Liberty Matters

Why Does Public Opinion Ever Change?

George Smith’s recent post offers some important insights into our conversation and sharpens some of the points David pointed to in his opening essay and subsequent comments. In particular, I was struck by George’s observation that changes in behavior seem to occur slowly as a result of a change in “public opinion.” If this is correct (and I think it is) it prompts several other questions that should be of interest to us.
Drawing on Lecky’s work, George argues that public opinion changes when certain heretofore ignored or marginal ideas become “credible.”  (Importantly, I think that George’s insight here is very close to the point that Kuznicki made in his essay about the importance of libertarian ideas seeming “reasonable.”)  In George’s example, when “naturalistic ideas” about the physical universe became credible, they eventually pushed out older “supernatural” explanations of various phenomena to the point that the belief in witches was dismissed out of hand as not credible.  We can describe this sort of development in other ways using all sorts of fancy terms like Tiefkultur and Zeitgeist,but what we are essentially talking about is the importance of is change “from below.”  Yet this explanation in some ways only pushes the explanatory horizon back a step.  Even if we say that great changes in Weltanschauung are the result of changes in public opinion, don’t we still have to explain how public opinion changes?  As far as I can tell, George doesn’t offer an account of that in his short comment.  To put it in his terms, what brought about “the radical if gradual shift in the prevailing public standard of credibility” that eventually led to public rejection of witch burning? 
So, it seems to me that we are thrown back into the arms of the basic question David posed at the start of this conversation:  What changes ideas?  What ideas changed public opinion about witch burning?  While George is surely right that specific arguments against burning witches could not get any sort of purchase on public opinion until it was already inclined away from supernatural explanations, we still have to come up with some sort of story about how these “anti-supernatural” arguments eventually won the day.