What it means to make mistakes.
Posted Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010, at 1:03 PM
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a 13-year-old kid named Josh Stieber vowed that as soon as he was old enough, he would join the military. His goal: to help protect his country and spread its values of freedom and democracy around the world. With the war still on when he graduated from high school, Stieber enlisted in 2006 and was deployed to Baghdad in 2007. A devout Christian and a staunch political conservative, Stieber became troubled by the gap between the values he was told the military embodied and those he experienced on the ground. Partway through his deployment, he realized that his perspective had changed so drastically that he would rather go to prison than remain in the military. Instead, he learned about, applied for, and obtained Conscientious Objector status. (For more on conscientious objectors, see my interview with J.E. McNeil , head of the Center on Conscience and War .)
In the interview below, Stieber, who is now 22, spoke with me about how his expectations and his experiences of military life collided, what it feels when "everything you've defined yourself by has fallen apart," and how George W. Bush and Gandhi each played a pivotal role in shaping his military career.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I grew up in suburban D.C. in a pretty religious family and went to an evangelical Christian school. My family was very much involved in the church, and my father's pretty political; when I was in high school I worked with him on the Bush campaign.
How did you think about war as you were growing up?
The high school I went to was supervised by the church that my family attended, and one of the books we read in government class was called The Faith of George W. Bush . Bush was presented as an example of what a strong Christian man should look like, and the global war on terror was presented as an opportunity to rescue an oppressed people and spread democracy through the Middle East, along with Christian and Western values.
What was it about Bush that exemplified the ideal Christian man?
A lot of it had to do with his assertiveness: the idea of moral certainty, the way he spoke in absolute values of good and evil, and the idea that you don't negotiate with terrorists, you don't talk to people on the other side. You're right, and you have morals on your side, and you're willing to be outspoken about them and willing to criticize others for not living your way of life.
What made you decide to enlist? Do you come from a military family?
Both my grandfathers served, but my dad didn't. I would say that Bush book influenced me a lot. By about midway through high school, I was pretty certain that that's what I was going to do.
What about your classmates? Were many of them enlisting as well?
No, that was one of the interesting things. Everybody in my class agreed with me religiously and politically, and it kind of frustrated me that no one else was putting it into practice. Toward the very end of high school, I started asking a lot more questions and becoming more critical of the system, because I saw a lot of people talking a good game but wondered why I was only the only one really doing anything about it.
Why do you think you were the one putting your beliefs into practice?
My parents are both people who act on their beliefs. I don't always agree with how they act, but they definitely demonstrated for me a correspondence: If you believe something, you need to act on it.
What was your experience like after you enlisted?
Pretty quickly after I got in, I started to see inconsistencies between how the military was talked about in such glorified ways [when I was] growing up, and then how it was acted out in training. Training was very desensitizing. We screamed slogans like, "Kill them all, let God sort them out." We watched videos with bombs being dropped on Middle Eastern villages with rock and roll music in the background. People really started to celebrate death and destruction, and that definitely didn't match up to what I'd expected. I'd told myself that I was willing to kill if necessary, but that wasn't the same as celebrating it.
Were other people around you noticing these inconsistencies as well?
To varying degrees. I think a lot of people didn't really feel it, though. Honestly, at the time I didn't realize how psychologically influential that kind of thing is, either. You know, they do it in kind of a discreet way; we would march and sing one song and it would be perfectly harmless, and then the next song would be about killing women and children. So you mix it up back and forth and I guess you don't really realize the implications. But later on when you're in action, I think it does play a role.
How did you handle it at the time? Were you feeling uncomfortable and actively wrestling with these issues, or was it more of a background concern?
At the time, I kept telling myself that the ends justified whatever questionable means we were taught. I had kind of a moral back-and-forth around that. And then I went back and forth politically between whether or not we were keeping the higher ideal of spreading truth and democracy or just cleaning up the mess we had made. But I still just went along with things and said to myself, "Even if I disagree with a lot of different aspects of training, it's OK so long as I don't let it influence me.
