On changing your mind in science

Submitted by drupaladmin on 28 October 2011.

In the previous post I asked readers if a post of mine had changed their minds about whether the intermediate disturbance hypothesis is true or even useful. I was gratified to see I did completely change a few minds, and caused many others to at least doubt their previous views.

Which raises the broader question: What's the biggest scientific claim about which you've ever changed your mind? I don't mean that your views became more nuanced or sophisticated, or that your views shifted because at first you didn't completely understand the idea, or that you never really had a strong view in the first place so changing your view didn't actually amount to much of a change. I mean, some claim that you were familiar with, and fully accepted--only to later decide that you were mostly or totally wrong. I ask about the biggest claim because I think everyone changes their mind about all sorts of small, unimportant things.

And why did you change your mind? Was it gradually, over a period of years, due to long accumulation of experience and evidence? Or was it suddenly, perhaps thanks to a single paper (or zombie joke-based blog post) that opened your eyes and caused you to see the world in a new way?

Were you consciously trying to change your mind? For instance, did you decide (for whatever reason) "I really need to rethink my views on X", and then do so? Or did you wake up one day and realize "You know, I used to believe X, but now I believe not-X"?

Did you feel any external pressure to change your mind, for instance frequent interactions with peers, teachers, or mentors holding a different view? What about internal pressure, either to change your mind or perhaps not to change it? (few people like to admit when they're wrong)

Looking back, can you still understand why you held your previous view? Or is your view now so altered that you can't understand how you could possibly have believed what you used to believe?

And if you've never changed your mind about any big scientific claim, why do you think that is? Do you think you ever will? Does it bother you that you haven't? Or conversely, are you proud that you haven't?

Looking forward to your responses in the comments.

p.s. Would you stop changing your mind, or at least admitting that you'd done so, if you knew that it would make your views much less likely to take hold in the broader scientific community? As David Hull has pointed out, drawing on the history of evolutionary biology for examples, scientific theories succeed when their adherents change their minds without admitting that they've done so. Perhaps not even to themselves...

Just for fun