In praise of flip-floppers

In a recent post titled “Down the Creationist Rabbit Hole,” I remarked that I grew up creationist and later changed my mind due to the evidence in favor of evolution. Regarding the difficulty of getting people to seriously consider evidence, a commenter replied,

I wish it was just a matter of presenting the evidence and waiting for it to sink in for most people; unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. I do understand that nobody wants to look like a fool and nobody wants to lose face while debating, but it seems like people should eventually let other superior opinions seep in and change their mind… perhaps I’m being to idealistic.

And why is that so rarely the case? We can talk about cognitive dissonance or the theological implications of evolution (for one thing it makes nonsense of Paul’s main argument for the necessity of the atonement; see Romans 5:12 and following–meaning that there’s a whole worldview at stake for believers who know their Bible), but another big part of it is that in our culture, changing one’s mind is seen as a sign of weakness and unsteadiness. And the bigger the issue, the more the change bothers other people.
We need to challenge this attitude.
I’m reminded a story that Richard Dawkins tells. I read it in one of his books, and also found it here:

I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said–with passion–”My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal–unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.

That’s an attitude we need to cultivate — the idea that there’s no shame in changing your mind in the face of superior evidence. This should be seen as an intellectually honest and honorable thing to do, something that shows strength of character and a commitment to truth over ego. This idea alone would do a world of good and would do much to undermine the excesses of religion and ideology.

7 thoughts on “In praise of flip-floppers

  1. “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. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

    ― Carl Sagan

  2. Not just evolution, but especially genetics that demonstrates Adam and Eve to be undoubtedly fiction. Our oldest male and female ancestors lived some 50K-70k years apart and the smallest population bottleneck was about 1200. If our understanding of genetics is accurate – and it seems to be with all the applications, technologies, and therapies that work for everyone everywhere all the time is anything to go by – then we know at best an historical Jesus died for a metaphor/myth. And that changes the belief in a central tenet of christianity – the need for a resurrection to redeem our sinful nature – to stand in direct opposition and conflict with what we know to be the case.

  3. Yep. Death was definitely being used literally there. That’s why he claimed that from Adam-Moses. I guess he just didn’t notice that people still died. It just seems more reasonable that Death was meant literally and he was literally claiming no-one died any more. Much more reasonable than reading for understanding.

    • Paul claimed that Adam’s sin introduced death into the world, necessitating a redeemer. Natural history shows us there was no Adam, no literal fall. Should we then assume there’s no need for a literal Christ and literal redemption? The reason I brought it up is that Paul is clearly assuming that the Genesis account of Adam and Eve was real history, and he was basing his theology on that understanding.

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