Did you tell anyone about your concerns?
I did write back home to family members and different leaders in my church to say, "This kind of thing doesn't seem to match up with all these things I was taught." The answer usually was that same thinking — that the ends justify the means.
Part of me felt that they couldn't understand, that they didn't know what I was going through and couldn't relate. But at the same time, I didn't know what else I could do. They didn't have a great answer and neither did I.
When did your willingness to go along start to shift toward a sense that you couldn't remain in the military?
That didn't take place until I actually deployed and was confronted with making crucial decisions. One of the values I'd been taught and that you hear all the time in the rhetoric of political and military leaders was that democracy is a good thing and it thrives on the will of the people.
That came into question a couple of months after we got to Baghdad. We were moving off the main base and going to live in an old factory in the poor industrial part of town. As we were moving in, the local population came out and held a large peaceful protest and told us very straightforwardly that they didn't want us in their part of town. We ignored that and pushed them out of our way and established ourselves in the factory. Within a couple of days, we had built a large barrier around the full city block that we were living in and continued to displace people who lived and worked there. So this idea that we were there to liberate the common people and help their will flourish — the way we handled that situation seemed to be the complete opposite of it.
What kind of reaction to that did you see on the ground? If you perceived the discrepancy between American rhetoric and American actions, I assume many Iraqis did, too.
Yes, absolutely. They had tried telling us nonviolently that they didn't want us in their neighborhood, and when that didn't work, they tried telling us violently, by using snipers and roadside bombs and that kind of thing. And once they started to get violent, we started to get violent, too. It went back and forth and each attack seemed to be more severe than the last one. Eventually the escalation led to a kind of desperation on the part of a lot of soldiers. There's really no way to defend yourself against a sniper shot or a roadside bomb, so some of our leaders felt that the only way we could defend ourselves was to intimidate the local population into preventing the violence in the first place. So our battalion commanders gave the order that every time a bomb went off, we were entitled to open fire on whoever was standing around.
The way I interpreted that was that we were told to out-terrorize the terrorists. That was really troubling for me; I found it wrong both morally and strategically. If that happened to me, that wouldn't make me more likely to help out whatever army was doing that; it would make me more likely to oppose them. I was in a couple of situations where I was ordered to do that and I refused that order. So that was when I was really forced to make a decision about what I stood for.
So much of military life is about discipline and hierarchy — the willingness to follow orders and uphold a command structure and community cohesion. Given that, how did you decide to refuse the order, and what were the consequences?
It was a split-second decision. When I heard the initial instruction of what to do if that scenario happened, I had just kind of hoped it wouldn't happen. But in the moment when it did happen, I couldn't justify shooting an unarmed civilian. I said I wasn't going to do it, and got criticized by a number of my leaders. But it was something I just felt I couldn't do. In terms of the consequences, I eventually got fired as a gunner and got placed as a radio operator instead.
Were you talking with others about your misgivings?
Yeah, I was trying to talk to as many people as I could and tell them why I thought it was wrong and pretty much a recipe to turn the entire population against us. Some people were willing to discuss it and others were not. When it came down to it, most people said they were going to do whatever it took to make it home alive.
That's easy to understand. Fear is a great corrosive to ethics. Did you worry about your own safety, and did it affect the decisions you made?
Yeah, I thought about it a lot. And there were things I did that I didn't feel comfortable with. Standing by when a prisoner got beaten — that kind of thing was a decision not to speak out, and I made decisions like that. So even if I wasn't actively doing something that I thought was wrong, I was definitely passive in cases where I shouldn't have been.
Eventually I just got to the point where I was so torn up about what I was taking part in that I really stopped caring about my own physical safety. You know, when everything you've defined yourself by has fallen apart, you don't care that much what happens to you. And I definitely went through a time like that.
That sounds like a pretty good description of depression.
Yeah, I went though a phase where I had a lot of the symptoms. I didn't really sleep, I didn't feel like eating much, when we were on patrols I didn't care about protecting myself. To a large extent, life really lost its meaning for a while.
Was there a tipping point when you realized you had to get out?
One night, I was guarding a prisoner with a friend of mine, a guy I had gone to church with before we had deployed. So we're sitting there and my friend starts making threatening statements about what he wants to do to the prisoner. It wasn't too uncommon to abuse prisoners, but I didn't feel like it was right, so I asked my friend about the American ideals that we grew up hearing about. I said, "Why would you do that to this guy? Isn't one of the values that we were raised with is that somebody's innocent until proven guilty?" My friend said, "No, this guy is Iraqi, he's part of the problem, he's guilty, and here's what I want to do to him." That wasn't unusual. It had gotten to the point where most people blamed the entire Iraqi population and said that if they would just fix their own country, we could go home.
I thought back to all the stuff I'd heard sitting next to this guy in church, and I asked him, "Well, even if he is guilty, what about the idea of loving our enemies and returning evil with good and turning the other cheek? How do you reconcile all those teachings?" My friend said, "I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around." Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn't have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.
How did you make that choice?
At the time, as much as I wanted to live up to my ideals, I didn't really see any practical ways of doing it. That was a kind of lack of faith on my part. But then I learned a lesson, pretty much by accident. On the base there were a couple of shops that sold bootleg copies of DVDs, and they'd have eight videos on one disc. One time I bought a movie I wanted to watch, and the DVD had the Gandhi movie on it too, so I went ahead and watched it. And I thought: You know, the stuff that we're doing violently is only making the situation worse, so maybe this guy was onto something. Maybe there are other ways of solving problems.
I understand that before you learned about conscientious objection, you'd decided to go to jail rather than remain in the military.
Yeah. I came to that decision after having read about a lot of the things that Gandhi did and seeing that you could do something about the situation you were in. You weren't just stuck in it. It really came down to this idea that I wouldn't want other people to do to me or my family or community what we were doing on a regular basis to other people. This inward reality that I had started to explore and that had started to bring meaning back into my life — preserving that became more important than preserving my external reality.
I had a couple of weeks to spend with my family and friends back home, and I told them about my plan [to go to military prison]. My parents kind of flipped out and did a lot of research and found out about conscientious objection, which I didn't know about, or didn't know was still an option in the military.
When you say your parents flipped out, were they mainly concerned about the idea of you going to prison, or were they unhappy about your rejection of military life?
My immediate family was kind of shocked by it all. I think it took a lot for them to really think through it and try to reconcile it with what they already believed. On a personal level, they were supportive of me and said that they'd help with whatever decision I made, but on a philosophical level, they couldn't really hear me out. That was pretty much true for my friends and community, too. Overall, people were supportive of me personally, but I don't know how much it changed the way they view things.
Is that still the case — that your family supports you but disagrees with what you did?
For the most part, yeah. We have respect for each other, but we're pretty far apart in terms of beliefs. Both my parents are still firmly convinced that the war was the right thing. My dad's pretty involved in the Tea Party movement, so things get kind of dicey whenever we talk about politics or religion, but so long as we stay away from that, we're able to be pretty respectful. I've got a younger brother who I was able to talk to a lot throughout the process and we've grown close and see pretty eye-to-eye on a lot of things, so that's been positive.
Even so, it sounds tough to have most your family not really understand you. Are you lonely?
Yeah, that's definitely a challenge. One of the things that makes it really hard is that some of the underlying ways that I think, I do attribute to my family in positive ways. The idea of responsibility — I remember when I was a kid and would get in trouble and try to blame someone else for what I'd done, my parents would always tell me to focus on myself first rather than going around criticizing others.
