Five lessons on changing someone’s mind (or “evidence ain’t everything”)

As scientists, we profess to the sanctity of evidence: repeatable, unambiguous observation underlies any conclusions we make about how the world works. But anybody who has tried to change someone’s mind, to convince them that a belief held doesn’t match the facts, knows from bitter experience that facts do not act symmetrically. Instead, a “fact” that further cements a current belief into place has much more weight than a fact that contradicts long-held belief. The difficulty of the task of changing someone’s mind, and hints on how we might do it, are the subject of a recent book by Howard Gardner. Gardner is a cognitive scientist with a long track record of exploring how we think and learn. He’s a real resource for the young academic who wants to be a better teacher (and I use the word teacher in the broad sense here).

In his latest book, Gardner discusses the mind-changing paradox:

People underestimate how difficult it is to change minds. The mind-changing paradox is my attempt to capture that. When you’re little, your mind changes pretty readily, even if nobody pushes it. We are natural mind-changing entities until we are 10 or so. But as we get older and have acquired more formal and informal knowledge, then it’s very, very hard to change our minds. Which doesn’t mean you should give up. It means you need to be intelligent and strategic about it and persevering.

I’m not stating that on small matters it’s difficult to change people’s minds. A coffee break at 3:00 rather than 1:00—that’s trivial. But on fundamental ideas on how the world works, about what your enterprise is about, about what your life goals are, about what it takes to survive—it’s on these topics that it’s very difficult to change people’s minds. Most people, by the time they’re adults, not only have become used to a certain way of thinking, but in a sense it’s work for them [to change] because their neural pathways become set.

This points to a number of important lessons.

1) Changing someone’s long-held belief may require actual rewiring of the brain. When confronting a skeptic on global warming or biological evolution, its easy to get frustrated. After all, facts are facts. But have some empathy. If you have been taught since childhood to distrust “intellectuals”, or that “Darwin=Satan”, its likely there are collections of neurons that assist you in this task. This may take some time, and a deft touch.

2) Think glass houses. Each of us has some long-held beliefs of our own. One of the things we should be proud of as scientists is that we acknowledge such shortcomings and use a variety of techniques, including strong controls, double-blind tests, and strong inference (the method of multiple hypotheses) to counter them. And we use these anti-bias tools every chance we get, right?
3) Think a variety of evidence, presented in a variety of ways. Most scientists I know will be profoundly skeptical when they hear a seminar that clearly contradicts a long-held belief. Sometimes this skepticism borders on dismissive. But even the healthy skeptic will put up some firewalls. She will say, “I’ll believe it when I see it in print.”, “I’ll believe it when I see a different kind of experiment”, “I’ll believe it when I see similar results from another lab.” or, ultimately, “I’ll believe it when I repeat these results on my own.”. This is good and healthy. Now imagine convincing a roomful of skeptical undergraduates in an oil state that humans are contributing to global warming (especially after an ice storm). It may take a similar variety of evidence. Here’s Gardner:

But there are at least two things whose importance is underestimated. One is the lever of what I call representational redescriptions. Get the message out in lots and lots of different ways, lots of different symbol systems, lots of different intelligences and lots of different embodiments. The notion that you say it once and it gets through is just wrong. So is the notion that you can simply repeat yourself. You have to be extremely resourceful in finding diverse ways to get the same desired mind-change across.

Teaching is all about presenting evidence in a variety of ways. There are few “aha!” moments that occur in the classroom (but they do help keep ya goin’ 😉 ).

4) This is hard, important work in which you are swimming upstream. Many of the most important things we as scientists need to communicate go against deep belief systems. In these cases, for a student to discover, then admit, that she was wrong means that the teacher, preacher, or parents that taught you this stuff was wrong. This is tough stuff people. Gardner again:

The second [most important] thing is that people underestimate just how powerful resistances are. There are three factors involved in resistances: age, emotion and public stance. First of all, the longer your neural networks have been running one way, the harder it is to rewire them. Unfortunately, that’s just a fact of life. Number two, the things that you feel very strongly about emotionally are the hardest to change your mind about. And three, particularly for people who are in public life, are things on which you’ve taken a public stand. That’s hard to reverse.

5) Don’t be discouraged; education is cumulative. As a scientist and educator, your job is to plant the seed of scientific truth in a clever and compassionate way. Sometimes that seed will wither and die. Sometimes, it will be nourished by another clever, compassionate teacher downstream. And sometimes, and you will never know how many times, that seed will grow long after your encounter with your student. So in the words of Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill “Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. ”

This is one of our greatest responsibilities. It is also one of our greatest challenges. And it is work that needs to be done.


5 Responses to Five lessons on changing someone’s mind (or “evidence ain’t everything”)

  1. […] teachers, and to persuade someone to abandon one position for another requires that you show some empathy. Lincoln told a colleague “that a peculiarity of his own life from his earliest manhood had been, […]

  2. Dennis Rogers, PhD says:

    Interesting article; however, I was coming here to find ways to persuade people that global warming has not been demonstrated to be man-made or indeed to be occurring at all. My PhD is in physical chemistry, specifically gas-phase chemistry. I have read the scientific articles, and they do not support the hypothesis of man-made global warming. I find it ironic that you picked global warming as your example for how frustrating it can be to persuade. Have you read the original papers? Do you know what global dimming is (google this in YouTube)? Do you understand the thermochemistry and statistical methods underlying global warming theory? These, of course, are rhetorical questions. You do not as this is not your field. I would like to believe that I have come to my conclusions based on the scientific evidence, not popular opinion. One of us is wrong. Maybe we should reexamine how it is that we came to our conclusions. Either one of us is trapped in a mind bubble, as you describe, or we are looking at the same set of incomplete facts and are drawing different conclusions.

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  4. […] convincing someone, especially when it means dissuading them of what they think they know, is far more complicated. The folks at Skeptical Science have a great resource–a downloadable PDF called the Debunking […]

  5. […] convincing someone, especially when it means dissuading them of what they think they know, is far more complicated. The folks at Skeptical Science have a great resource–a downloadable PDF called the Debunking […]

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