(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘beliefs

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”*…




“The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs”  – Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

As recently as the late 1980s, most Americans thought gay sex was not only immoral but also something that ought to be illegal. Yet by 2015, when the Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, there were only faint murmurs of protest. Today two-thirds of Americans support it, and even those who frown on it make no serious effort to criminalise it.

This surge in tolerance illustrates how fast public opinion can shift. The change occurred because two trends reinforced each other. First, many socially conservative old people have died, and their places in the polling samples have been taken by liberal millennials. In addition, people have changed their minds. Support for gay marriage has risen by some 30 percentage points within each generation since 2004, from 20% to 49% among those born in 1928-45 and from 45% to 78% among those born after 1980.

However, this shift in opinion makes gay marriage an exception among political issues. Since 1972 the University of Chicago has run a General Social Survey every year or two, which asks Americans their views on a wide range of topics. Over time, public opinion has grown more liberal. But this is mostly the result of generational replacement, not of changes of heart.

For example, in 1972, 42% of Americans said communist books should be banned from public libraries. Views varied widely by age: 55% of people born before 1928 (who were 45 or older at the time) supported a ban, compared with 37% of people aged 27-44 and just 25% of those 26 or younger. Today, only a quarter of Americans favour this policy. However, within each of these birth cohorts, views today are almost identical to those from 47 years ago. The change was caused entirely by the share of respondents born before 1928 falling from 49% to nil, and that of millennials—who were not born until at least 1981, and staunchly oppose such a ban—rising from zero to 36%.

Not every issue is as extreme as these two. But on six of the eight questions we examined—all save gay marriage and marijuana legalisation—demographic shifts accounted for a bigger share of overall movement in public opinion than changes in beliefs within cohorts. On average, their impact was about twice as large.

Social activists devote themselves to changing people’s views, and sometimes succeed. In general, however, battles for hearts and minds are won by grinding attrition more often than by rapid conquest.

The Economist illustrates the way in which generational change is the driver of changes in public opinion: “Societies change their minds faster than people do.”

Paul Graham has tips on how to anticipate and navigate, even to lead, this change: “What you can’t say.”

“The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research. It is upon their existence more than upon that of revolutions that the notion of normal science depends… though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

* The Who


As we go with the flow, we might send responsive birthday greetings to John Broadus Watson; he was born on this date in 1878.  A psychologist inspired by the (then recent) work of Ivan Pavlov, Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism, most dramatically through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, at Columbia University in 1913.  Watson studied the biology, physiology, and behavior of animals, viewing them as extremely complex machines that responded to situations according to their “wiring,” or nerve pathways, which were conditioned by experience.  When he continued with studies of the behavior of children, his conclusion was that humans, while more complicated than animals, operated on the same principles; he was particularly interested in the conditioning of emotions.  Watson’s behaviorism dominated psychology in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s (and got a second wind with the ascendence of B.F. Skinner).


Ironically, it is also the birthday (1886) of one of Watson’s contemporaries and antagonists, Edwin Ray Guthrie.  Guthrie was also a behaviorist, but argued against of Watson’s theory of classical conditioning and Skinner’s related theory of operant conditioning.  Guthie’s focus was the psychology of learning and the role that association plays.  In his Law of Contiguity, he held that “a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement, will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” He held that all learning is based on a stimulus- response association; movements are small stimulus- response combinations.  These movements make up an act.  A learned behavior is a series of movements, and it takes time for the movements to develop into an act. Which is to say that he believed that learning is incremental, and that many acquired behaviors involve repetition of movements– because what is learned are movements, not behaviors.

200px-Edwin_Ray_Guthrie source


It’s positively evolutionary!…


Since 1982, the Gallup polling organization has been asking Americans about their beliefs as to the origin of our species.  The latest results are in; and while a plurality of those queried still believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time in the last ten thousand years or so,” a growing minority professes belief in some form of evolution:

There’s been no revolutionary change of beliefs over the last three decades, but one can detect a shift that’s…  well, positively evolutionary.

As we begin at the beginning, we might wish a happy birthday to Isaak Yudovich Ozimov– aka Isaac Asimov– who was born on this date in 1920.  A biochemistry professor, he is better remembered as an author– more specifically, as one one of the greatest science fiction authors of his time (imaginer of “The Foundation,” coiner of the term “robotics,” and author of “The Three Laws of Robotics”).  But Asimov was extraordinarily prolific; he published over 500 books– including (in addition to sci fi) mysteries, a great deal of popular science, even a worthy volume on Shakespeare– and wrote an estimated 9,000 letters and postcards.

Asimov in 1965


%d bloggers like this: