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What are your favorite examples of adults in and around this community publicly changing their minds?

by nim1 min read5th May 202113 comments

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Search turns up a few threads on self-reported personal changes of mind. I'm curious here about the third-person perspective: When have you noticed and remembered peers or colleagues changing their minds [about important things]? I'm particularly interested in examples from the group of people who seem to regard a book on how to change your mind as a cultural touchstone, but stories about those whom such people work with and look up to seem likely to also be relevant.

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The funnest one off the top of my head is how Yudkowsky used to think that the best thing for altruists to do was build AGI as soon as possible, because that's the quickest way to solve poverty, disease, etc. and achieve a glorious transhuman future. Then he thought more (and talked to Bostrom, I was told) and realized that that's pretty much the exact opposite of what we should be doing. When MIRI was founded its mission was to build AGI as soon as possible.

(Disclaimer: This is the story as I remember it being told, it's entirely possible I'm wrong)

He recounts this story in the Sequences.

(I use the term "full reversal" to mean going from high confidence in a belief to high confidence in the opposite belief. A "hard reversal" is when a full reversal happens quickly.)

When have you noticed and remembered peers or colleagues changing their minds?

I think the question might need some modifiers to exclude the vast amounts of boring examples. Obviously your question does not evoke answers so boring as "Oh, the store is closed? Okay, then we can't get milk tonight" but what about a corporate executive pivoting his strategy when he hears business-relevant news? By now I am bored of Losing-the-Faith stories, but I don't deny their relevance to human rationality.

Anyway, I think full reversals tend to happen much less frequently than moderate reductions in confidence. Much more common are things of the form "I used to be totally anti-X, but now I see that the reality is a lot more complex and I've become much less certain" or "I used to be completely convinced that Y was true and the deniers were just being silly, but I read a couple decent challenges and now I'm just pretty confused overall". One way in which this happens is when someone accepts that their strong belief actually depends on some fact that they don't know much about.

But to try to directly answer your question, I might list:

  • Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church, in part due to having respectful debates on Twitter
  • Bostrom's Hypothetical Apostasy never really caught on, despite sounding pretty cool on paper. Too bad.
  • Rationalists have gotten some recognition for anticipating the pandemic early--you might be able to find some good examples of mind-changing there.
  • Rationalist-adjascent blogger Tim Urban had a fairly sharp reversal on cryonics.
  • There's that classic (boring?) example of a person quitting grad school after spending a few minutes answering reasonable questions about their motivations.
  • If you like getting mindkilled: Scott Alexander loosely identifies as libertarian, having formerly been vocally anti-libertarian. Seems like this happened via deliberate argumentation, including some email exchanges with David Friedman (son of Milton Friedman).
  • I've seen some of my friends and acquaintances change their minds about psychoactive drugs.

Thanks, those are all promising directions! I've edited to [about important things] in the question; in phrasing the post I had edited it from over-specified to under-specified and your feedback helps target a happier medium. "Important" is still vague, of course.

One way in which this happens is when someone accepts that their strong belief actually depends on some fact that they don't know much about.

"rationalism reduces a thinker's odds of forming or maintaining a strong belief which depends on facts they know little about", a nice counterpoint to "f... (read more)

If you cant change your mind, then I struggle to see how you could practice science. You do have some very good scientists "go emeritus" (have stuck priors) late in life,  and I wonder whether this is a trap for very good thinkers who have been mostly right all their careers and forget how to be properly skeptical. Is a paper being withdrawn by its authors count as a public change of mind?

As far as I understand, "I changed my mind about the claims in the paper" isn't usually considered a reason to withdraw. Withdrawal is something like an attempt to retract the fact that you ever made a claim in the first place, and reserved for things like outright fraud or very serious mistakes in data collection that invalidate the whole analysis. 

1nim1moThe NIH NLM errata policy [https://www.nlm.nih.gov/bsd/policy/errata.html] says "Journals may retract or withdraw articles based on information from their authors, academic or institutional sponsor, editor or publisher, because of pervasive error or unsubstantiated or irreproducible data." NEJM's retraction list [https://www.nejm.org/medical-articles/retraction] above the fold seems to mainly be "oops used wrong facts". Science Magazine claimed in 2018 [https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/10/what-massive-database-retracted-papers-reveals-about-science-publishing-s-death-penalty] that "The number of articles retracted by journals had increased 10-fold during the previous 10 years. Fraud accounted for some 60% of those retractions" . Bearing in mind that I haven't yet cultivated the skill of assessing journals' credibility, and that I found these examples for their trait of looking promising early in search results, it does seem that retraction may not map to "change of mind" beyond "change of mind about whether the situation in which the science was attempted was capable of emitting valid results".

I suspect that withdrawing a paper probably counts, because "changed mind" is one reason a withdrawal could happen. However, I don't personally know enough about academic publishing to rule out "got reason to expect negative results such as loss of reputation from not withdrawing paper, but still believe in its claims" as a comparable powerful reason to withdraw one. (Correction: I skimmed some journals' retraction policies and reasons for retraction on lists of retracted articles, and now model retraction as "change of mind about whether the situation in ... (read more)

3Phil Scadden1moI suspect (for reasons of seeing a back down as humiliating), that is more often that a change of mind happens when other researchers produce confounding evidence, (that is how science works), and you then just quietly accept it and move on. Citing papers supporting the alternative hypothesis in a later paper is a quieter way to signal that you have changed your mind. "Comment on comment" papers can be entertaining. Everything from howling outrage to excuses to commendable withdrawals.
1nim1mo"comment on comment" sounds like a delightful part of the internet! Are there any particularly memorable examples that you'd recommend someone new to them start with to get a feel for the genre, regardless of what field they happen to be in?
1Phil Scadden1moI would have to do a fair bit of work to find them - for obvious reasons, they dont need to be added to any Endnote collection. A lot are, "yes, you found a error with our methods but when we fix it, it doesnt change the conclusions" - trans "bite your bum". https://retractionwatch.com/ [https://retractionwatch.com/] can be a place to find the really bad stuff. (oh and I see a full blown public change of mind right now - https://retractionwatch.com/2021/05/06/rejection-overruled-retraction-ensues-when-annoyed-reviewer-does-deep-dive-into-data/ [https://retractionwatch.com/2021/05/06/rejection-overruled-retraction-ensues-when-annoyed-reviewer-does-deep-dive-into-data/] )
1nim1moAh, that's fair. I figure sometimes people remember good jokes/memes, but if the retractions aren't quite there, they wouldn't be worth noting. Thank you for the link!
1Phil Scadden1moOne quickly. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Global-Warming/moerner-comment-on-comment-2008.pdf [http://www.ask-force.org/web/Global-Warming/moerner-comment-on-comment-2008.pdf] is comment on comment. Read the Nerem et al comment http://www.aari.ru/docs/pub/070119/ner07.pdf [http://www.aari.ru/docs/pub/070119/ner07.pdf] which is fun. Some commentary here: https://skepticalscience.com/news.php?n=691#47808 [https://skepticalscience.com/news.php?n=691#47808]