I think a lot of what I've done has been a manifestation of those values, and to see the people who taught them to me enact them in such different ways, or at times it seems other things have taken priority over those values — that can be challenging. Of all the people in the world who should see things the same way I do, who should be passionate about the same things I am and offended by the same things I am, it would make sense that it would be the people who taught me to think this way. When that's not the case, that can be very hard.
What about people you knew in the military? How did they respond to your decision to seek conscientious objector status?
At the beginning there were a couple of leaders who were pretty upset at me. I was ridiculed by some of them. One in particular got really upset at me and called me a terrorist and a traitor and a lot of other names in front of the rest of the company. I tried to practice what I had learned in Iraq — that responding violently often made the situation worse, but that by sitting down and trying to understand people who thought differently than we did, we were able to create progress. So even though he said a lot of hurtful things, I tried to be patient and reach out to him, and slowly he went from being angry at me to being slightly friendly and then actually encouraging. When I finally got approved [for conscientious objector status], this guy who had been about as angry as I had ever seen a person actually gave me a hug and wished me good luck.
One thing that's tricky about changing your mind about such a huge thing is that it can undermine your faith in other convictions, too. Like: "I no longer believe X thing that I learned growing up, so what about Y and Z?"
Yeah, I definitely underwent that process. I started from a point of assuming that I had all the answers and that people had to live my way of life. I was pretty convinced that I was right on all the moral issues and the traditional political stances. Now I've become a lot more open and tried to appreciate other ways of doing things. I've realized that I don't have the final answer on everything.
What's next for you?
I'm going to school full-time now and debating between becoming a history teacher or going into social work. And I'm also doing some writing on the side; I'm hoping to get out a book about my experiences.
If you could hear anyone else talk about being wrong, who would it be?
I guess for me personally, the most interesting would be to hear from the people who came up with a lot of the justification and rhetoric of the war that I so strongly believed in. Somebody like Colin Powell would be really fascinating, but I know getting something candid from someone that high up is pretty difficult.
This blog features Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with former Watergate felon turned evangelical leader Chuck Colson , sex critic and educator Susie Bright , Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall , Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010, at 12:47 PM
but what happens when members of the Armed Services realize that they no longer believe in the war they are fighting, or in fighting at all? In
another installment in this series
, 22-year-old Iraq War veteran Josh Stieber tells the story of changing his mind about military service. In the below interview, we get a bird's-eye view of the situation facing conscientious objectors from McNeil, whose faith-based nonprofit organization has been defending the rights of conscientious objectors since WWII.
How hard is it to obtain CO status once you're in the military?
There's a Department of Defense regulation that provides that if a person has a change of heart and for moral, ethical, or religious beliefs comes to conscientiously oppose their own participation in war in any form, they can either ask to be discharged or ask to be a non-combatant.
But it's not easy, and it takes time. You have to file an application form with many questions: What do you believe that leads you to file this application? How did you come by those beliefs? When did those beliefs change so that you no longer could be in the military? What do you believe about the use of force? What in your life shows that your beliefs have changed?
You submit that form to your commanding officer, who appoints an investigating officer. Then you meet with a psychiatrist, who determines whether or not there are mental health issues that would cause you to leave the military. Then you meet with a chaplain — who may or may not be of the same religious faith as you — who determines whether or not you are sincere. Then the IO [investigating officer] has a hearing, to which you can bring witnesses to say, "Yes, he used to be gung ho about the military and now he hates everything to do with it."
After the hearing, the investigating officer makes a recommendation and the commanding officer makes a decision. In every other decision except for medical discharges, a commanding officer is not second-guessed. But under military regulations, these [CO decisions] go up the chain of command to the Pentagon, and any one of the people along the way can say, "No, he's not a CO," even though they've never met the guy.
How many conscientious objector application are approved each year?
It depends on the branch, but it ranges between 75 to 50 percent. And it also depends on where we are in a war. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, something like 90 percent of application were denied. At the end, 90 percent were granted. The same thing is happening now with Iraq and Afghanistan; more are being granted, and faster, than they were at the beginning.
