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RFQ: What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (Plus: Last Chance on the Coin Contest)

John Brockman has been making people notice his ideas for the better part of half a century, going back to the Happenings of the 60s. He's a publicity hound--a literary agent, he once promoted a movie starring The Monkees. More recently, he's created an online salon of ideas, including an annual New Year's question he poses to a long list of the planet's philosophers, thinkers and academics. This year's question:

"What Have You Changed Your Mind About?" Which also becomes the Random Friday Question here on the big blog.

Flexible, optimistic people live longer, the scientists tell us, so--are the world's leading thinkers ready and willing to admit that they've changed their views about big things?

Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog way back when and the early online community The Well more recently, has decided that his early passion for building preservation was dead wrong. "Good old stuff sucks," he writes. "Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it's just stupid.
Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers' market, preferably), this-year's laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs."

Brockman surveys a whole lot of scientists and math types whose idea of changing their mind is to adapt to new findings and slightly shift a particular perspective or line of inquiry. This is not in the spirit of the question and I won't bore you with those folks' self-righteous, pedantic responses. There are also quite a few folks who describe their movement from faith to agnosticism or atheism, or vice versa, which is surely change of a sort, but one that probably tells us more about the author's personal, emotional state of mind than about an intellectual journey.

But every once in a while, one of Brockman's correspondents is honest and rigorous enough to admit to a real change:

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt says he used to consider sports and fraternities to be the height of American celebration of stupidity. "Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university." But Haidt has changed his mind: "I had too individualistic a view of human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense."

A friend of Carl Sagan's writes about his own flip from the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to his conviction that We Are Alone. Internet advocate Douglas Rushkoff says he has given up on his notion that the Web would change the world and alter human consciousness and has now reluctantly concluded that "cyberspace has become just another place to do business. The question is no longer how browsing the Internet changes the way we look at the world; it's which browser we'll be using to buy and sell stuff in the same old world." And TV writer Karl Sabbagh concludes that no, experts really are no wiser than the rest of us: "The people I know who are wise are not necessarily knowledgeable; the people I know who are knowledgeable are not necessarily wise. Most of us confuse expertise with judgment."

In some cases, the change of mind is a reinterpretation of events. The physicist Freeman Dyson took a new look at the end of World War II and decided that history was wrong: The dropping of the atomic bombs did not end the war. He lays out a pretty compelling case based on new historical studies and concludes that demolishing that myth might make the road to eliminating nuclear weapons a bit smoother. Not likely, but still, a splendid thought exercise.

All this change can make for bewildering and disturbing reading: A mathematician concludes that robots can see God. A philosopher loses trust, faith and belief in modern medicine. An evolutionary biologist reluctantly comes to see that there really are more differences among races than we would like to think.

I've changed my mind about many things in recent years. Here are just two of them: I used to think that slower was better than faster. I now believe the opposite. And this: For many years, I favored fat over salt. I have now switched sides.

What have you changed your mind about?

(And while you're thinking creatively, please remember to jump in on our D.C. quarter contest: You propose the image that ought to be on the new coin that will belatedly add the District to the U.S. Mint's 50-states quarters program. Our crack staff of judges will choose the most creative and persuasive proposal. The winner's image will be given to an artist who will produce a reasonably professional rendering of your idea for the folks over at the Mint--and you will win a very nice version of that artistic rendition.

(Here's how to play: Send your entries, in word description or, if you're really ambitious, in image, to We'll collect your entries through January 6th and report back to you soon thereafter.)

By Marc Fisher |  January 4, 2008; 7:20 AM ET
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I don't think the tales of scientists changing their viewpoints based on new evidence are necessarily "not in the spirit of the question." If you've based an entire career on pursuing questions that are in turn based on a single conceptual structure, and you then abandon that conceptual structure, that's a pretty significant change. In order to pursue any kind of coherent research agenda, there often has to be an idea somewhere at the back animating it. (Of course, that's another thing I saw a bunch of times in the responses: that there shouldn't have to be an idea in the back animating a research agenda. Another sea change.)

Because of my relatively unadvanced age, I view most of my changes of mind as me weeding out relics of my callow youth rather than "changing my mind" as such. Probably the main concept on which I have changed my mind is the commensurability of our individual worldviews. I used to believe unquestioningly that it was possible to know someone, in a meaningful way - to be able to see into and truly understand his or her worldview. I no longer believe that, as much as I would like to.

Posted by: Lindemann | January 4, 2008 8:44 AM

I've changed my mind about politics. I got to DC in 2003 and worked on the Hill and thought it was the end all be all. I would watch CNN and the Sunday morning shows. Now I can't stand to watch any of it. To be honest most politicians speak to what people want to hear not what they think should be talked about.

Posted by: Jay | January 4, 2008 10:13 AM

There are some issues where the common assumption is that no one on 'either side' will ever change their mind. One of these is a question that I have, in fact, changed my mind on: the death penalty.

I used to think that the death penalty served a meaningful purpose, particularly in deterrence. While I did not advocae its use wholesale, I did believe that its use in particularly extreme crimes was a good thing.

As I've grown (older, and hopefully wiser) I have completely reversed myself. As I have dealt with more, and more varied, people I have come to the belief that capital punishment has no meaningful effect in deterring crimes. I won't go into detail, but I expect that many will understand what I mean. I have also been negatively impressed by the number of people convicted of crimes and sentenced to death that have been proven through unbiased scientific evidence to be innocent. No amount of extra care and requirements in the legal system seem to be able to stop false convictions.

So - I changed my mind.

Posted by: Al | January 4, 2008 4:23 PM

I don't know if it's a change of mind, or an opening of my eyes, but, like Al, my change deals with the justice system. I thought it was about justice. Now, I realize that, more often than not, it's about system. Still, it's not the worst system.

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