Jack is a volunteer at the CCNY Archives. Before retiring, he worked at IBM for over 28 years. His articles have over 120,000 views.
In a recent conversation with a friend, the subject of open mindedness came up. I thought to myself, what would change my mind on any particular topic? Am I stuck in my own ideology as I accuse others of doing the same? I want to explore this further and decided to write this essay.
- Mar. 2018
Each of us has a world view and a set of principles we live by. These are shaped by our education, our family upbring, our experiences through life, the media and our church and our community. Because we live in a free nation, and each of us have certain rights, we are entitled to our opinions. We can openly debate them with others if we choose. Most of us, are pretty set in our ways. There is a certain comfort zone to think we are doing the right things and voting for the right policies that govern our lives. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, we tend to ignore them or down play their importance or make excuses. It is our human nature.
That brings me to the topic of the moment. What does it take for someone to change their opinion on any particular issue? You can intellectualize this by asking the question, are you open minded? Will you allow yourselve to put aside your preconceived notions and listen to new facts or evidence and decide whether you need to rethink a particular issue and whether you can actually reverse your thinking to accept the opposite or opposing views?
Here are a few possibilities.
1. A new study by a scientific recognized group that either disprove or confirm a believe.
2. A person of authority that you trust or know personally, tells you his or her belief.
3. You can see for yourself the results of a particular action than may either be positively or negatively consequence, an eye witness to the event.
4. Indirect evidence or hearsay that you have come across and may not be sustantiated.
5. You take it on faith or instinct that what you believe is true or false.
There may be a few other variations but essentially these are the cases.
A Real Example From My Own Experience
This is a controversial topic and one that is filled with emotions and bias. I am issuing a warning up front.
It was about 20 years ago when I was in the mid 40s of age. I was following the news and it was reported that global warming is a potential problem for humanity. The concept of the greenhouse effect was expained and that our burning of fossil fuel and expelling vast amount of CO2 is the culprit. Prior to this, I had no opinion one way or another. Once it was explained by some scientists, it made sense from the surface. I read up on this and found that one way we can help as individuals is to reduce our gas consumption and to plant a tree. Trees are nature’s way of converting CO2 to Oxygen and water. It is the basic Carbon cycle we all learned in junior high school. As a good citizen, I started telling my friends and neighbors to plant a tree to save the planet. In fact, our town sponsored a “plant a tree” day during Earth Day. It was mostly symbolic but it made people feel good. We are doing something.
A while later, as I dug deeper into this issue, I realized the issue of global warming or climate change, is very complex. Even scientists disagree on how climate is affected and by how much...The problem is exasperated by the fact that the earth is huge and there are many natural cycles that also affect climate. These cycles take decades and hundreds of years to complete. The problem became one of separating the real data from the noise. Data are hard to come by, especially when you are talking about a global average. How do you come up with one number to describe the average temperature of the earth? Let that sink in for a few minutes. How would you go about it? It is not like you can take a thermometer and stick it some place and say this is it?
A good scientist will devise a process where by they can create a model of the real world and then make various tests against that model. These tests will exercise the model in such a way especially in the extremes to make sure it is performing adequately.
A Side Bar...
When I was working in the computer industry, I was in charge of designing an ALU as part of a microprocessor. This was back in the late 1970s. and VLSI was just coming into existence. The problem with this design is the long time for iteration. When you design a chip, it takes months to produce a real chip. Once you have it, and you test it and found a problem or bug, you need to fix the design and go through another manufacturing cycle. You can’t afford too many cycles else you will miss the product deadline. To get around this problem, it was common for designers to create a model to simulate the real design. That is instead of waiting for a chip to be manufactured, we run computer simulations to make sure the design is working properly. In my case, the ALU is the arithmetic logic unit. It is the part of the computer that does the calculations. It is a very simple design that consisted of three registers. There are two input registers and one output register. The idea is, under program control, one can load a binary number into register one, and another into register two, and a control signal such as addition, and after one clock cycle, the answer will appear in register three. It is simple enough but the design circuits must be connected in a specific way such that it will do the operation correctly. Not only that, it must perform all the various combinations so that all parts of the circuits are exercised. At that time, the registers were 16 bits wide. That means there are 2 to the 16th power or 65536 unique numbers. In order to make sure everything works, you will need to perform a minimum of 2 to the power of 32 unique additions to verify this design will be able to add two numbers correctly. That is a daunting task and it is called a brute force method. These computer simulations are very expensive in term of computation. They were run on mainframe computers and usually overnight. As it turned out, you don’t need to do all combinations to proof it is working properly. You only need to test a few extreme cases such as when an overflow occurs. To simply the explanation, lets just use decimal numbers to illustrate. If I add 1 to 9, I expect to get 10 as the result. If I add 2 and 8, the result should also be 10. That is because there is a carry over to the next decimal place. In order for the processor to do this correctly, there is a circuit that connects one output to the next...and so on. Once a test case is identified to excercise that part of the circuit, there in no need to repeat it for another case. Thereby, you can reduce the number of test cases drastically and still insure that the end result will function properly. This is an example of creating a simulation model to represent a real piece of hardware that when exercised, will produce accurate results 100% of the time.
A Model of Our Planet...
