Posted by: Dan | January 6, 2008

Science vs. Faith: What Have You Changed Your Mind About, and Why?

Alex reminded me about The Edge Question of the Year, asked 165 illustrious members, which include some of the smartest scientists and thinkers on the planet, this:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?”

The three lead-in statements catch my eye in particular. Of course I have my views – philosophy is at its best as metascience; imaginary magic men should never change a rational person’s mind, although otherwise rational people can and do get “gut feelings” and mistakenly call them divine inspiration; and why shouldn’t new facts be the best indicator of when you’re wrong?

old womanOkay – exposure to new ideas about old things is also a great way to ‘change’ your mind, and was left out of the list. New data alone often doesn’t explain “changes of perspective,” and new ideas are often as difficult to accept as seeing through an optical illusion, such as this “old woman.”

But I digress…

What have I changed my mind about though? Hmm… I can think of a lot of things that I learned, and some errors that I’ve made along the year, but something major that I was dead-wrong on? The lines are rather blurred, are they not?

Some candidates:

  • I misunderstood the delineation of microevolution and macroevolution, and was corrected. In retrospect, a glaring gap in understanding of terminology of the field of evolutionary biology, which was not a standard course for my undergraduate major of molecular biology. Well, even the best of us think we understand all the terms when we do not.
  • I think that I refined my understanding of why people believe in strange things, religious and otherwise. Our social and cultural environments really do effect our behavior, and likely, our genes.
  • The dream of my graduate school years – becoming a postdoc – is nice, but not all it’s cracked up to be. The lesson: make the most of your years as a grad student.

Those are the ones fresh in my mind, anyway. Probably more accurate of my introspective attempt to answer the question, is JBS Haldane’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of the four stages of acceptance of a hypothesis by rivals:

i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so.

At the moment and in retrospect, (iv) does seem to be the case for just about every example I can think of – but at the moment of (ii) and (iii), I presume that I actually was changing my minds.

To the Edge question, and modes for changing our minds – new facts and new ways of looking at old facts is the only way to do it. Getting messages from your intuition can never achieve such a level of precision.



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