How do people change their minds? Others?

More from Columbia University:

Donald Green, a professor of political science, has asked Science to retract an article he and a UCLA graduate student, Michael LaCour, published last year.  The paper demonstrated that an extended and open-ended conversation with a gay canvasser could change an opponent of same sex marriage into a supporter–and the change was, if not permanent, at least long term. The publication had generated a huge amount of attention (see, e.g., This American Life) , at least partly because it seemed to offer a way out of what often seem to be intractable political conflicts: human conversation.

Impressed, two graduate students at Berkeley, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, decided to try to extend the study, and found that many of the details of the published research didn’t exactly work.  People responded to an online survey, for example, at far lower levels than the publication reported.  They approached Green, who urged them to investigate further, recruiting Yale professor Peter Aronow as their collaborator.  They’ve posted a timeline detailing the discrepancies they found.  Green also asked his coauthor for documentation.  When LaCour responded that he’d accidentally deleted some files and maybe didn’t present everything accurately, Green asked him to prepare a letter to Science asking for the piece to be retracted.  When the letter didn’t appear, Green wrote his own.  LaCour has promised a comprehensive response to charges that he fabricated survey results, surveys, and grants to support his idea.

At this point, there’s no evidence to support the notion that an extended conversation can change someone’s mind on an important issue, but the question remains.

Obviously, American opinion has changed on same sex marriage, and a change of this size means that a lot of individuals also changed their minds.

This is important, and not just on this issue.  We know from both substantive research and personal experience that individual opinions tend to be way too stable, immune to both new information and rational argument.  But change happens, somehow.

On same sex marriage, we have some suggestions of what matters from individual stories, particularly from people who have to explain themselves.

Hillary Clinton, between 2008 and 2015, evolved on the issue, starting with support for civil rights, then civil unions (an orphaned notion), then state-by-state reforms, and finally a Supreme Court decision establishing marriage rights.  She hasn’t described a moment of epiphany, and it’s also true that her evolution has basically tracked that of American opinion; certainly, opposition to same sex marriage would be a terrible problem for her in Democratic primaries.  On the other hand, we respond to the values of our communities, as well as proximate incentives like trying to get a job.

Senator Rob Portman also evolved in roughly the same period of time, announcing his support for homogamy some two years after his son came out to him.  Although Portman was in the mainstream of American opinion, his position was not the mainstream of his party, but ongoing conversations with his son, and presumably serious reflection, led him to reconsider a position that prevented someone he loved from enjoying basic rights available to most Americans.

This makes sense too.  Exposure and emotional connections matter.

But both Secretary Clinton and Senator Portman changed their positions over much longer periods of time than an extended porch conversation, and their new positions were buttressed by personal relationships and popular culture.  We still want to know how typical their processes were, and how such changes translate to positions on other issues like vaccines, climate change, or the designated hitter rule.

Systematic research should help answer these questions.

LaCour let us down.

But science really didn’t.  There are all kinds of norms and institutional safeguards to protect against bad science winning acceptance; none are foolproof, but together they produce more reliable information over time than anything else we’ve got.  LaCour tricked his collaborator.  The peer reviewers at Science accepted the paper, taking the scholars’ word that they had conducted the surveys they said they collected.  Because the findings were so interesting and unusual–20 minutes can change your mind on a hot button issue–the publication was high profile and provoked subsequent research.  We work with a norm that a scientist (social or otherwise) will provide data to others who want to replicate, challenge, or build upon his findings.  When those data were unavailable, the findings are disregarded–and, at least in this case, retracted.  Science marches on.

It’s frustrating that we can’t get clear answers to lots of questions that we care about: how do people change their minds?  is it healthy to cook with cocoanut oil?  It’s exasperating that we can find serious peer-reviewed articles that offer contradictory answers.

The promise is that over time a serious scholarly professional consensus emerges.  The LaCour/Green affair supports that promise.