Just as the computer simulation model I described in the design of a microprocessor can help in the manufacturing process of that chip, a computer model of our planet can help us understand the real world. The problem is that this model is very complex. There are numerous parameters that can effect the end results and some are positive feedback and some have negative feedback loops. The various natural cycles also must be accounted for. Therefore, a computer model is only as good as the design of the simulator. The bottom line is the accuracy of predictions. If a model can accurately predict the future given a set of conditions, then it is worth something. However, if a model missed the outcome by a large factor, then, we must conclude that the model is deficient or incomplete. Back to the drawing board as they say.
Because it is so complex, there are ways to reduce some complexity by focusing on just a few subsets. For example, you can model just the ocean currents, or the jet stream or ice cover and see how they react to various changes in our environment.
It is with these new knowledge that I became a skeptic on the theory of AGW or human caused climate change. In specific, we have accurately monitored the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere over the last 50 years or more. There is a place in Hawaii where scientist do this measurements. The plot is rising steadily over this time period and a few years ago, they have crossed the 400 ppm level.
According to numerous climate model projections, the earth would warm by a certain amount due to this one factor of the greenhouse effect. Unfortunately, when we do measure the temperature average, it falls short of these projections. What is going on? The simple answer is we just don’t know. We do know that the current models are incomplete. It calls into question our basic believe in the effect of CO2 on our planet. Perhaps there are other motigating factors that we missed or there are some negative feedback yet undiscovered. In either case, the dire projections that goes along with increasing temperature, and melting ice sheets, and rising oceans and increased storm intensity also failed to live up to its projections.
In this case of climate change, I have reversed my early belief in the theory of AGW. I did so after analysis and research and reading studies and attending lectures on various topics. I have concluded this problem is too complex to model at the present. We cannot rely on these models to project the future effects. Mainly because it is too complex and that the current measured data does not conform with computer simulations. The model must be incomplete.
I have demonstrated in this case, I kept an open mind and I changed it when I found new evidential data. I am open to additional reversals if and when the data shows it.
© 2018 Jack Lee
Jack Lee (author) from Yorktown NY on March 25, 2018:
Jennifer, thanks for the extensive comment. I didn’t expect it. It is something my friend and I explored in a recent discussion. I had to think about it for a while to come up with an example. Thanks for your kind words.
Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on March 25, 2018:
Thanks for this. Thanks for the lesson on ALUs.
I, too, think global climate is way too complex for people to predict or, possibly, influence. However, I don't have the authority to say so, not having a background in climatology or computer model design as you do.
I do notice that even when it comes to the past, the history of the earth is so complex that honest, well-meaning scientists can have major disagreements about what exactly happened and when.
About what it would take to get us to change our minds about something, here is one of the most insightful comments I've ever heard about that:
"To get someone to abandon a major belief / theory / chunk of their worldview, it's not enough to show that said part of their belief system is inadequate or has logical holes or even fatal internal contradictions. You must also present a compelling alternative explanation."
People need to have stories that they tell themselves about the way the world is. This need is so great that they do not just abandon one of their stories when it is shown to be flawed. They have to have another story to replace it, either one that makes more sense or that they find more attractive for some other reason.
It takes a certain kind of scientific mind (such as you have), or else a lot of maturity, to abandon even a minor belief and replace it only with "we just don't know."
In my experience, people get called "close-minded" when they don't want to abandon their belief system. That's not really fair. I think the term "closed-minded" should only apply when the person refuses even to acknowledge the existence of alternative theories.
As far as considering facts, that's tricky. We often hear "facts" that it turns out later were either made up, or "spun" into existence. So I don't think it's necessarily closed-minded to doubt a "fact" that sounds very implausible to you. It's not closed-minded to ask for evidence.
For major, life-foundational belief systems, people's need to have one is so strong, and such a foundational part of being human, that I believe it's not wise to abandon your world view and replace it with nothing or with "we just don't know." In my observation, people who do this tend to veer toward depression and nihilism, and furthermore become very self-righteous and hostile toward people who still have audacity to believe anything.
The Logician from now on on March 24, 2018:
Well Jack I think you make some broad statements that are questionable like everyone has a world view and principles they live by and most of us are pretty set in our ways or When confronted with evidence to the contrary, we tend to ignore them or down play their importance or make excuses. It is our human nature.
I don't think those characterizations apply to most of us nor are they a part of human nature. I believe those are learned behaviors and given the proper environment and education what you deem to be characteristics of each of us would disappear in the light of reason and there would be a natural tendency toward open mindedness and a deliberation.
The ability to change your mind is a function of multiple factors, not just human nature. Speaking from my own personal life experience my nature from my youth has always been an open mind, consideration of others' opinions and even a life without a world view or even principles. These things are all learned things and thankfully so because human nature can be to not care to learn anything.
So my point is age, life experience, mentor, teachers, parents, etc. all these things define our nature and if it was innate human nature to not be open minded civilization would never have advanced to the state it is today.
I know first hand that people who are closed minded are not that way by nature but they have been taught (deceived) to be so.
So what does it take to change a person's mind? If they are not open minded they need to be enlightened, shown or taught a better way and if that "better way" doesn't exist through unbiased reason (or common sense) then a closed mind is probably the correct position.