One of the enormous ironies of the Covid-19 pandemic is that what should be an unquestioned triumph for science seem to have actually reduced trust in science for many. In less than a year science provided the tools to end a global pandemic, including an understanding of transmission, sophisticated models of epidemiology, and multiple safe and highly effective vaccines. You’d think that would bring folks for once and for all into the science-is-great-and-I’m-thankful camp – but no.
Instead, we’ve seen lots of folks reacting to the way organizations like the US Center for Disease Control and the Canadian National Advisory Committee on Immunization have revised guidance as more information came in. Transmission was surfaces, then droplets, then aerosols; we should wash our groceries, but then not; blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine were vanishingly rare, then moderately rare, then (just) common enough to prefer other vaccines.* The result has been incendiary media stories posing as exposés, a torrent of quacks and science deniers seizing on every shift as if it supported their twisted version of reality, and – most sadly – what seems like a lot of ordinary people throwing up their hands and deciding that if guidance keeps changes, they shouldn’t listen to any of it.
That is very much not the right response.
Experts changing their minds isn’t a sign of weakness or confusion. It’s quite the opposite: willingness to change their mind is part of how an expert can be – or at least, should be – recognized. Willingness to chance one’s mind is how we distinguish science from cults. In fact, science (as a process) is arguably nothing but an elaborate system for knowing when to change one’s mind. Show me someone who gave unchanging advice through a global pandemic of a novel disease, and I’ll show you either a charlatan or someone afraid of saying anything that matters.
But this isn’t just about the pandemic, of course. Willingness to change one’s mind is how we advance our understanding of the natural world. We test hypotheses, and when they fail, we discard them.** When we don’t do that, we’re saddled with a zombie idea – one that persists even though we’ve long since accumulated data that conflict with it (we’ll let Paul Krugman handle those in economics, and we’ll let Jeremy Fox handle those in ecology). Human knowledge has advanced so enormously precisely because we’ve been willing to learn new things and discard the mistakes we made before. (We once thought that caterpillars were spontaneously generated from dew, and had nothing to do with butterflies. We once thought burning substances released phlogiston. I could go on.)
I’ve seen suggestions that CDC and NACI and others made their own problems by poor messaging around their mind-changing. That might be partly true, but I’m not sure that any amount of better messaging could get past our society’s crush on gotcha journalism and motivated reasoning. What we really need is for the general public to understand the absolutely key point: that they should never trust anyone who doesn’t change their mind. That would sure be easier if we could silence the charlatans who deliberately distort science and seize on mind-changing as if it were a problem. No, I don’t know how to do that either.
As scientists, of course, we understand all this, and we change our minds as needed and value others who do that too. Wait, did I forget to light up my “sarcasm” sign? If you clicked on that link about ecological zombie ideas, you’ll have seen a strong argument that ecology, at least, could benefit from changing its mind a little more often. As a general rule, scientists are very smart about some things, but are regular humans who think fuzzily about lots of other things. Every field has examples.
What about me? Do I change my mind? Well, this post isn’t quite about what I thought it was about when I started writing it, so there’s a small example.*** More generally: yes, I do; but likely not as often as I should. I’m human like all of us.
So, change your mind (except about reading Scientist Sees Squirrel), and value those who change theirs. Especially if they can explain why.
© Stephen Heard August 4, 2021
Image: changing your mind © Andrew Doane via the Noun Project CC BY 4.0
*^For what it’s worth, I had two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and was grateful – no, elated – to have that chance.
**^Although this Popperian caricature is a major oversimplification of what we really do. That’s a subject for an entire course in philosophy of science.
***^OK, it seems only fair to offer a bigger one. As a grad student, I argued strongly that we should study ecology in pristine ecosystems, where the processes we were studying weren’t all messed up by human disturbance. Now I understand that (1) Earth doesn’t have any “pristine” ecosystems; (2) the particular sites I chose to work at were way more impacted than I thought; and (3) there’s an equally good argument for seeing human disturbance as something that can reveal, rather than hide, process.