We hate changing our minds.
When politicians do it, pundits call it a “flip-flop” and laugh at them. When pundits do it, other pundits laugh at them. (Except for Philip Tetlock, who welcomes them with open arms to the land of right thinking.) The appearance of several very good books about the phenomenon hasn’t even left a dent in our public discourse.
Many of you are reading this blog because you are humanists. And many of you humanists believed in a religion at some point. This means that you’ve changed your mind about something big. If so, congratulations! Changing your mind is hard.
Unfortunately, doing it once is no reason to rest on your laurels; you probably hold a variety of beliefs that you haven’t tried to question in years. That’s okay. So do I, and I’m the person writing this.
But I think it’s a shame that we don’t change our minds more often, and I’d like to explore ways that we might do a better job of updating our beliefs in response to evidence.
In this, the first of two complimentary posts, I examine the stories of two well-known people who achieved their fame in part through the expression of their beliefs. Neither is unique in the views they held or the steps they took to support those views.
However, they both did something very rare – they changed their minds, in the face of strong incentives to stay the course. I consider this an act of great moral courage, and I hope you’ll find their stories inspiring. After all, if they can change their minds, what is stopping us from doing the same?
Alan Chambers, Leader of Exodus International
For a time, Exodus International was the most powerful organization in the world of “conversion therapy”, which targets gay people who hope to become straight – or whose parents make that decision for them. Alan Chambers, alongside his wife Leslie, led Exodus for 11 years, serving as the public face of conversion therapy.
Just over a year ago, Alan Chambers explained in a live television special, seen by millions of people, that he was closing Exodus. He apologized to the gay people whose lives Exodus had impacted, describing his contrition as “unequivocal, unconditional”:
I am sorry I didn’t stand up to people publicly ‘on my side’ who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him, I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.
The apology wasn’t a complete surprise. Chambers describes his own sexuality using the ambiguous term “Holy-sexual”, and admitted the flaws of conversion therapy in public long before the closure of Exodus. But it is still the case that his job – and the respect of millions of his fellow Christians – depended on his continued support of the pernicious practice.
And yet, he changed his mind.
Christians who swear by the benefits of conversion therapy were not very happy about this. And many fierce opponents of conversion therapy flatly declared that they wouldn’t be forgiving Chambers for his former work with Exodus. Plenty of people were happy about the shutdown, but very few became fans of the man who took steps to correct his mistake.
You can see why people don’t do this kind of thing very often.
(Note: As many have pointed out, Chambers still holds many views I consider mistaken and harmful. In this, he resembles many other leaders of all stripes — save that those leaders never bother to question their own views in public. Chambers is not an especially moral man, but his story still holds a moral lesson for those with similarly misguided beliefs.)
Patty Wetterling, Child Safety Advocate
In the face of this horrifying experience, Wetterling’s response was heroic. She founded the Jacob Wetterling Foundation to further the cause of child-safety education, and eventually succeeded in convincing Congress to pass the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Sex Offender Registration Act in their 1994 Crime Bill. For many years, she was one of the nation’s best-known advocates for what she calls “broad-based community notification laws“, which compel states to notify the public about registered sex offenders living nearby.
These laws often keep sex offenders on the register for life, making it nearly impossible for them to find work or live anything close to a normal existence. This doesn’t bother many people – after all, who wants to stand up for the rights of rapists and child molesters?
But Wetterling – whose life had put her in a position to hate sex offenders without reservation – soon began to shift her stance. In 2007, she was quoted in a report from Human Rights Watch, admitting that she’d been wrong about many of her closest convictions:
I based my support of broad-based community notification laws on my assumption that sex offenders have the highest recidivism rates of any criminal. But the high recidivism rates I assumed to be true do not exist. It has made me rethink the value of broad-based community notification laws, which operate on the assumption that most sex offenders are high-risk dangers to the community they are released into. (emphasis mine)
Around the time the report was released, Wetterling also composed an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, titled “The Harm in Sex-Offender Laws”, explaining both her past and present beliefs with an evenhanded honesty rarely found in newspaper op-eds (or anywhere else).
Alan & Patty
Unlike Alan Chambers, Patty Wetterling does not run a public blog. It’s been many years since she spent much time in the news, and any public criticism of her new positions died down long ago. For all I know, Patty Wetterling didn’t take the same risks as Alan Chambers, who knew he’d be creating a media firestorm when he appeared on the Oprah Network.
But in some sense, she may have risked more than Chambers.
(Warning: The following paragraphs are wild speculation, and should not be construed as an accurate psychological evaluation of a real person.)
Rather than breaking ties with a social group, Wetterling chose to part with a certain view of herself, a view she’d held for many years.
While fighting for the passage of Jacob’s Law, she was, in her own mind, a moral hero, pursuing righteous justice against criminals whose existence outside of prison threatened the lives of innocent children. Many years later, she chose a harder path in life – the path of the person who sees evil, stops, and considers the rest of the story. The new Patty Wetterling admits that sex offenders aren’t especially likely to re-offend, and that current laws are likely far too harsh toward a group of people who deserve a second chance.
“These people are not monsters,” says the new Patty Wetterling. “They’re living and functioning amongst us, and we’ve got to figure out a way for them to live amongst us and not harm [anyone].”
What would the Patty Wetterling of 1990 think of the Patty Wetterling of 2007? Only Wetterling herself knows for sure. But whatever the answer, she changed her mind for the sake of a group of pariahs who – unlike gays in Evangelical communities – had mostly committed acts worthy of outcast status. She put her faith in human nature, and in the cold truth of crime statistics.
I happen to agree with Wetterling’s new beliefs. But whether or not they are wise beliefs, her decision to stand for them in public was an act of moral courage.
In my next article, I’ll be looking at practical techniques we can use to change our minds when the evidence is against us, despite the psychological pressures pushing us to stay the course.
Aaron Gertler (Yale University) Aaron is a member of the class of 2015 at Yale University. After he graduates, he hopes to live his life in a way that makes the lives of other people significantly better, unless he gets distracted by his dream of becoming a famous DJ/novelist/crime-fighter. His interests include electronic music, applied psychology, instrumental rationality, and effective altruism. If his beliefs are inaccurate, you should tell him so as directly as possible. You can follow him on Twitter @aarongertler, and he also writes for his own blog.