EDGE Question 2008: What have you changed your mind about?

I've been traveling in Central America for the past few weeks, so I'm late on blogging a number of things -- including this. Each year, EDGE.org's John Brockman asks a new question, and a bunch of tech/sci/internet folks reply. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?
Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

I was one of the 165 participants, and wrote about what I learned from Boing Boing's community experiments, under the guidance of our community manager Teresa Nielsen Hayden: Link to "Online Communities Rot Without Daily Tending By Human Hands."

Here's a partial link-list of my favorite contributions from others:

Tor Nørretranders, W. Daniel Hillis, Ray Kurzweil, David Gelernter, Kai Krause, Clay Shirky, J. Craig Venter, Simon Baron-Cohen, Jaron Lanier, Martin Rees, Esther Dyson, Brian Eno, Yossi Vardi, Tim O'Reilly, Chris Anderson, Rupert Sheldrake, Daniel C. Dennett, Aubrey de Grey, Nicholas Carr, Linda Stone, George Dyson,Steven Pinker, Alan Alda, Stewart Brand, Sherry Turkle, Rudy Rucker, Freeman Dyson, Douglas Rushkoff .


  1. In terms of the more hairy/complex science stuff i don’t trust my mind to be changed because i don’t understand most of the stuff over a certain level. I buy evolution, or relativity (as far as i can grok it) because even if i don’t understand the numbers i can understand the evidence. But theres lots of stuff i can’t wrap my head around.

    Science is very much like religion in that respect. No matter what i hear about string theory or universes budding off each other, i don’t know if any of its accurate. So i can’t commit to a particular view. I’m sure religious people searching for a particular faith go on what sounds good to them, the one that clicks most with them.

    same with a lot of scientific theories. they sound good, but not all the scientists agree with each other. I like some theories better than others on a fanciful basis, but unlike religion theres no imperative to pick the one that sounds the best. I’ll let the scientists get on getting on.

    thats not to say i’m not rooting for a particular camp.

  2. In science it’s very hard to definitively “prove” anything conclusively. The best we can do is gather as much evidence as possible to support our theories. This is why the phrase “evolution is just a theory” is, unfortunately, true in some sense (though I take issue with the word “just”).

  3. yes. i dragged it kicking and screaming into the discussion. look how i savaged it! Its blood runs in a gush from my glistening fangs.

    you’re kidding right?

    you have to be kidding.

  4. WWEBoing. basically anything can be boiled down to. My current position is correct. No matter if that person now holds a position to what he used to hold (parents views, rejecting god etc) they were right at the time before, but now they’re right in a different way, meaning they were wrong before, and theres no foreseeable thing that will change their minds in the future.

    unless of course something does.

  5. Oh, and we’re snowed under here at work, but i finally got a chance to check this out in full.

    “The Edge Annual Question — 2008

    When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
    When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
    When facts change your mind, that’s science.


    Seriously Teresa Nielsen, there was absolutely no reason for you to be a dick about my post. Based on the BB post i figured the discussions would be something along the lines of what i posted. but now i have a chance to read it in full i’m aghast.


    sorry. worst moderator ever.

  6. Tim, I thought I had a reasonable chance of getting a laugh out of you. I certainly laughed yesterday when Santa’s Knee pointed out the same thing: for an avowed atheist, you spend an astonishing amount of time talking about religion.

    Hasn’t anyone ever told you that you’re much more interesting on other subjects?

  7. sorry, i wasn’t terribly jolly about having some comments disemboweled in that thread.

    As i mentioned in my email, i see you let outright flames slide as long as you agree with the poster, and i see you censor things that theres no reason to censor other than maybe you disagree with the post.

    I do talk about religion a lot. I read about religion alot because i think some major civil rights issues have religion at the center of them. Its a bit of an obsession. and also because frankly, most of the time when i post about religion, the actual boing boing post is about religion.

    I know it came out of the blue in the vegetarian thread, but someone had quoted “theres no athiests in foxholes” I don’t think the posters intenet was malicious, but thats a pretty derogatory statement.

    Then i said. “i don’t care if you believe in god, just don’t insist that i do too when i’m in a pinch”

    of course after you came across MY statement, it ended up with considerably less vowels. I mean really? Don’t you know what trolling is? You don’t moderate. You allow jabs as long as the person doing the jabbing holds your view, and when you do censor, its usually just something that annoys you personally.

    I’ve posted on a number of items today and the only one that had anything to do with religion was this one (and that joke on the wtc item)

    every few weeks after posting day in and day out a religion article comes up and you get in my face about always harping on it. Sometimes i agree with you. I get riled up, and i should back off. Of course the last time i got censored some person came in and called people who don’t accept the Torah are fools or something, i responded, got disemvowled and the troll baiter did not.

    Other times you just have a go at me for no reason when what I’M doing, is contributing to the discussion. Like today. there was nothing wrong with what i said, you could have just left it, and the thread would have turned into a discussion of what the post was about. Instead, you did exactly the opposite of what a moderator should do.

  8. Cpt. Tim, you yourself said “you have to be kidding.” Then TNH said, in essense, “Yes, I was kidding.”

    But the angry was already thick in here.

    To your point at #7, if I understand it correctly, I agree: there are people who think they’re always right, and there are people who always think they’re right. The first group is composed of nutbars like the current POTUS. The second group is absolutely everyone else.

    The only exception is that it is quite possible to teach yourself to believe things that you know are not true, as long as there’s some displacement in time or situation. This is what allows me to be both rational and religious; I gave up on the idea of having the same beliefs all the time (but not on having the same ETHICS all the time, I hasten to add).

    For me, that means that outside ritual I believe that Aphrodite and Ganesha and the rest are metaphors used to wrap our puny human minds around the hugeness that is the Divine (which I define in terms that might amuse you, actually). Within the limited context of ritual, however, I believe that they are people (in the strongest possible sense of the term) with whom I can have a conversation, and who will sometimes help me if I ask in the right way.

    Come to think of it, that’s not really an exception, is it? I’m not in ritual now, so I’m “wearing the head” where I believe they’re all metaphors; but I DON’T actually think I’m wrong to believe they’re people in ritual: that belief is entirely appropriate, and even necessary, in that situation.

  9. what i try to hold on to is the belief that even though i may think i’m always right, i like to think i’m willing to revise my viewpoint as soon as facts that definitely contradict my viewpoint come to light.

    I think this is important and although people like me who bow to the scientific method say thats what we do, its not always the case.

    one just has to look at the evolution of physics this century to see a lot of people unwilling to change despite the presence of new facts. Even Einstein was unwilling to modify his views of some things that are accepted today.

  10. Well, if you really thought you were always right, you would not think it possible that new facts could contradict your viewpoint. The fact that you DO find it possible, and even something to plan for, means that you have the virtue of Doubt (aka Humility in Christianity, aka Pride in Wicca).

    People who are never quite certain they’re right are right much more often than people with absolute confidence in their rightness. Not at all paradoxical when you think about it (which the second group never do).

    I think Einstein stuck to his guns about quantum theory, but he’s also a good example of the kind of mindchange we’ve been celebrating: once he was shown the evidence that the universe was expanding, he admitted he was wrong.

    Fred Hoyle, now…there’s an example of someone who should have changed his mind, didn’t, and became a grotesque laughingstock as a result.

  11. Oh. Hoyle. thats a good man to cite on this subject just because his contention with the idea of the big bang is kind of flip flopped to todays attitudes.

    he refused to accept the big bang partly because as an atheist (along with many astronomers) disliked the idea that the universe had a finite beginning.

    The catholic church on the other hand dug the idea a lot. This surprised me having grown up catholic and told my whole life that the big bang was science nonsense. Granted there are those religious that have no issues with the big bang/stellar evolution/biological evolution. But the generic lines remained drawn in a way thats kind of backwards from the initial reactions the scientific community had to the big bang.

