Painful Truth: Changing course is not so easy

When was the last time you changed your mind?

I don’t mean that you changed your mind about what to have for dinner, or what tie to wear. I mean, when was the last time you changed one of your core beliefs about the world? And what made you do it?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I watched a movie called Pandora’s Promise recently. It’s about environmentalists, most of whom were firmly against nuclear power, who have made a 180-degree turn. They are now pro-nuclear power.

Nor is this a function of old hippies turning into right-wingers as they age – these folks believe that nuclear power is necessary to ward off global warming.

The most fascinating part of the program was watching one of the environmentalists visit the devastation and the somewhat irradiated zone directly around the Fukushima nuclear plant, in the aftermath of the tsunami that largely destroyed the building. He admitted that it wasn’t comfortable to have his new beliefs about the relative safety of nuclear power challenged. He couldn’t help doubting his own still-recent conversion.

Most of the film was about nuclear power itself, but it was those moments of questioning that left me fascinated.

What causes – or allows – a change of belief?

We cling to our core beliefs, but we do so with a fervour that suggests it has little to do with the fact that we think the beliefs are right. We push back hard when we are challenged.

One of the easiest ways to bait me into an argument is to speak up in favour of creationism – the idea that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old, and that humans and animals and plants were all created around the same time. (Ditto for intelligent design.)

Why does creationism bug me so much? Because while I’m not a scientist, I love learning new things about the universe. I love the idea that the universe is, for the most part at least, knowable. I find awe in the idea that we are only the most recent branch of evolution, the tip of a broad and branching tree that includes dinosaurs and bacteria, sea sponges, and redwoods.

I could (and do) make a lot of arguments about why I’m right and why the creationists are wrong. But at least part of the reason why it winds me up so much isn’t the objective issue, it’s the way it’s bound up into my sense of who I am as a person. Likewise, the creationists who are no doubt reading this and getting upset because they’re having something at the core of their own beliefs challenged.

Politicians, you’ll notice, don’t try to change our actual opinions. They just try to tie things we already like (families, security, money, patriotism) to their party. Then they try to attach things we don’t like (lies, stupidity, failure) to their opponents. An election is no time to debate real issues, after all.

Many of our beliefs seem to be subject to clustering. What’s the connection between supporting lower taxes and the death penalty, exactly? Most of us get a lot of our beliefs pre-packaged. You support A? Then you also support A1, A2, and A3. The conventional wisdom of the group dictates that, if you strongly believe one tenet, you probably believe the others, so as not to rock the boat.

Finally, consider this: at least something you believe firmly will be condemned by history as backwards, barbaric, and foolish. Go back a hundred years and your great-grandparents certainly believed things that would make you cringe now. Out in the world now are the iconoclasts who will be proven right.

What are we wrong about?

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