Imagine a large group of people who all went to public schools. We would think it likely that most of them would praise the public school system and indeed be ready to promote it. But inevitably there would be among them a few, perhaps five per cent, who actually thought public schools were a bad idea. These oddballs would indeed be oddballs – in that position. But let’s suppose that some of them set out, with good arguments, to convert the others. And indeed they were sometimes successful. How many would they need to convert in order to the bring the whole mass, or at least more than 70 per cent, to join their side?
The golden number is 25 per cent. This was calculated in an interesting study recently published by Science. This figure surprised me. After all, the majority had perfectly good arguments for their original position so how could the views of a minority, however energetic, change their minds? It worried me, too. What does democracy mean when the view of the majority can, in effect, be overridden by the view of the minority?
When, for example, we were considering our position before voting for the EU referendum, most of us were looking around for good arguments. And there were plenty of them. The problem was that there were equally good arguments for the other side. It seems likely that many decisions were not the outcome of our brainpower but the views of the people who surrounded us.
This is important because we now live in a society in which social views, in large number, can be communicated to huge audiences, effectively overnight. Trump, #metoo, semitism in political parties, freedom of abortion, usage of drugs, choice of gender and so on spread through our society like a desert storm. Do we really think about these things or do we just catch them from the air – much as the Black Death spread in mediaeval times? And, as I have written before, social media creates huge groups at great speed. We must expect the views of our society to be very volatile but very rarely thought through by most of those who hold them.
Let me test myself. My view of the morality of homosexuality, as a clear cut example, has in fact changed over the years. Where I am now with regard to this is immaterial. What matters is whether I have picked it up from the wind, or whether I have thought my way through the question and arrived at what I hold to be the right answer. But I remain open to the possibility that new thoughts and circumstances might get me closer to the truth. And how about you? Can you spot a view which you strongly hold without having thought deeply about it. Or did it come from the wind, including the wind from the hierarchical Church? Or (dare I say it?) from the wind from Scripture?
And now you might be saying: Quentin started all this from a psychological study, but was it a good one that really supports his theme? It’s a fair question. Here is a fair answer: https://bit.ly/2JD9eBV . Decide for yourself.