HOW Facts Change Minds


Ellis Island, Main Hall — where my father walked back in June, 1956, into this country for the first time

I don’t have much time to write this morning.  But two coincident news articles — one from the New Yorker, and another from my friend and environmental author, Ted Williams, came flying across my Internet news feed.  One is titled Why Facts Don’t Change Our Mindsby noted science author and New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Kolbert.  The second is titled Recovery: Bats with your Tequila on the Nature website, by Ted.

There’s a lot to unpack with the first piece, and I’ll write it up later.  But the headline basically tells the story the author wants to pitch.  Facts don’t change minds, because reason is rare, and if you believe the researchers in the piece, it comes out of some kind of socialization force in humans  back when we were running around the African savannah a million or so years ago.  Huh.  Wonder what THAT could be?

The second, about the recovery of the endangered lesser long-nosed bat, is a more hopeful story about how this particular bat was on the way out because of all sorts of stupid reasons, including habitat loss, loss of food source because agave producers (agave is the plant that produces the fruit used in tequila production) wouldn’t allow any blooming for the bats to feed on, as well as the magical thinking-chupacabra scare.  What happened is an intrepid scientist, Dr. Rodrigo Medellín and his students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, went out to the tequila producers and told them facts.  And they didn’t listen.  He told them that bats pollinated the agave plants, and that they created natural diversity by doing so.  Turns out that agave can also spread by roots, and allowing a bloom decreases the size of the pina — the fruit of the agave plant.  So the producers didn’t listen.  So far, score one for the thesis of Kolbert in the first piece.

So then they told them that the lack of diversity — root spread alone does not create diversity, even if it creates more agave plants — was setting them up for a catastrophe.  They had sampled the genetics of the agave plants and found that classical genetic narrowing had limited the agave down to only two genotypes.  When agave spreads through the roots, the genes come down to direct descendants of the father plants.  Sounds pretty Authoritarian v-Memeish!

But when you throw in bats, well, they mix things up.  Bats are independent operators, and as such, fly around, pollinating willy-nilly, spreading ideas, uh, I mean pollen around in all sorts of unpredictable ways.  Diversity is increased in the agave population, and as such, the whole population benefits through increased resilience.

Can we map our ‘externally defined relationships vs. independently generated relationships’ meta- meme here?

But back to the growers. Medellín had still explained all this to them — told them facts, but they still didn’t listen.  Huh.  Score two for Kolbert.

What happened next? From the article:

“More than 20 years ago I went to the growers and told them they owed this wonderful tequila to the bats because of pollination and the least they could do was give a little back by letting a few agaves flower,” Medellín continued. “They sent me packing, not even a thank you. Then ten years ago I went back and gave them this paper that showed 160 million agaves are clones of only two plants. ‘You are playing with fire,’ I said. ‘Genetic diversity is essentially zero. All it takes is for one disease to hit one plant and all are sick.’

“‘Very interesting Dr. Medellín. Very nice paper. But don’t call us; we’ll call you.’ So six years ago the disease shows up and hits the agave fields hard. I swear that I did not put it in. Then they came to me, very interested, and said: ‘What was that thing about the bats and disease?’ I made a plan: ‘All you need to do is allow just five percent of your agaves to flower, and in one hectare you will be feeding 90 bats per night.’”

I could go on.  But this is such a great example of how humans learn, which I cover in this piece on The Neurobiology of Education and Critical Thinking Talking about ‘facts’, at some level, is kind of meaningless.  What we need to explore is how our brains work, and then set up the situation to optimize that emergent behavior.  And for those that haven’t read that piece, here’s the short version.

Explicit information gets dumped into the LEFT side of the brain.  But if we want people to ACT on that explicit information (change their mind!) then it has to be processed through the hippocampus (limbic system) to create a holistic/autobiographical narrative on the RIGHT side of the brain.

Modified Practice Active Learning

Here’s the slide from that post that discusses this in more detail.

With the growers, Medellín told them what most of you would consider FACTS.  But it wasn’t until they had their own holistic, autobiographical experience that they would create a strategy that ended up saving both bats and their agave plants.

What can we learn here?  Facts DO matter.  If we don’t have good stuff on the left side, we’re never going to have correct holistic representations on the right side.  But without experience, processed through the hippocampus, we’re likely not to see a change in behavior.  You can bet that the growers had a pretty emotional/limbic experience when their agave plants started dying.

What’s the big takeaway?  When attempting to change people’s minds, there are multiple places on the slide above to stake your claim.  You can be someone generating the information on the left side, banking on latency for the appropriate experience to trigger integration to come along.  You plant that information in the explicit memory.  And then wait.

You can be someone either turning up, or turning down the fear/emotions running through the amygdala that throttle the hippocampus.  You can help in creation and interpretation of experience on the right side.  It’s your decision.  But understand that the whole process has to happen before people change.

And that’s what a functional representation of education and critical thinking gives you!

2 thoughts on “HOW Facts Change Minds

  1. Other’s “facts” are tricky things, so we are, rightfully, biased towards our own experience. Now it is true that the more developed our ability to apply discipline to our experiences is, the more capable we are of interpreting our (and other’s) experiences correctly. And that discipline is gained by learning to listen to ourselves, to others, to subtle events and details all around us. But what motivates us to do that. to learn to listen? As far as I know, it is often discomfort of some kind. That is, when someone does not hear, will not see, the motivation to change comes from that deafness and blindness causing them pain. So, I think that a scientist getting all up in arms about people not listening to them is silly because it is always that way, at least at the deeper levels. That scientist is very likely to suffer from the same behavior when it comes to other’s fact which are inconvenient for them in some way.


    1. I think much of this is dependent on empathetic development, which translates into, for lack of a better term, ‘habits of mind’. Are you belief-based or data-driven? In academic circles, there’s a stigma to saying you’re belief-based, and so few will admit what most are. All modes of thought have their weaknesses.


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