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January 01, 2011

Changing My Mind

Oliver Sacks (CBE) is a neurologist brought to public attention through the 1990 movie Awakenings. (yes, that really was 20 years ago) Dr. Sacks marks the New Year with an article in the NY Times exhorting: "This Year, Change Your Mind".

Dr. Sacks points out that New Year's resolutions are generally focused on the physical - losing weight, stopping smoking, exercising more - and while he recognizes these as laudable goals, he suggests that we consider a more fundamental change: changing our mind.

We change our oil, we change diapers, we change filters; these are generally perceived as a periodic, positive, necessary tasks. But changing our mind?

Changing your mind is not always seen as a positive or a necessary task. The 1936 movie The Man Who Changed His Mind (imdb) was, in fact, a horror film.

The movie went much further than Dr. Sacks, dealing with a scientist who figured out how to transplant brains without surgery, swapping the software rather than the wetware.

We don't like it when people change their mind. We say "they've changed their mind" with a deprecating tone. We don't use affirming words to describe a person who changes their mind; we say they're "fickle" or "indecisive". We tell people, "make up your mind", not "change your mind".

Imagine if we considered "changing your mind" as a positive, if we saw it as an indication of intelligent life. Suppose we only let people who'd changed their mind about something in the last two years vote, speak at meetings, talk on CB radios, or make blog entries or internet comments.

What if we had mind-change reminders like we have oil-change reminders? We'd want them to be visible to be effective, so maybe we'd put them on people's cellphones. (In a perfect world they'd be on people's foreheads.) Imagine a meeting where somebody said something stupid and then people realized, Hey he's overdue for his mind change and then they all just moved on.

In order to qualify, you'd have to change your mind about something significant. DADT, Schrader vs Presta, Hamiltonian vs. Jeffersonian democracy, etc. I find that I have a hard time changing my mind on even trivial things, things that won't effect my life in any way.

When I was in school (always a cautionary phrase) we knew that Bernouilli's Law explained the generation of lift. Now this is seen as a misapplication of Bernouilli's Law, and other concepts are considered more valid. The theory I glommed onto is now called the "equal transit-time fallacy". But I really dislike changing my mind about this, and I have not embraced the new knowledge. Karl Popper would be disappointed in me.

I think my New Year's Resolution might be letting go of Bernoulli.
I haven't made up my mind yet.


MH said...

I've always preferred the Imre Lakatos's approach to positivism since an isolated fact (though probably not Bernoilli's Law example) is often meaningless in social, economic, or political contexts. The bigger picture, the research program (or whatever you call it), is what matters. Thus, "changing your mind" seems more applicable than "changing your mind about something."

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