my head at a friend’s rant because it’s comfortable? Am I tucking it away (or reposting it) because I just trust her as a member of my tribe and because it saves me the work of reading up on that topic? Can I hear arguments and digest information that challenge my comforts and make me uneasy? Whether it’s a political issue, a favorite scientific assumption, or my preferred way to make coffee, is it not true that a deeper and wider sea of information can only make me a better member of the species? Changing one’s mind is a beautiful thing. It requires the hardest work between the increasingly common and more comfortable extremes of outrage and applause.
Exactly.  It is a lot of hard work to negotiate that vast grey area in between the "comfortable extremes of outrage and applause."  But, an unexamined life is simply not worth living, as comforting to the mind as it might be!

But, what about those who refuse to accept the new truth?
Surprisingly, Planck never requested or expected flexibility from his peers. He famously stated what’s become known as “Planck’s principle”: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, new ideas do not advance by evidence, argument, and persuasion, but rather by older thinkers with older ideas passing away.
How fascinating!

Am now all the more convinced about the eternal skeptic attitude.  And I am not changing my mind about that one ;)

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