Last week, Brian Cox, the Manchester University physicist, made an interesting comment on the recent EU referendum:
“Changing your mind in the face of evidence is absolutely central to a civilised democratic society. . . . Science is a collection of things, some of which are more likely, some of which are almost certainly right, some of which are less likely and some of which are wrong – the central point is that you change your mind all the time. “If you look at the Brexit debate, it’s interesting to note that I can’t see one politician or columnist who’s actually changed their mind. “The amount of new evidence that’s come forward – new positions and new data – is huge, but not one of them has changed their mind. That tells you there’s something deeply flawed about the national conversation.”
It’s all about changing your mind. In particular, he thinks that the fact he couldn’t see any politician or columnist who’s actually changed their mind on the question told us something – that there was something deeply flawed about the national conversation.
I think he’s got a point. In fact, I think it goes further than that.
But the fact of the matter is that there are people who have changed their minds on the question of EU membership.
Andrea Leadsom, in 2013, said that leaving the EU “would be a disaster for our economy and it would lead to a decade of economic and political uncertainty at a time when the tectonic plates of global success are moving”. Today she supports leaving. In her own words, “When facts change, you change your mind.”
David Robertson said that his decision to vote ‘Leave’ was “not an easy decision”:
“Emotionally, politically and socially I am inclined towards a pro-EU position. At the last referendum in 1974 as a 12 year old I was opposed but then I left the Labour party and joined the SDP partly because I listened to David Owen, Roy Jenkins and accepted their pro-EU positions. . . . for a number of weeks I have been trying to find out as much as I could before finally making up my mind. “
How I changed my mind
And I too changed my mind. How did it happen? As a youngster growing up in the 1970s, my inclination was always towards EEC membership. I had no strong reasons for being in favour, but most people I respected supported membership, whereas the people who were against the EEC were people who I considered to have poor judgement. Furthermore, knowledgable people said that it would mean that prices in shops would be lower. And so, in my teens and early 20s I was definitely ‘pro-Europe’.
During my twenties, I continued to read about political issues and listen to political discussion. And I read or heard something that made me think. Someone commented that they couldn’t see how someone who supported free trade could support EEC membership – the point being that while the EEC existed to promote free trade within its boundaries, it most certainly did not permit free trade with nations that were outside.
And that made me think. While I was pro-EEC, I didn’t feel particularly strongly about it. But I was, and am, strongly in favour of free trade, because permitting free trade means that poorer nations have access to markets in rich countries – and is one of the best ways to help the poorest people in the world escape from poverty. I didn’t change my mind about the EEC overnight, but doubts had been raised in my mind.
And then during the late 1980s and 1990s, I watched as the EEC became the EU, and moved in the direction of ever closer union. And I became more and more doubtful about the whole project. But the decisive moment came with a remark made by an American academic who was visiting Scotland, who commented (speaking about the EU) that he couldn’t see why the UK was so willing to give up its independence. And it struck me that this really was what the EU was about. As more and more decisions affecting Britain were being made by the EU, the UK was slowly giving up its independence. And, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, I don’t think it is a good thing.
So – some people do change their minds. And, when I think about my own case, there are some things that seem significant. The first is that EU membership has never been a subject about which I have been passionate. Back in the 1970s when I was ‘pro-Europe’ I didn’t feel strongly about it, and now that I am ‘anti-Europe’, I still don’t feel strongly about it. It is always easier to change your mind about something you don’t feel strongly about.
The second is that what got me thinking was the conflict between my views on the EEC and my views on free trade. I did feel passionate about free trade – and still do. One thing that makes us willing to change our minds is a discovery that something we believe is actually inconsistent with something else we believe. If we don’t want to be inconsistent, we are pretty much forced to change our minds.
And the third is the fact that I changed my mind as a result of learning things about the EEC / EU over a period of many years. When I was 20, I didn’t really know that much about it. Over the following 20 years I watched it, read about it, and (I think) got to understand it better.
How millions of others changed their minds
Which brings me to the fact that in the UK, older people were more likely to vote ‘Leave’, and younger people to vote ‘Remain.’ Indeed, the under 24s were much more likely to support remaining in than any other demographic.
The fact is that when I was their age, I would have voted ‘Remain’ as well. So would David Robertson. And so would a lot of people. In the referendum of 1975, 67% UK voted to stay in the EEC. Those who voted in that referendum are now the over-60s. The fact that apparently only about 41% of the over-60s voted ‘Remain’ last month tells us that a lot of people have changed their minds.
If we assume that the over-60’s who voted in the referendum two weeks ago are a representative sample of those who voted in the 1975 referendum, that would mean that for every five people who were in favour of remaining in the EEC at that time, two have changed their minds over the past 41 years. In actual fact, since it is likely that the young in 1975 were more likely to have voted ‘Stay’ than older people, and since some people will have changed their minds in the opposite direction, it is possible that over half of the over 60s have changed their minds since the 1975 referendum. Brian Cox should be very pleased.
(And by the way, it is surely significant that the vast majority of those who have changed their minds over the years have changed from Remain to Leave, rather than the other way around. And that might not be unrelated to Daniel Hannan’s fascinating observation that he had been in 104 debates on the EU referendum, and in all but one, there was a swing to Vote Leave.)
So people do change their minds. That doesn’t mean that they are always right in doing so. Michael Gove’s recent change of mind about Boris Johnson’s suitability to be Prime Minister looked odd, to say the least. And the way that over the past 10 years, vast numbers of politicians (and others) have changed their minds about same-sex marriage looks to me suspiciously like they were doing it merely to accomodate themselves to fashionable opinion out of a fear of being left behind.