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Take the degree, leave the mattress.

Emma Sulkowicz dragged her mattress across the Columbia University campus for the last time this week, when she participated in a Class Day graduation ceremony.  This day, several friends helped Sulkowicz carry the mattress across the stages, but mostly she’s been hauling it on her own since September.

She started the protest/performance piece/senior thesis after Columbia dismissed sexual assault charges that she’d filed against another student.  (Two other students filed similar charges against the same man.) Sulkowicz vowed to carry the mattress until her attacker left Columbia.  He did, marching across the stage to celebrate his graduation just moments before her.

The Sulkowicz protest was a pain for Columbia, where she was periodically urged to drop the mattress.  University officials warned her about bringing the mattress to the ceremony, and up until the moment she walked across the stage, pressed her to let it rest.

The mattress protest was a reminder about sexual assault that extended far beyond the walls of Columbia University.  By coming forward, Sulkowicz refused to accept the shame or secrecy more common in such events, and she also refused to accept the judgment of Columbia’s internal discipline procedure.  (It has become very clear that universities are ill-equipped to handle what is essentially a criminal charge.)  She also committed herself to reminding her classmates of not only the injustice she experienced, but also the much larger social problem of sexual assault.

Sometimes, others joined her.  At Class Day, allies taped a red X on their silly graduation caps.  Before that, “No Red Tape,” the group they had organized, had held some larger events, including one where 28 mattresses were piled in front of President Bollinger’s residence.

How does all this matter?

Sulkowicz absolutely didn’t win on her most specific demand, ousting her attacker, but his senior year was probably less fun than he’d expected.  Paul Nungesser, the accused, says their personal relationship was consensual, and claims that is he who is being harassed; he’s filed a federal discrimination suit against Columbia, its president, and the art professor who approved the senior thesis project.  Pending.

A protest like Emma Sulkowicz’s is often an invitation to dialogue, but after a few days surely everyone got the message.  Anyone at Columbia would have had to work very hard to miss the point, or not to know the names of all involved.  Even without conversation, it’s hard to think that the protest itself didn’t lead at least some young men and women to a little bit more and a little bit differently about their social activities.  We won’t ever get an accurate count on how many sexual assaults the mattress protest prevented.

Then again, Sulkowicz’s protest may have led young women on campus to distrust Columbia’s discipline process, making it less likely for them to come forward after suffering similar assaults.  (I don’t know, and would welcome wisdom on this one.)

And Sulkowicz took her grievance with Columbia to a much broader audience.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand hosted her at the president’s State of the Union address in January, in support of her own efforts to force universities and colleges to deal more aggressively with sexual assault.

President Lee Bollinger didn’t shake Emma Sulkowicz’s hand at the Class Day ceremony; it was nothing personal, a university spokesman later explained: the mattress got in the way.

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Will the revolution be tweeted?

More than forty years ago, the talented and tragic poet/musician/activist Gil Scott-Heron rapped–before there was rap–that the Revolution would not be televised.  Television was controlled by big corporations and commercial interests, and social change would come from the streets.  But television isn’t the big medium for activists these days.

I’m still trying to figure out how the proliferation of new social media has changed the ways  protest movements organize and sometimes matter.  Jay Caspian King offers some help in a fine old-style piece of journalism in the New York Times Magazine. Looking at some of the intelligence infrastructure of the emerging campaign against police violence, King mostly focuses on DeRay McKesson, who is portrayed more than anything else as a vigilant and stalwart reporter.  [Note that Jenée Desmond-Harris was on this story earlier, publishing at Vox nearly four months ago.]

Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August, McKesson has been going to the protests all over the country and reporting on both the protests and the violence that provoked them. McKesson tweets the names of mostly young men killed, beaten, tear-gassed by police, protesters’ organizing efforts, and the confrontations in the streets.  The names matter, of course, but it’s not just the names.  McKesson tweets the events and the pictures from scores of allied campaigns across the United States, with a resolute focus on keeping police violence in the news.