Do you find any common denominator among conscientious objectors, in terms of characteristics, background, outlook, or anything else?
Only this: I find that almost everyone who comes to us tends to be very conscientious across the board. Whatever they do, they do it well. I think that's one reason that people get annoyed with them when they seek a discharge: because they were good at what they were doing. They often excel; they're often award-winning. One of these guys kept getting awards in the Navy while his CO application was pending, because he was going to be conscientious in his job right up until the moment when he could walk away from it.
But other than that, no. We've got a guy who was a conservative Christian, and it was becoming an atheist and a libertarian that caused his change of heart. Other times we get guys who were atheists and become Christian. There really isn't one story.
What kinds of factors do people cite as triggering their reversal on the military?
It really varies, although there are some patterns. When people have a change of heart in boot camp, it's often because of the cadences: "Kill, Kill, Kill" or "What makes the grass grow green? Blood, blood, blood, brains and guts, blood makes the grass grow green." You can go on YouTube and hear some lovely cadences about napalm. There you are doing double time about the granny who turned into a torch. For some people, that's enough.
I remember one CO application where the woman was being hazed because she wouldn't say "Kill, kill, kill" but she felt that if she said it, God would strike her dead on the spot and she'd go to hell. She said, "I realized: This is not something I can say, this is not something I can do, and this is not someone I can be."
What about people who change their minds later in the process?
Other people kind of bop along until they get a deployment order and have to face what it is that they're going to go do. Especially with national guards and reserves, you can go down to Guatemala and build a road and feel like you're doing good stuff, and then you get a deployment order and you know you're going to be asked to shoot people. And you go, "You know, I joined the national guard to build levees, not to blow people's heads off." There's an internal confrontation at that point, and it can become very difficult.
Do most people contact you before deployment, then?
No. For many people, the change of heart doesn't happen until they're in combat or have come back from combat. I'll never forget that right as we were invading Iraq, I got a call from a guy who was an Army ranger. He'd been at it for seven and a half years, all of it active duty. He said, "When I was in Afghanistan, I had a child in my sights, and I just realized that I couldn't do this anymore. I only had six more months on my contract, so I figured I'd come back from Afghanistan and wouldn't re-up. But they stop-lossed me in and they're deploying me to Iraq. And I just can't do it."
I can tell you lots of horrible stories of what it is that turned people away in battle — people who killed a kid who was walking toward them with a grenade, only then they realized it wasn't a grenade. Things like that. Things worse than that.
For people who change their minds during active duty, do you find that incidents like those — where it becomes difficult to continue to think of yourself as the good guy — are the most frequent trigger?
That's a common one, but it's not the only one. There are more mundane causes as well. For some people, it's having children. Or there's the story of Josh Casteel , who was interrogating someone and the person he was questioning said, "Your God tells you to love your enemy. How do you reconcile that with what you are doing?" Josh suddenly realized that he couldn't, and that was that.
To what extent does youth play a role in these changes of heart? Many people get involved with the military when they're quite young, and most of us don't have fully formed belief systems at 17 or 18.
That's right, and the military is well aware of it. That's why they're happy to recruit you when you're 17 and 18, because hopefully they can shape your worldview to the one they want. It's also why the United States government rejected signing the child soldier protocol of the U.N. for so long: because we can recruit 17-years-old with a parent's signature.
You definitely see some of these kids growing up and starting to think it through and coming to a crisis. It's not uncommon for us to get guys who start their time in the military drinking and partying, and then as they get older and more mature, they start doing more reading and thinking and studying, and they conclude that this is not a life they feel they can live.
It seems to me that one of the things that must be hardest about realizing you can no longer serve in the military is that being a member of the Armed Services is very much about identity —
Once a marine, always a marine.
Exactly. So when you decide you can't be involved anymore, you're really concluding not only that you were wrong about a choice you made, but also about an identity you'd adopted. What's that like for people?
