Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

About that Queen thing...

This note is a letter of confession. Followed by an observation about how hard it can be to really absorb a correction and change your thinking.

The confession isn't terribly titillating, I'm afraid. I got something wrong. The something involves the Canadian constitution. So when I said "not terribly titillating," I meant "it is unbearably boring to most people." So if you like, skip the next few paragraphs and go on to the psychology of correction, which is more interesting. And probably more important.

The error involved the head of state under the Canadian constitutional system. For many years, I have chided people on Twitter who say Canada should cut its ties to "the British monarchy," because, in fact, we don't have such ties. The Queen of Canada is a separate office from that of the Queen of the United Kingdom, the two offices are merely occupied by the same person -- just as the Queen also happens to be Queen of Jamaica, Australia, etc.

Turns out, that wasn't correct. Or to be more blunt, I was wrong.

It was correct for many decades. In fact, it was correct for the better part of a century. But for various complicated reasons, the Harper government made a choice that led to a court case that led to a ruling that changed the situation a few years ago. What's the new situation? It's complicated. I think the most succinct summary is that it's a metaphysical mess. But for present purposes, what matters is that it is no longer true that the office of Queen of Canada is entirely separate and distinct from the Queen's other job.

I know all this thanks to the inimitable Philippe Lagasse, one of a very small number of constitutional scholars who really understands this stuff. Phil patiently walked me through it this week. (To learn more, here's a column he wrote last year: https://ottawacitizen.com/opin... )

But here's where the psychology of changing minds comes in: This wasn't the first time I discovered the situation had changed.

Back in 2015, I was editor at Policy Options and I published an article about the ongoing constitutional wrangling written by one Philippe Lagasse. The situation hadn't been definitively settled in the courts then. But there was already a ruling setting up the metaphysical mess.

And apparently I erased it from my brain. Because I went back to telling people on Twitter that the two offices are completely separate, knock it off, etc.

Thanks to having privileged access to my thoughts, I know I didn't intend to bury an inconvenient and unwelcome fact. And I certainly didn't intend to mislead. But that's clearly what I did.

I've seen others do this before. (It's always easy to spot others falling into cognitive traps.)

A very smart but very rigid person I know once made a claim in conversation that I showed to be indisputably wrong with a certain fact. He looked like a deer in the headlights for a moment then moved on. Some months later, he made the same claim, and I responded with the same fact. Again, he looked like a deer in the headlights for a moment then moved on. This exchange happened at least three times over a few years. It was clear that he valued his existing thinking and his brain just wouldn't process the awkward fact and change his thinking.

This speaks to the truly hard part about changing your mind. Saying, "I hear what you are saying and I now understand that my established thinking is wrong" is a challenge. But it's not the hard part. It's a passing moment of cognitive dissonance.

The hard part is actually changing your established thinking in light of the new information. That means working through the implications of the new information. Spending time on them. Thinking about them often enough, and long enough, that you replace the old mental grooves in the LP of your mind with a new track.

That's work. You can't do it by saying "huh, guess I was wrong" and silently congratulating yourself for being so intellectually honest. You have to do something.

Like writing a long, embarrassing blog post on a Sunday morning.