Two experts, both alike in views
(So much, you can’t tell whose is whose)
Saw something on the evening news
Which challenged their belief
And something that they’d thought was right,
Believing in with all their might,
They now saw in a different light—
It brought them both to grief
The first said “well, I’ve got to change—
Although, of course, it’s rather strange,
My whole worldview I’ll re-arrange
Cos what I thought, was wrong”
The second, though, without remorse,
Declared, “I’d rather stay the course—
Deny the facts; dispute the source,
I’m sailing straight along.”
And when the first apologized,
Revealing that he’d realized
His former view was compromised,
The second was insistent:
“Your newfound view means naught to me—
Your reputation’s shot, you see—
Untouchable, you ought to be,
Because you’re inconsistent!”
Consistency, you can’t deny,
Is crucial in the public eye
But if your stance is just a lie
Perhaps it’s best to quit
We know, a fool’s consistent stand
When better data are at hand
Is often prized, throughout this land…
But still, it’s full of shit.
I just saw a truly rare and remarkable bit of video. You can see it here. Mark Lynas, formerly an anti-GM food activist (until 2008, when the data persuaded him he had been wrong) is interviewed on the BBC’s HARDtalk; the linked video is an excerpt.
First… this is how you do it. As a leader in the anti-GM food movement, it could not have been pleasant to make this change, but Lynas not only made the change, he publicly renounced his former views, and publicly apologized to those whom his actions had harmed. In the linked clip, host Stephen Sackur (to my thinking, anyway) really tries to rub Lynas’s nose in it, pushing him well beyond what I would have been comfortable with. Lynas sits there and takes it, admits some fairly embarrassing things (for instance, how flimsy the evidence was that led him not merely to protest, but to become a leader in the protest movement), and owns up to his past behavior.
Sackur prods: “So that leaves your personal credibility in shreds.” “So you’re ashamed of the entire approach you took; your complete lack of intellectual rigor.” Again, to me, this is a bit much, but Lynas does not get defensive; he admits that he is on the record apologizing for his actions, personally, to the individuals he has wronged.
This is a brief clip, but it illustrates a few things beautifully. First, what Lynas shows that an intelligent person, in the right surroundings, can easily be caught up in thinking something is right when it is demonstrably not. Second, he demonstrates exactly what we should do, but which can be so difficult to do, when confronted by solid evidence that this thing we thought was true is not. Third, he models how to take responsibility, how to own up to previous mistakes, how not to simply get defensive when called out. Fourth…tangentially, but importantly… the clip makes clear that our culture values consistency. A view that changes when new data are available should not be seen as a weakness, but all too often it is.