I've heard from a lot of guys who feel completely isolated in their units, sometimes deliberately so. And sometimes they are rejected not just by their unit but by their family. I can think of several people whose families have said, "If you're a CO, you're a coward and you're not my son or not my daughter."
One of the reasons we started posting photographs of successful CO applicants on our Web site is to try to show people that there's another community out there, that COs represent a broad range of people and you can find a place among them. We try as hard as we can to provide emotional support, because the experience is very isolating. A lot of guys are just so grateful that there's anybody who at all understands what they're talking about. Last week we had a guy who had felt isolated and miserable and was virtually suicidal until somebody said the words "conscientious objector" to him, and he was just so excited that he wasn't going crazy — that there was a name for how he felt and other people who feel that way.
In talking to people who've undergone radical shifts in their belief systems, I've heard some stories where the shift was very gradual and others where there was a sudden epiphany. Do you tend hear one kind more than the other?
They can be either, or even both. Sometimes it's just a long, slow process. Other times, there's a long buildup followed by a flash: a moment where it's, "No, this is the breaking point, this is the end." And sometimes the whole thing seems to happen in a flash, like the guy who was doing the interrogation.
We call the flashes "Road to Damascus moments." What's interesting is that Army regulations provide for the ability to have a Road to Damascus religious conversion but not a nonreligious one. We tried to take that to the Supreme Court and got pretty close, but it didn't happen. That's one of the unfairnesses in the system.
Wait, what? You're saying that according to Army regulations, you can have a religious epiphany but not an ethical one? You can come to God in a moment, but all nonreligious moral change has to be gradual?
Right. In a couple of Korean War-era cases, the Supreme Court ruled that because the First Amendment says we don't have an established church, conscientious objector status can be based on moral or ethical grounds, not just religion, and the regulations in all the [military] branches reflect that.
But in the Army, the regulations say that if the petition for CO status comes from a nonreligious basis, it has to come from "study and meditation." "Study and meditation" does not allow for a Road to Damascus conversion.
Wow. Fascinating. Other than this issue, are there aspects of the conscientious objector regulations you regard as unfair and have tried or are trying to change?
One major issue is selective objection. Lieutenant Watada was the classic example: He was willing to fight in Afghanistan, but he was not willing to fight in Iraq. He felt that his religious beliefs forbade him to fight an unjust war, and he felt that the invasion of Iraq was unjust. That's not recognized. What that means is that we have a law that tracks to the religious beliefs of a very, very narrow sector of society. Because let's face it: Quakers, Mennonites,and Brethrens — even when you throw in Seventh Day Adventists and a few other churches — these people do not make up a significant percentage of the population of the United States.
Most churches, including Catholics, Methodists, and Episcopalians, recognize the "just war" concept: Some wars are just, and some wars are unjust. So we feel the statute has established a narrow faith litmus test, and that it should be possible for someone who is a conscientious objector to an unjust war to receive a discharge. That was the law in Great Britain. It's not the law in Israel, but it's sort of de facto: Many members of the Israeli military refuse to fight in the Occupied Territories and aren't punished for it. So it's not an undoable thing, and it would more accurately reflect the beliefs of a much larger number of people.
Someone who was less than sympathetic to your work would say that most COs aren't experiencing sincere belief change — that they're fine as long as military life is all about training and ROTC and hanging out in the United States, but as soon as they get into combat they freak out and just want a ticket out of there. What would you say to that?
I would like them to explain to me why so many of these guys don't realize that they're COs when they're in Afghanistan and Iraq; they realize it when they come home. If it was just about "I want to get out of here," they would do it overseas, not two months after they get back, three months after they get back, a year after they get back. I would be getting calls from Fallujah every day, instead of from Omaha.
Some people are going to be cynical; fine, they can be cynical. I think the reality is that we ignore the possibility that people can experience real change, on this issue or any other, at our own peril.
I've been talking mainly about people concluding that they themselves were wrong about war. But I'm curious about whether deception or misinformation also play a role? Do you find that many people feel they were deliberately misled about the realities of military life?