McKesson’s persistence and ubiquity won him attention from mainstream media.  Below you can see CNN’s Wolf Blitzer repeatedly trying to get the activist to condemn the riots in Baltimore, while McKesson works hard to bring the conversation back to Freddie Gray’s killing.  His discipline in keeping the focus on the cause is admirable–and critical.  “You are suggesting…that broken windows are worse than broken spines…” McKesson repeats.  It’s a line he circles back to again and again, one he probably prepared to maintain a sense of perspective on recurrent injustice that seemed to disappear in coverage of the riots.

DeRay McKesson’s story is interesting: public schools in Baltimore, student government, student tour guide at Bowdoin College (a small, cold, elite liberal arts college in Maine), Teach for America, then an administrative position in Minneapolis Public Schools.  But it’s not just DeRay McKesson, of course; many other citizen reporter/activists, equipped with phones and laptops are covering the issue and uncovering police violence.  In addition to McKesson, King highlights the efforts of Johnetta Elzie, and Desmond-Harris published tweets from Antonio French. Reporters pick out individuals who make for good stories, but every identified hero stands in for many many more less recognized people doing the same work.

In the not too distant past, activists had to attract mainstream media to get their message out to a broader audience.  Now there are other routes to that audience, while waiting for the rest of the world to come around.

DeRay McKesson has 122,000 followers on Twitter.  You can join them @deray.

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Justice, peace, and indictments in Baltimore #Ferguson

When Maryland State’s attorney Marilyn Mosby decided to indict six police officers for the Mosbys3death of Freddie Gray, she may have been responding only to the evidence of criminal conduct by law enforcement. Her office found that police lacked probable cause to arrest Gray, and that they abused him when he was in custody.

When she announced the decisions, however, she explicitly responded to the riots, rebellions, and demonstrations of the past week:

To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘No justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”

To those that are angry, hurt or have their own experiences of injustice at the hands of police officers I urge you to channel that energy peacefully as we prosecute this case I have heard your calls for ‘No justice, no peace,’ however your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of Freddie Gray.

But the events of the last week are not all that mattered.  Marilyn Mosby has been in office Baltimore protestersonly a few months, and most of her electoral campaign occurred in the wake of the Ferguson protests.  She ran for office while tens of thousands of people marched for justice in Ferguson Missouri, and more generally, against police violence in cities across the United States.  She promised to heal the rift between the citizens of Baltimore and their police force by prosecuting police misconduct, faulting the (white) incumbent for failing to do so.

Although there was certainly no shortage of local grievances about policing, the national campaign and the demonstrations intensified attention and animated the debate.  In office, Mosby is trying to deliver.

Do protests work?  Not by themselves, and not always in ways we expect.  But the citizens of Baltimore saw Freddie Gray’s death in the context of not only Baltimore’s policing, but also in the deaths of young black men at the hands of police far away.


Now, will the indictments lead to convictions?  Will the prosecution do anything to reverse decades of decay in most of Baltimore?  Improve the schools?  Create jobs? Reopen public pools and community recreation centers?

Justice means even more than prosecution of criminal conduct.

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Legal change is a long haul

The Supreme Court hears arguments on Obergefell v. Hodges today; the justices will consider whether there is a right to same sex marriage, and whether states are compelled to recognize same sex marriages performed in other states (see: full faith and credit clause).  Although predicting Court decisions is always uncertain, there is a general sense that advocates of marriage equality are on the verge of a major victory.  Public opinion and state laws have changed dramatically, and the Court generally follows.

This may be a chance for the advocates to take something of a victory lap–after decades of very hard work.

