Change of heart

[ Mon. Dec. 31. 2007 ]

What did you change your mind about in 2007? The world's intellectual elite spread some New Year humility.When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.

When God changes your mind, that's faith.

When facts change your mind, that's science.

So goes the preamble to the annual New Year question from online intellectual salon Publisher John Brockman has gathered philosophers, scientists, futurists, thinkers and journalists to answer the question, "What have you changed your mind about? Why?"

Since I wrote my piece on this year's show of scientific humility for the New Year's day paper some big names have added their thoughts to the mix.

Here's evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on how being a "flip-flopper" is no bad thing in science:

When a politician changes his mind, he is a "flip-flopper". Politicians will do almost anything to disown the virtue - as some of us might see it - of flexibility. Margaret Thatcher said, "The lady is not for turning." Tony Blair said, "I don't have a reverse gear." Leading Democratic presidential candidates, whose original decision to vote in favour of invading Iraq had been based on information believed in good faith but now known to be false, still stand by their earlier error for fear of the dread accusation: "flip-flopper".

How very different is the world of science. Scientists actually gain kudos through changing their minds. If a scientist cannot come up with an example where he has changed his mind during his career, he is hidebound, rigid, inflexible, dogmatic!

The controversial geneticist Craig Venter has had a change of heart about the capacity of our planet to soak up the punishment humanity is throwing at it:

Like many or perhaps most I wanted to believe that our oceans and atmosphere were basically unlimited sinks with an endless capacity to absorb the waste products of human existence. I wanted to believe that solving the carbon fuel problem was for future generations and that the big concern was the limited supply of oil not the rate of adding carbon to the atmosphere.

The evidence is now "irrefutable" that global warming is caused by humans and is a serious threat, he said.

Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilise all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive. There are those who like to believe that the future of life on Earth will continue as it has in the past, but unfortunately for humanity, the natural world around us does not care what we believe. But believing that we can do something to change our situation using our knowledge can very much affect the environment in which we live.

There are also interesting contributions from Simon Baron-Cohen, the University of Cambridge autism researcher who has changed his mind about equality; psychologist Susan Blackmore, who has gone from embracing the paranormal to debunking it; and artist and composerBrian Eno, who was once seduced by Maoism, but now believes it is a "monstrosity".

What did you change your mind about in 2007?