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IMO: What would it take to change your mind?

by Mike Weaver

November 25, 2014

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Donate As critical thinkers and skeptics, it is important that we understand our own beliefs and accepted facts. Take to heart the words of physicist Richard Feynman who observed, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself"and you are the easiest to fool.” His essay, "Cargo Cult Science," is well worth a read, even if you’ve already read it. One of the primary jobs of the scientific method is to protect us from our own biases and mistakes"to help us not fool ourselves.

To that end, I’ve found, in my own exploration of science and skepticism, that I need to be on a firm footing with my own thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs. One of my favorite tools to test my own thinking is to ask, about any fact, assumption, or belief, the simple question: What would it take to change my mind?

There’s a lot of power in that question. It challenges us to see how deeply held a position is. For instance, it may be that nothing could change our mind about some fact or presumption or belief. If no evidence can change your mind, is it a scientifically supported position? It is not, in my opinion.

Religious beliefs are good examples of positions one could hold which are not properly scientific. Most religious folks hold fast to their beliefs and will not accept any evidence to change those beliefs, and that’s fine. Religion, however, is not an area into which I wishto peer with my skeptical eye.

This question can be a useful tool to open a dialog with someone regarding a non-scientific belief they have. Consider a belief in ghosts for another example. If a person holds a belief in the reality and existence of ghosts, a useful question to engage them in a dialog might be to ask them what it would take to change their mind. What would it take to make them believe that ghosts do not exist? Even if the dialog does not proceed much further, the question has the beneficial effect of asking one to test the reasons behind the belief from a new perspective.

In science, it is sometimes quite useful to tackle a difficult problem from multiple fronts. If you’re having trouble proving A, sometimes insight can be gained by trying to disprove A. Even if you know A to be true, the attempt to invalidate it can have the effect of improving the case for A.

In my own profession of computer programming, I often find myself wedged into a corner with some tricky problem. There may be no visible path to solving the problem. An effective tool to assist with resolving the problem is this same question. Test each assumption upon which the problem is based. How do I know it is true? What would it take to make me think it isn’t true? Quite commonly, I find that one or more of the assumptions are either flat wrong or misunderstood.

When we talk about a scientific hypothesis or theory, one item that frequently arises is whether or not the theory is falsifiable. In other words, What would it take to change our minds about it?

So, I ask you: What would it take to change your mind?

Be well.

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by Mike Weaver

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