We learned recently that one of the leading opponents to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Mark Lynas, decided that he had it all wrong. GMOs save the Earth by reducing the need for pesticides, getting poor farmers out of misery, freeing land for wild life and generally keeping human beings from starving. The evidence is overwhelming. Yet I have had some long winded arguments with GMO opponents. For example, many of them would require labelling on the basis that they have to right to know what they eat. My reply is always the same: if we are going to label GMOs, then let us also add to the labels statistics about pesticide use, land use, and farmer well being. At this point they almost invariably tell me that I am secretly funded for a big corporation. (I wish this were true: if you are a big company that wants to fund me, please get in touch.)
Environmentalists have strong beliefs. Part of their dogma is that industry is bad, and industrial progress is evil. That is false. The industrial revolution pulled out most of the population from abject poverty. The switch to an oil industry saved the whales from extinction. When computers and the Internet came about, its users were accused of being asocial. Today, if you aren’t on Facebook, it is because you hate other people (I barely exaggerate).
So, how did Mark Lynas pulled out of the dogma? How could you have changed his mind?
It turns out that Mark had to do a lot of hard work to write books about global warming. He wanted to write science books:
I had to learn how to read scientific papers, understand basic statistics and become literate in very different fields from oceanography to paleoclimate, none of which my degree in politics and modern history helped me with a great deal.
This work rewired his brain. He wrote science and became through this experience a scientist. Once he had done this hard work, and only then, was he finally receptive to counter-arguments regarding GMOs.
How do you change someone’s mind? You get them to experience something new and significant. Lazy people do not change their mind.
And this is essentially my approach as a teacher. I setup students with hard problems. I ask them to solve a problem that might be beyond their ability. Some hate me and my class for a time. But they are stuck with it and must work. I could try to teach them the material until I am blue in the face, but I find that getting them to struggle with a problem is far more efficient to get them to learn what matters.
So, maybe in 2013, you want to become a different person. Maybe you think that you will read some books about it. Or maybe take a class. Instead, I urge you to focus on experience. You want to become a writer? Write a book. You want to become a programmer? Write a program.
I am always amazed at these students who want to enter the software industry, but they seem to program only when absolutely necessary. You know how you become a great programmer? It starts with programming a lot.
You want to convince other people? Think about what they would need to experience to change their minds. Want to convince me that we should use state regulations to stop global warming or to achieve a fairer society? You have no chance in hell to argue your point with me. I went to what was East Berlin. I walked in the streets reflecting on what a government-run industry leads to: massive pollution and misery. I have spent more than half my life in government organizations: my experience taught me to distrust their initiatives.
Experience is what anchors beliefs. You are, more or less, what you experienced. To change people you have to get them to experience new things.
So, how do you convince a stranger who doubts you? You invite him on an adventure. You offer him a new recipe. We are very tempted to build up sophisticated arguments. It does work in the sense that our ability to put forth long winded arguments might improve our social status. Leaders tend to be people who talk well. People tend to follow people who speak their mind. But if you must change someone’s mind, if you must fight a dogma, then arguments are almost always useless. If the individual is not prepared for your arguments, they will just bounce back.