Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known - or why changing your mind is evidence of learning

For a second, consider of all our major public thinkers today. They do the opposite, constantly telling how sure they are of their beliefs and criticizing their “opponents” for changing their minds. Changing your mind is a good thing, Montaigne would say. It means you’ve resisted the impulse to think you’re infallible. He wrote that as part of his profession of getting to know himself he found such “boundless depths and variety that [his] apprenticeship bears no other fruit than to make me know much there remains to learn.” If only we could internalize that attitude—instead of feeling cocky when we learn something, acknowledge that it really just taught us how much more we need to learn. (here)
While I often use this blog to vent frustration, propose new ways of looking at problems and possible unintended consequence of our actions, this does not mean that my ideas and opinions are as fixed once published. Indeed, if I look back at some of the opinions I held some years back I can imagine a heated debate between current me and previous me.

For example, for a period of time, I had a fixation about peak oil and what it meant for society. I thought in a linear manner, ascribing a reduction in total economic production possible to a reduction in technically possible rates of oil extraction, without thinking of behavioural responses and adaptations likely to take place including a renewed demand for alternative resources. My last post clearly shows that I have edged away from that view to a more reasoned and 'systems' view of economic behaviour.

I used to be passionate about ‘sustainable’ living (whatever that means). If we could only all do our little bit our environment, in the holistic sense rather than just the trees and animals sense, would be a better place to live. However, with more research into the matter it appears that while my own choices are the only ones within my control, there are offsetting effects from the actions of others that may render my personal actions ineffective.

While my ideas evolve slowly as I seek evidence one way or another, I can’t help but marvel at how quickly strongly held beliefs can change in a time of crisis, even when evidence for the new idea is as sparse as the one previously held.


  1. Well said Cameron. I was a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian capitalist until I changed my mind and worked out how the real world does and could work, not how it should work.
    My last great mindshift - I remember it clearly, was in late 2008 when I worked out that the immediate future would likely be debt deflationary, not hyperinflationary like most non-mainstream economic people contended (and still contend).. This was mainly because of Steve Keen's work on debt.
    It helps to be a contrarian at heart and always question the majority - a skeptical empiricist is what I call myself now....
    Chris B.

  2. Excellent insights Cameron.These are the exact sentiments we encounter when thinking are we right or wrong when the consensus is opposing your point of view. But consensus will always be that i.e. opinions of people at a static point in time.

    Linear economics only serves the purpose of arriving at solutions without considering the behavioral impacts (which IMO are far more influential than rational/efficiency premises).

    Keep up the great work!

  3. I like your observation.

    The essence of an open mind is knowing why you believe what you do. There is a foundation of reasons and data that can be revealed and questioned by oneself and others. The only real meaning of "open mind" is that it is open to the understanding and criticism of others.

    Without that display of fundamentals, a person changes his mind only because his leaders or his opportunism tell him to do so.

    Not enough people call for detailed explanations of public policy. We can't get politicians to reveal details about what they want to do, and not at all why. Of course, that allows them to change their positions at will, or take all sides at the same time, and we let them get away with it.

    We should think of politicians as construction contractors. We don't need statements like "it will be the best building you could imagine". We do need blueprints and references. Has he built similar buildings? How did they turn out?

    Tell Me About The Past

  4. Cameron - I admire your ability and willingness to question and re-question deep rooted beliefs. and long held certainties.

    What was the trigger?