Second thoughts

In a recent post, here and on Crooked Timber, I remarked on the fact that hardly any self-described climate sceptics had revised their views in response to the recent years of record-breaking global temperatures. Defending his fellow “sceptics”, Crooked Timber commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.

I’m tempted by the one-word response “Derp“. But the dangers of holding to a position regardless of the evidence are particularly severe for academics approaching emeritus age[1]. So, I gave the question a bit of thought.

Here are three issues on which I’ve changed my mind over different periods

* Central planning
* War and the use of violence in politics
* The best response to climate change

The link on central planning gives a full explanation of my change of position, so I’ll leave it at that.

As regards, war I was, before the Iraq war, a reasonably strong supporter of “humanitarian intervention” and, in particular, of the war in Afghanistan. In the leadup to the Iraq war, I was willing to give Bush and particularly Blair the benefit of the doubt for a long time. Partly as a result of that war, and subsequent episodes, and partly through rethinking the issues, I’m now deeply sceptical of any argument for war, including humanitarian intervention. More generally that scepticism applies to any case for political violence, including revolutionary violence.

On climate change, I’ve made several, interrelated shifts from the position I set out in the linked post from 2004. First, and in response to the massive decline in the cost of renewable energy (solar PV and wind), I’ve drawn the conclusion that renewables provide a feasible basis for decarbonizing the economy, while nuclear power does not.[2] The plummeting cost of solar also implies a much lower cost for replacing coal and gas with renewables and therefore a smaller increase in the implied cost of carbon-free electricity. That in turn means that the goal of decarbonizing the economy can probably be reached in large measure through regulatory policies of various kinds, with only a modest increase in cost. Since there is much more effective political resistance (particularly on the political right) to price-based policies and market mechanisms than to regulations and tax breaks, it makes sense to go this way.

Those aren’t the only issues on which I’ve changed, but they are a sample. I’ll conclude, inevitably, with an apparently apocryphal[3] link to Keynes.

fn1. Even more dangerous is a willingness to defend views dictated by tribal affiliation, regardless of the facts, and of the need to abandon previous positions the moment they become inconvenient. That might seem like a source of political strength in the short run, as it was for the US Republican Party for many years, but the endpoint is a movement run by people like Palin and Trump.

fn2. One of the more striking instances of derp in the energy debate is the continuing prevalence of people, mostly on the right, who concluded in the early 2000s that nuclear power was the best option, and who continue, not merely to maintain this view in the face of the evidence but to argue that the failure of environmentalists to advocate nuclear power represents a denial of evidence comparable to climate science denial. Unfortunately, this argument is assisted by handful of people on the pro-climate side, notably including George Monbiot, who’ve overcorrected their previous outright rejection of nuclear power.

fn3. As with Einstein, Keynes appears to be a natural recipient of credit for clever things he might well have said, but didn’t.

29 thoughts on “Second thoughts

  1. @Ivor
    For example I have changed views on the following topics.

    Climate change – sceptic to believer (left shift)
    Gay marriage – opposed to support (left shift)
    Immigration – support to limit greatly (right shift)
    Monetary policy – accomodating to loosened way too far (right shift)
    Fiscal policy – tightening to should spend more (left shift)
    Turnbull – basically good guy to knob (reality shift)

    And so on. But changing your views in a direction you are already inclined to doesn’t count to me as a substantive change.

  2. @Ken_L

    Once we start getting into the “interpretation” of the evidence, then we’re back in the whole “infinite regress” problem that we have with Popperian so-called falsification. But I expect you know that.

    My experience personally though, is that I very seldom learn, or unlearn, based on ‘evidence’. Like most humans, almost all of my learning comes from various kinds of testimony, including self-testimony. I think the only knowledge I have acquired based on evidence was from mathematics where I could independently ‘create’ the evidence – or at least follow line by line somebody else’s evidence (which BOC is called a ‘proof’ in mathematics).

    Of course there are some trivial things that I know from evidence, such as the address of my residence. But of course, I don’t know my name from evidence, only from testimony. And there are some things I know by self testimony – eg that I am not a Christian.

    So, when it comes to climate science, my ‘belief’, such as it is, is almost entirely based on accepting the testimony of people who have scientific accreditation, who publish peer reviewed papers etc. I depend on them for uncovering, identifying and analyzing “the evidence” and for rendering their conclusions in ways that I can follow.

    But I guess if you are used to following different testimony eg from religious leaders or Fox News, or following self-testimony eg the people who initiate conspiracy theories “from scratch” which then become normal testimony to others, then your belief system would be a whole other world than mine.

    So for me, the question basically is: having once ‘accepted’ some testimony (self or other), whose, and what, testimony could change your mind. As an example, I once accepted ‘testimony’ from a Sunday-school teacher as to Christianity and the Bible, but I later countered that by self testimony (having accomplished the countering at about age 11, quite a few years before I read Bertrand Russell). So I still can’t quite see where ‘evidence’ as such entered into that process.

  3. It is a really interesting idea, “When have you changed your mind?”. It has been said of scientific progress that the opponents of new theories don’t change their minds, they just stop opposing you when they die.

    But the process of forming beliefs is interesting. There are trivial beliefs like “boiling water is hot”. Everyone agrees, and you’d be an idiot to think otherwise. Sure if you drastically reduce the pressure you can boil water at much lower temperatures, but that is just silly.

    More complex beliefs usually involve things that are difficult to quantify. Who is the most valuable player in your footy team? Before you even hazard a guess, you have to decide what values you apply. Do you mean the one who, if they were missing, would most reduce your chances of winning a game? The game, or maybe the premiership? Are you measuring just their on field contribution, and are you including their ability to lift the players around them? And given they are there, how can you know how things will go without them?

    Discussions around these less tangible beliefs are interesting, because they give people the opportunity to express their own values. There will always be the romantic tragics like me who pick the little guy with the magic skills and a ton of guts. But others will favour the big, solid, dependable bloke. And then there are those who are actually dispassionate and actually try and be objective. These people should be politely listened to, and then ignored.

    So for what its worth, I’ve shifted from Roger Hayden to Ballantyne to Fyfe.

    And global warming skeptics? They don’t think that boiling water is hot.

  4. @John Brookes

    But it isn’t, mate. Bertrand Russell showed clearly – in a gedanken experiment anyway – that it’s really easy to persuade people that you boil water by putting your kettle (those who still have kettles) on an ice-block.

    Of course he did concede that this would be a special “Sunday belief” (just like God) and that during the normal week people would boil their water by putting their kettle on their ignited gas-ring. But then, if you don’t mind cold tea, you can boil your kettle on an ice-block all week.

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