Mary Bonuato is one of the heroes of the marriage equality movement.  She’s been working at Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) for twenty-five years, and Photo of Mary L. Bonautomore than anyone else, has been the architect of the legal strategy for the movement.  Bonuato worked to craft civil union statutes before marriage seemed possible, then crafted the legal arguments in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the 2003 case in which Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found a right to same sex marriage.  She also spent a great deal of time arguing others out of pursuing court cases with less favorable facts and/or judges.  In US v. Windsor, she coordinated the submission of scores of amicus curiae briefs against the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Today, she is one of the attorneys arguing before the Court.

Evan Wolfson has been fighting to put marriage equality at the center of the gay and lesbian movement’s agenda since 1983, when he wrote a thesis on the topic while a student Wolfsonat Harvard Law School.  He worked to craft legal arguments, and spoke to publicize those arguments and the cause to much larger audiences.  More than a decade ago, he founded Freedom to Marry, an organization to coordinate these efforts.  Wolfson pushed the marriage issue to activist audiences at a time when many gays and lesbians viewed the goal of marriage equality as either undesirable or impossible.  Wolfson has told Mark Joseph Stern (at Slate) that he expects to declare victory, disband his now-successful campaign, and take a break.  Stern reports:

“The work of the gay rights movement will be far from over,” Wolfson told me in an interview earlier this month, “but the work of the campaign will be finished. Once we’ve won marriage, our job will be done.”

Many many other people, including lawyers, have contributed mightily to the campaign for marriage equality.  Mary Bonuato and Evan Wolfson recognized long ago that the dramatic day in court represents decades of mostly invisible work against odds that seemed insurmountable.

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It’s never one thing: violence in Baltimore

A lot of things have to go wrong for protests to turn into sustained violent confrontations with the police–as in Baltimore today.  The reports on the repeated protests against police

Baltimore police rush at protesters during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland April 27, 2015.(Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)

violence last week emphasized that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were determined to be non-violent, and that scattered attempts at provocation by a few provocateurs–maybe from out of town–were isolated from the much larger protest actions.

The death of Freddie Gray was the last straw–until the next last straw.  Picked up with a knife, Gray died because police delayed in getting him medical care–a fatal error local authorities have already admitted–and an investigation continues.  But Gray’s death comes in the context of a police force that has paid nearly $6 million in civil settlements for beatings and abuse, mostly to young black men who were not charged with crimes.  (See the Baltimore Sun investigation.)  And it’s not just the money, of course; each beating wounds not only one victim, but the relationship between police and the community they’re charged with protecting.  And it’s not just policing; years of gentrification and development of the Baltimore waterfront haven’t spilled over to produce good jobs, schools, or services in most of Baltimore.

At this moment, the reports are that local authorities received “credible threats” that an alliance of criminal gangs was going to go after police.  The police showed up at Freddy Gray’s funeral prepared for a riot–a riot they ultimately got.  Speaker after speaker at the funeral called for peace–and justice.  At the moment, neither appears close.

A boy throws a brick at a police van, Monday, April 27, 2015, during a skirmish between demonstrators and police after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A boy trying to shot put a rock at a police van must be terrifying to police, who know that someone bigger may be pushing something bigger. The police surely know that the world is watching and that there are all kinds of ways that they can’t respond, but they don’t know who else is out there and what other weapons the few rioters might have.  They see vandalism and they see officers wounded.  I don’t know if they see a way out.

We remember how much we take for granted about public order.  In a city of more than 600,000, how many people does it take to bring havoc to the streets, to poke and prod officers with riot gear into reaction and overreaction?  Mobilizing neighboring police forces and the National Guard, imposing a curfew, and promising to deploy a panoply of violent means to one-up the rioters, Baltimore police announced their determination to keep order:

“You’re going to see tear gas. You’re going to see pepper balls. We’re going to use appropriate methods to make sure we can preserve the safety of that community,” a spokesman, Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, said at a news conference.  (New York Times)

Some brave Baltimore citizens, including clergy, also tried to control the moment, putting themselves between rioters and police, and urging the young people to back off.  It is, after all, their community.  And this might have had some effect.