  12. Well, yes, but when the cosmic background radiation was discovered, they changed their minds in response to the evidence. No one could think of a Steady State explanation for it. (The fact that it’s absolutely uniform everywhere means that wherever you point a telescope, you’re pointing toward the origin point of the universe.)

    They all said “Wow, we were wrong. There WAS a Big Bang.” Except Fred Hoyle, who let his ideology interfere with his intellectual honesty, or perhaps just his scientific mind.

    There is no philosophy which cannot lead to a mistaken conclusion or an incorrect result–if misapplied. (Some philosophies can’t ever lead to correct results except by coincidence, but let’s pass over that with a grateful sigh.) If Fred Hoyle let his atheism lead him down that path, then it’s not atheism that’s at fault, but Fred Hoyle’s intellectual arrogance.

    Or maybe the word I want is ‘cowardice’. It takes guts to admit you were wrong. It takes more guts still to admit you have no idea how something works. I fundamentally believe in the law of causality: everything has a cause, and the cause precedes the effect. The Big Bang is an exception: it HAS no preceding cause. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.

    But I’m not going to let the fact that my brain can’t quite handle the concept of an uncaused event keep me from accepting the Big Bang as fact. The evidence is incontrovertible, even if I don’t understand all of it.

  13. This Edge posting is great..it is like shopping in a Brain garden. Xeni did well , thank You. I feel the sleeper is Dr. Lisa Randall. She is showing a wonderful aptitude for balancing Einstein’s identity approach [ become the particle and see how the world looks from inside of it] , and the main stream reductionist path of measurement and “Proof” I am eagerly awaiting the moment when the Brains can agree on the nature of intelligence working through matter, and their relationship to it.

  14. “it HAS no preceding cause. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.”

    i read a book recently about parallel universes, except not in the sci fi sense, just the idea that the big bang was actually our universe budding off of another one, so at least according to that theory it did have a preceding cause.

    Eventually though you do… unless what we budded off of is an unimaginable place where time and causality have no meaning.

  15. I think the question is how have YOU changed your mind about something you believed, and why.

    For many years I subscribed to the notion of the regional evolution of our species; that we evolved from a wandering ancestor, homo erectus; also, that along the way we absorbed some neanderthal genes into what became the homo sapiens pool. But the DNA anthropologists like Spencer Wells and his colleagues put paid to those notions. It’s only us, I guess, sappy homo sapiens, out of Africa and all over the world, and all in only 60,000 years.

    Damn, we’re quick!

  16. Cpt Tim said, “In terms of the more hairy/complex science stuff i don’t trust my mind to be changed because i don’t understand most of the stuff over a certain level. I buy evolution, or relativity (as far as i can grok it) because even if i don’t understand the numbers i can understand the evidence. But theres lots of stuff i can’t wrap my head around.”

    I think this is the best post here. And I do not understand why that moderator is picking on you.


  17. Incredible! Any time you follow a link to a feature at Edge, you instead get a page full of, “AND NOW! Edge, the wonderful Website full of incredibly important people saying amazing things, is about to bring you what has been described as <description>, <TITLE> <further description>”… followed by what looks like content but is only a preface: someone important <photo> waxing warmly but informedly rhapsodic about (say) an article and its author, and then, “AND NOW, the thing you’ve all been waiting for, Edge’s <TITLE>…” (oh and I forgot to mention the fur coat of advertisements surrounding all this), followed by a tiny-print link to the first page of the actual thing which you have to look hard for because it doesn’t appear important at first.

    But this time they’ve outdone themselves. First, a list of glowing one liners, then a list of press coverage, then a list of contributors (is that the content? wait…) then a long list of multiple-paragraph quotes from various distinguished publications (starting with boingboing) including logos and… photographs?… all just mentions of this very page we are reading, then a thing called “Index”…oh okay that’s the annotated links to the actual content this time.

    I didn’t actually, but print-preview says it would take 68 letter-sized pages to print this book-jacket table of contents page alone.

    It could be made into a monster
    If we all pull together as a team.

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