When changing your mind is difficult
But while it is easy enough to change one’s mind if everyone else is doing it (and you don’t want to be left behind), or if it is to one’s advantage to change it, there are times when it is very difficult – especially if you are emotionally attached to a certain position, or if changing your mind would be costly, e.g. in terms of your career, your reputation, or your relationships.
I am reminded again of Ian Leslie’s article in the Guardian about John Yudkin, and to the study conducted in the 1990s into diet and health by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute – the largest controlled trial of diets ever undertaken.
” . . . the Women’s Health Initiative was expected to obliterate any lingering doubts about the ill-effects of fat. It did nothing of the sort. At the end of the trial, it was found that women on the low-fat diet were no less likely than the control group to contract cancer or heart disease. This caused much consternation. The study’s principal researcher, unwilling to accept the implications of his own findings, remarked: “We are scratching our heads over some of these results.” A consensus quickly formed that the study – meticulously planned, lavishly funded, overseen by impressively credentialed researchers – must have been so flawed as to be meaningless.”
Now, let’s go back to that quote from Brian Cox:
“Changing your mind in the face of evidence is absolutely central to a civilised democratic society. . . . Science is a collection of things, some of which are more likely, some of which are almost certainly right, some of which are less likely and some of which are wrong – the central point is that you change your mind all the time. If you look at the Brexit debate, it’s interesting to note that I can’t see one politician or columnist who’s actually changed their mind. The amount of new evidence that’s come forward – new positions and new data – is huge, but not one of them has changed their mind. That tells you there’s something deeply flawed about the national conversation.”
Cox seems to be drawing a distinction between science and the Brexit debate. On the one hand, there is science, where you change your mind all the time because of new evidence that’s come forward. On the other hand, you have the Brexit debate, in which nobody has changed their mind.
However, as Ian Leslie made clear, while that may be the way it is with science, it is not necessarily the way it is with scientists. Scientists often have their minds so firmly made up that when new evidence comes forward, they reject it. So Brian Cox is partly right. Yes, there is something deeply flawed about the national conversation. But the problem goes deeper. There is something flawed about human nature.
Shoot the messenger
Sometimes it is easy enough to change one’s mind. But if we feel strongly about something, we often don’t even want to hear the arguments against our position – let alone give them serious consideration. And if we believe that the people on the other side have dubious motives, then we are even less likely to want to hear what they have to say. And there is often a tendency to attack the messenger rather than reply to the message.
That was very clearly illustrated in the controversy about remarks made by Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone earlier this year. While a handful of people who disagreed with what they said responded calmly and explained why they thought Shah and Livingstone were wrong, the vast majority simply attacked them and talked about anti-Semitism. And so the resulting discussion was not about whether Shah and Livingstone were correct in what they were saying, but about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
That may seem like an extreme example, but it happens a lot. If you don’t agree with what other people say, why try to show that they are wrong when it is much easier just to attack them? It happens in political discussion all the time.
And It also happens in scientific debate. Back to Ian Leslie’s article about John Yudkin. Yudkin
” . . . found himself uninvited from international conferences on nutrition. Research journals refused his papers. He was talked about by fellow scientists as an eccentric, a lone obsessive. Eventually, he became a scare story. Sheldon Reiser, one of the few researchers to continue working on the effects of refined carbohydrates and sugar through the 1970s, told Gary Taubes in 2011: “Yudkin was so discredited. He was ridiculed in a way. And anybody else who said something bad about sucrose [sugar], they’d say, ‘He’s just like Yudkin.’”
Does the Bible have anything to say about this?
There’s nothing new about attacking the messenger when you don’t like the message. It’s been happening since time immemorial. In fact, the Bible tells us (Jeremiah 26:1-8) of an incident that took place about 2,600 years ago at the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah (roughly 609 B.C.), when Jeremiah was given a message from God to deliver to the people of Judah – a message which was not going to be very popular:
“Early in the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came from the LORD: “This is what the LORD says: Stand in the courtyard of the LORD’s house and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the house of the LORD. Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word. Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from his evil way. Then I will relent and not bring on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done. Say to them, ‘This is what the LORD says: If you do not listen to me and follow my law, which I have set before you, and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened), then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth.’ ”
The priests, the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speak these words in the house of the LORD. But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the LORD had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die! “
Fortunately for Jeremiah, more reasonable voices prevailed, “so that he was not handed over to the people to be put to death.” Some 640 years later, a Christian called Stephen was not so fortunate. When Stephen was accused of heresy, he was brought before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish High Council) and given an opportunity to answer the charges. The speech he gave in his defence didn’t go down well, since Stephen suggested that those who were sitting in judgement of him, by their rejection of Jesus Christ, were actually rejecting God and the Messiah he had sent them. We are told that they were furious in response to Stephen’s counter-accusation. But when Stephen spoke of Jesus being in heaven at the right hand of God, their anger boiled over: “At this, they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” (Acts 7:57-58)
And it is that covering of their ears and yelling at the top of their voices, in an effort to ensure that they couldn’t hear, which really tells us just how unwilling they were to even consider changing their minds.
Alas, changing one’s mind is sometimes very hard, especially when it involves us changing our minds about ourselves. Admitting that we have been wrong can be difficult; admitting that we have been wrong about something we are passionate about can be more difficult; but what is more difficult still is admitting that we were unwilling to listen and were behaving unacceptably.
But there is a glimmer of light at the end of the story of Stephen. Because the very next words in that story in the book of Acts introduce us to someone new – someone who had not been mentioned at all up to that point: “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
And this Saul was to change his mind in a most spectacular way – from being implacably opposed to the Christian faith, to being one of its greatest preachers. Indeed, the location of his change of mind has gone into the English language as an expression to describe a radical change of mind. Almost 2,000 years later, we still talk about people having a ‘Road to Damascus’ experience.
May we always be open to that.