When a new study came out late last year proving—scientifically!—how easy it is to turn opponents of gay marriage into supporters, the political scientist Andrew Gelman managed to summarize his reaction in a single unscientific word: “Wow!”
He was writing in the Washington Post, but his sentiment was echoed throughout the mainstream liberal press: the big daily newspapers, websites like Vox and the Huffington Post, TV network news, and public radio—especially public radio. Twitter lit up like a nonsectarian Holiday Tree. The men and women who write about “social science” were uniformly giddy.
Why the commotion? For years, social scientists have believed (scientifically) that it is extremely difficult to change another person’s political opinions, especially if the other person is an “everyday American” and not a social scientist. Multiple studies and mounds of research—by political scientists, sociologists, social psychologists, all kinds of scientists—have confirmed the bullheadedness of everyday Americans. People’s attitudes and opinions are not the consequence of argument or experience, research revealed, but rather of unreasoning bias and emotion. The studies proving this, by the way, are not the consequence of bias and emotion. They are designed by scientific researchers studying other people.
So imagine the surprise when a pair of researchers found that Americans weren’t so stubborn after all, at least when the subject was gay marriage. The scientists, one from Columbia, another from UCLA, published their paper last December. The paper was called “When Contact Changes Minds: An experiment on the transmission of gay equality.” What happened in the experiment was this: Homosexual canvassers and heterosexual canvassers were assigned to go door to door in Los Angeles talking to voters about gay marriage. Ultimately canvassers talked to nearly 10,000 voters living in precincts that had voted for Proposition 8 in 2008. Prop 8, if you need reminding, is the nefarious (among social scientists) constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in California. These Angelenos were hard cases, in other words. But they cracked with astonishing ease.
The writers who cover social science were deeply impressed with the scientific rigor of this experiment. For control purposes, some of the voters were canvassed by a gay canvasser, others by a straight canvasser (other controls were used too). The canvassers didn’t argue with the everyday Americans, they didn’t cajole or steamroll them with facts. Instead they read from a script provided by a local gay rights organization, which also recruited the canvassers. The canvassers were supposed to keep the conversation going for 20 minutes. The script could be loosely or closely followed, but at all times, according to the press release accompanying the study, the canvassers would be engaged in “heartfelt, reciprocal, and vulnerable conversations.”
Heartfelt, reciprocal, and highly persuasive. Over the course of the conversations, the researchers said, a very large number of voters changed their initial view on gay marriage from anti- to pro. (None of the voters who was for gay marriage changed his mind.)
This wouldn’t be big news, necessarily. Short-term effects like this are pretty common among the people you find in social science experiments. They say they change their minds but then they change back again.
The big news in “When Contact Changes Minds” was that the minds stayed changed! When the canvassers went back to the voters at intervals of three weeks, six weeks, nine months, and a year, most of the changelings were still in favor of gay marriage. Even better, the gay canvassers managed to change many more minds for longer periods than the straight canvassers. And a further survey discovered that the respondents were, on average, able to persuade at least one member of their household to take the pro-gay marriage view too.
Vox, a well-trafficked website that often explains the complexities of social science to its readers, put it like this: “Before, respondents felt the same about gay marriage as Nebraskans; after, they felt the same as folks from Massachusetts.” There is no better definition of heaven, scientists say.
The researchers wrote up their report and sent it off to the “peer-reviewed” journal Science. The peers reviewed it. They gave the editors a thumbs-up. The gay rights group in L.A. rushed out a press release. The swoon, as I say, was universal.