Changing Your Mind is Hard

It’s hard for people – any of us – to admit being wrong. The more stridently you take a position in public, the harder it is to recant. Science is one field where changing your mind when the evidence requires it is applauded.

As Carl Sagan once said:
“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.”

A few significant changes have occurred in my lifetime: plate tectonics replaced continental drift, an asteroid impact was accepted as finishing off most dinosaurs while birds were accepted as the last of the “avian dinosaurs”, and the Big Bang theory of cosmology replaced Steady State. There are many other examples.

It’s hard enough to admit to error in front of like-minded colleagues, so when you tackle a topic that is highly emotional, changing your mind may lose you a lot of friends. Because of this I want to commend Mark Lynas.

Lynas is a British author whose current focus is climate change. But in the 1990s he helped start the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement. In 2008, he was still “penning screeds” (his words) attacking the use of GMOs.

In 2013, he addressed the Oxford Farming Conference with a change of mind:
“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.
As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.” See the full text of his talk here where he details why he changed his mind. (Updated url: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/ I wonder why it changed?)

Lynas has a new book out and many older titles still on Amazon, so a cynic might say controversy sells books. But – unless I find evidence to the contrary – I say, congratulations Mark Lynas. I hope that someday when I need it (and no doubt I will) I find in myself the integrity you’ve shown.

This blog has more posts about GMOs.

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