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It’s almost certainly crossed the mind of every child who’s ever played on a swing set:  I wonder if I could swing high enough to go all the way around.

That’s the kind of cutting edge issue addressed by Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage and their merry team of scientists and engineers on Mythbusters, the Discovery Channel hit show that examined more than 1,000 urban legends and popular myths over a span of 14 seasons.

The verdict? 

Every parent was relieved to learn that the “backyard 360” is impossible – unless, that is, you radically modify the swing set and employ a professional stunt performer.  Don’t try this at home

A number of viewers weren’t convinced.  “Why, I did a complete 360 myself when I was a kid, and so did some of my friends!”  This was interesting feedback.  Since Adam and Jamie convincingly demonstrated the impossibility of the stunt on a standard swing set, what exactly were these viewers remembering? 

That furor was nothing compared to what happened after Episode 97 of the show in January 2008. 

The Mythbusters team took on one of the most contentious issues in applied physics.  If you put an airplane on a conveyor belt going backwards at “takeoff speed,” and give the plane just enough gas to hold it in place, will it fly?  A boisterous online community had been debating the question for years. 

The team placed a 400-pound ultralight plane atop a special runway crafted from a strong tarp.  The tarp was then accelerated backwards at the precise speed the plane would need to get airborne.

Most of the time, according to Savage, the cast and crew would have a pretty good idea how a particular experiment was going to turn out.  But not this time.  “We had no idea what would happen,” he remembers. 

Everyone was awestruck when the plane lifted effortlessly into the air. 

That’s when things got interesting.  A typical episode generated about 10 pages of viewer comments on the Discovery Channel website.  This one produced more than 600 pages.  Savage was amazed.  “We didn’t change a single person’s mind.”  The evidence seemed indisputable.  And it was there for all to see.  But at least a thousand viewers were utterly unconvinced. 

Executive producer Dan Tapster later reflected, “People hold on to certain ideas for so long and so absolutely that even in the face of irrefutable proof to the contrary, it’s easier to think the evidence is wrong, instead of thinking they were wrong the whole time.”   

Do you remember the catchy slogan of the United Negro College Fund?  A mind is a terrible thing to waste

But it’s also true that a mind is a terribly difficult thing to change.

Human beings are afflicted by a perception frailty called confirmation bias.  Once our minds are made up, we look for evidence to support our pre-existing views.  We watch the news channels that confirm our hopes and fears, and become deaf to the commentators who present opposing perspectives.  Are people capable of “remembering” miraculous swing set stunts that in truth could never have happened?  Do ordinary people really ignore scientific evidence that’s right before their eyes?

Yes.  It happens all the time.  

Those who think the Jesus story is the ultimate myth chuckle at the foolishness of believers.  But the sharp edge of confirmation bias cuts both ways.  A mind that’s already convinced God cannot be real has unwittingly cut itself off from the ever-flowing stream of evidence that God’s hand is moving in this world.   

Father Richard Rohr, director of the Center for Contemplation and Action, has become convinced that only two things have the power to change a human mind:  pain and prayer.

When we hurt, there’s a real chance we will rethink reality.  We will question our assumptions.  People who get cancer suddenly become very interested in whether there is a God who heals.  Those who suffer the loss of a loved one become searingly open to the mystery of life’s meaning.  Those whose hearts are shattered by a relational breakup begin to question their understanding of hope and happiness.

Quietly but powerfully, the Spirit slips into such unexpected ruptures. 

The same thing happens when we pray – especially when we are brave enough to sigh, “God, wherever I am blind, open my eyes.  Wherever I am flat wrong, please open my mind.” 

God uses prayer and suffering to chip away at our stubborn certainties.  It can be a painful process. 

But in the end, it’s the only way we will ever spiritually get off the ground.