Police preserve the social order when they can separate a relatively small number of miscreants from the larger community, and when that community is convinced that the social order is worth defending.  At the moment, however, many peace-loving citizens of Baltimore are hard-pressed to throw their lot in with the police.

Meanwhile, a baseball game at Camden Yards is canceled (read the reaction of the executive vice-president of the Baltimore Orioles, John Angelos, who emphasizes that there are bigger issues than baseball at play here). School is canceled tomorrow.  I’m sure almost everyone in Baltimore wants the riots and the fires and the rocks to stop, but I’m not sure going back to the normal before Freddie Gray’s death is any kind of goal.

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Patriotic conflict at UC-Irvine unflagging

Amazingly, national interest in the flag conflict at the University of California, Irvine, where I teach, is unwavering.  More than a few people seem to think that there is political mileage in beating up on a few students who sponsored a resolution to ban all flags from one lobby on campus.

It’s worse than that.  Recall that the resolution was ultimately defeated.  A meeting to discuss the issues has been repeatedly cancelled because of what campus authorities judge to be credible threats of violence.  And veer to the comments sections of the news reports, and see anonymous posters proclaiming that the student sponsors–or even the whole university–should be tortured, killed, or sent back to…..(Temecula?)  Audiences are unhappy with what they think some UC-Irvine students are learning.

But as anyone in education knows, what students learn isn’t always what teachers teach.  [I don’t hold Senator James Inhofe’s proud ignorance about climate change against the University of Tulsa, his alma mater. Nor do I think that the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts and President Barack Obama differ on questions of Constitutional interpretation reflect badly upon the teaching at Harvard Law School.]

Clearly worried about the political fallout, at UC-Irvine, Chancellor Howard Gillman proclaimed his commitment to build more flagpoles, and hoist more American flags.  (LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian appropriately questions whether this is the best use of limited funds on campus.)

To make sure this tempest in the tea party doesn’t die down so that we can focus on something more useful, someone circulated a letter online, defending the students who sponsored the flag ban, and some of the thousand plus signatories were faculty members at UC-Irvine.  (I didn’t sign the letter, nor was I asked to.  I glanced at list of supporters quickly, and didn’t see anyone I knew–and I’m not looking to keep score.)  Support for the students and their right to propose policies that improve the campus is entirely appropriate, as is concern for their physical safety.

A university has to be a place where people can entertain and examine unpopular ideas.  Free speech is essential to education and to democracy, and free speech is explicitly about unpopular ideas.

But a conservative website found the letter, and proclaimed that the UC-Irvine faculty supported banning the flag.  Alas, the statement is poorly written, but I don’t see that prescription in it.  Anyway, it was certainly no less articulate than the drunken frat boys singing an explicitly racist and threatening song at the University of Oklahoma.  Free speech.


We know that opportunists all over are trying to use this dust-up to promote their ideas and themselves.  That’s America.

It’s also America to have disputatious discussions and differences of opinion about all kinds of things.  In the background to the photo above, behind the flagpoles, you can almost make out the library,  which for the university is something far more important, far more expensive, and far more difficult to maintain.  I hope that the visitors who came to yell at students for their ingratitude also visited that building.  In the stacks you can find The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, and of course, the US Constitution.  But all of that is in the public domain, and you can easily find those texts online.

But the library contains so much more than that.  There are classics of literature and pieces of fiction that feature curses.  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is there, offensive language and all.  There are paper copies and electronic access to extremely expensive academic journals where students and faculty can read the latest research on the employment effects of a hike in the minimum wage (economists disagree), or the human causes of climate change (climate scientists agree).  It’s a great place to spend four years–or for some of us–even more.

The presumption is that we get smarter by exposing themselves to ideas they find abhorrent.  Good students dig through stuff they disagree with and find problems and contradictions.  Great students dig through stuff they dislike and try to figure out why it appeals to others.  Some of them even change their minds.

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