The wind of change

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: . Decide for yourself.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The wind of change

  1. John Thomas says:

    Quentin, you tell us about the “wind” coming from the culture – the media, politicians, etc – and then the “wind” coming from the Church/scripture. But, surely we believe that the Church/scripture has some authority that the culture does not have (I’m sure some … the BBC? … would argue with me), like … the presence of the Holy Spirit …? And, perhaps, on at least some of the issues you list (eg. homosexuality, and the value of human life) the Holy Spirit has been – we believe – leading us for a long time, long before the “medya”, and their “winds”, were around. The two kinds of “wind” are not to be equated.

  2. Quentin says:

    Of course this is the problem with metaphor. By ‘wind’ I was thinking of the various ways the groups we belong to influence our decisions arationally. It could be a secular view such as: is Trump off his rocker? Or it could be the unquestioned literalness of Scripture. Interestingly the Scientific American has a major article this month on this subject,

  3. John Nolan says:

    It’s a very interesting question. I supported Britain’s entry into what was then the ‘Common Market’ in 1973, and voted in the 1975 referendum to stay in. Had the 2016 referendum been held a year earlier, I would have probably voted ‘remain’. I regard myself as culturally a European and am fluent in French and German. Yet in the end I voted Brexit.

    Because I had time to consider the implications. A superstate of 28 disparate nations is in the long term non-viable. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. So did the Soviet Union and its land empire (contrary to all expectations). So did the artificial state of Yugoslavia. I would rather be on the outside of a collapsing empire than on the inside.

    It was also assumed in the 60s and 70s that since Britain no longer had an empire the only future was in Europe. Defence commitments were scaled down to include only Germany and the north Atlantic. Yet with increasing globalization Britain is starting to think imperially again, not in terms of subduing other countries, but in terms of military and economic power projection. Why else have we built two massive aircraft carriers?

    A recent independent defence study identified only one superpower (the USA) and only one global power (the UK). France, Russia, China et al. are listed as regional powers. Food for thought.

    • John Thomas says:

      This is interesting, John (but probably not along the lines Quentin was writing about). I think there’s a great distinction to be made between Europe culturally (goodness and light) and Europe politically (a dark place, a bad past, a thing to be avoided).

  4. Geordie says:

    Russia thinks it is a superpower and so does China and they are probably correct. They are certainly global powers. China has huge investments in Africa as well as a number Chinese personelle. It is also taking over the South China Sea, much to the consternation of its neighbours.

  5. Barrie Machin says:

    We can all see that the antiquated Parliament building is under necessary repair – and even Big Ben! The events of yesterday indicate to me that while they are at it they should should urgently repair some of the antiquated procedures that take place within the place too.
    A single word uttered there seems more effective than anything the researches found out!

  6. galerimo says:

    It is the lack of vision and impoverished imagination that slows us down and strands us in the intellectual backwaters today. It always has..

    Life itself, it’s grief especially has more power than argument – remember the little dead Syrian boy on the beach and how it opened up a new layer of conscious awareness around the world with regard to the plight of refugees. It was a lot more affective in changing minds.

    The young man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales and our own personal experience of love and mortality are the real motivators of change and are more likely to start in the gut than the head

  7. Alan says:

    If I read the study correctly, after stage one you are left with a collection of people who, through a limited means of communication around the group, have agreed upon a name for a given face. As a whole or individually we don’t know much about their level of commitment to that name. I would guess at some people liking it, some not being all that keen (but obviously not being dead set against it or they wouldn’t have reached an agreement at all) and others not being too concerned about it either way.

    At stage two some more people are introduced who are committed, by the constraints of the test, to overturning the choice the majority have made. Is it really a surprise that the previous agreement doesn’t hold out against such pressure? Some of the stage one group might prefer the new name. It would seem possible that the addition of the 25% could tip the balance over to a majority of the new group being in favour of the change. That wouldn’t seem to represent a minority having a disproportionate influence.

    Seeding the two groups with different interests and running more tests might be more informative.

  8. Alasdair says:

    To (once again with apologies) pick up on a point in Quentin’s introduction, rather than his main argument – Regarding “Public Schools” by which, judging by his generation and his “nationality”, I presume he means what I call fee-paying independent schools:-
    The mainstream school system (and hence the majority of young people in the UK) is (are) disadvantaged by the practices of these institutions in a number of ways – one in particular from my own recent experience.
    The state schools which I have most involvement with, simply cannot compete financially with the local independent schools who set the price when it comes to sending youngsters to conferences, international exchanges, extracurricular events, especially when these involve hiring specialist personnel. These events and resources are often fully allocated to the usual-suspect independent schools by the time we can canvass local companies and run charity events to raise funds. When our youngsters do succeed in attending events they often outperform the independent school cohort.
    The worst case recently was when our largest neighbouring independent school entered into an exclusive contract with a commercial outdoor education provider who we regularly used. So now the state schools cannot use that provider even if-and-when they manage to raise the necessary funds as the provider now gets paid even when they are not working!

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