Changing Your Mind

Michael Coren wrote over at the Walrus about his recent conversion... not away from Catholicism, but towards acceptance of LGBT rights and same sex marriage.

And just like that, I realized how often the opposition to marriage equality was—and is—motivated not by a sense of duty to defend traditional wedlock but by a profound dislike of gays and lesbians.

His conclusion isn't particularly revolutionary. When it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, for those who live in Canada, the writing has essentially been on the wall for over a decade. (Although some parts of the world are struggling to see it, and the United States are coming pretty close.)

But what is really important to draw attention to is the fact that he is publicly changing his mind. Most people don't do that publicly. Somehow, we view changing your mind as a sign of weakness. As though revising our conclusions in the face of new evidence were somehow a bad thing, instead of the best possible thing.

Of course no one wants to admit to being wrong. If you admit you're wrong once, what's to stop you from being wrong twice. Robert Trivers in The Folly of Fools points out that there are actual advantages in society to convincing ourselves we're more right more often than we really are. But that just seems to make it harder to admit we're wrong.

Usually what happens (and what the free-though blogosphere is predicting for twenty years from now) is that people come around quietly and then later, will act as though that was what they believed all along. There are a few things at work. The first is the curse of knowledge. Briefly, when you know or believe something, it's all but impossible to imagine what it must be like to not know that something. That can be the cause of a huge lack of empathy.

The other is that when we evaluate evidence we don't do a very good job of it. We tend to reason by rough rules of thumb which kind of work most of the time. One of those is to follow the conviction. Someone who is absolutely convinced that they must be right, is probably right. When you say it like that, it's obviously foolish, but whether we are willing to admit it or not, we believe it. In fact many who are considered to be leading religious scholars will argue with a straight face that they should be allowed to count their own personal conviction in the existence of a god as evidence for her existence. These are people with PhDs!

While I know I disagree with Michael about a great many things, he has been nothing but incredibly pleasant and supportive in the brief time I've spent with him. And the fact that new information can convince him to change his mind is a wonderful thing. So thank you.