There's a joke about military recruiters: "How can you tell when they're lying? When their mouth is moving." I've used that line in front of military audiences and had people in the military come up to me afterward and tell me that I'm way too nice on recruiters. That's true. I am nice to them, because I think they have the worst job in the military. For a while it was not uncommon for the military to send guy with PTSD to recruit. Recruiters have a higher suicide rate than the general population stateside, and they have terrifically stressful jobs; for a recruiter to get one recruit, they have to make something like 300 contacts.
But you know, they get great training. The military has done millions and millions of dollars in marketing research about who to target and how and what to say, and they're extremely good at it. They know that in one neighborhood you promise this and in a different neighborhood you promise that. One of my favorite stories is about this kid who called me up and said, "A friend of mine was very happily joining the Marines and I took him down to sign the papers and I don't know how it happened, but after I left, I had joined the Marines. I've never wanted to join the Marines. I can't understand how I joined the Marines. But I joined the Marines, and I need your help."
So that tells you how persuasive they are. And they are not fighting fair. They are not giving these kids the real information — information about things like rates of suicides, rates of sexual assault, the reality about the educational and job training opportunities, the reality for minorities in the military.
One last question: if you could hear anyone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
I've seen The Fog of War , and it was intriguing, but [Robert McNamara] never once said, "I was wrong." He's a classic "mistakes were made" guy. That would be who I really want to hear from [if he were still alive]. I suppose that reflects my age, and how long I've been doing this work.
This blog features Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with former Watergate felon turned evangelical leader Chuck Colson , sex critic and educator Susie Bright , Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall , Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010, at 2:05 AM
Every conversion story is, at heart, a story about being wrong. Whether they are agonizingly slow or all but instantaneous, whether they happen in a garden or in prison or on the road to Damascus, conversions don't just represent the embrace of a new worldview. They also represent the utter rejection of the convert's past. Consider, for example, Chuck Colson, and the strange tale of how (as this magazine once put it) "a Watergate crook became America's greatest Christian conservative."
Today, Colson is a prominent evangelical leader and founder of the Prison Fellowship and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview . During the Nixon administration, though, he was, by all accounts (including his own) secular, self-obsessed, and scary. Officially, he was special counsel to the president. Unofficially, he was Nixon's hatchet man and "the White House tough guy." In 1973, as the waters of Watergate rose around him, Colson simultaneously found God and found himself in prison for obstruction of justice. Below, he and I talk about why he converted, what he regrets most about his involvement with Watergate, and why Christianity is "the religion of second chances."
You have a fairly dramatic conversion story. What first prompted it?
I was the principle strategist behind the 1972 reelection campaign of Richard Nixon, and when it was all over I should have been absolutely on top of the world. I'd succeeded, we won, it was a historic landslide. But instead I found myself staring out of the office window thinking, "So what?" I was getting ready to go back to my law firm and was going to make a fortune — literally, a half a million dollars a year. And I felt dead. Really dead.
Then I met a man who'd been a client of mine before I'd went to the White House. I'd not seen him the whole time I was in the White House, and when I went back to be his general counsel again, he was totally different, completely changed. I asked him what had happened to him. And he said these words: "I've accepted Jesus Christ and committed my life to him."
Well, I'm not from the Bible Belt. I come from New England, and I'm not used to people talking like that. I was startled, and I just sort of stared at him uncomfortably.
Was that just social discomfort, or was it an inner discomfort — the first stirrings of your conversion?
It must have been the latter, because about four months later, I called him up one night and said, "I'd like to come see you." I drove over and spent an evening on his porch — this was August of 1973 — and he read to me from a little book entitled Mere Christianity , by C.S. Lewis. It was about pride, and it described me to a T.
That night when I left this gentleman's home, something happened that had never happened to me before. I was getting into my automobile and I sat there and I couldn't drive because I was crying too hard. I spent an hour on the side of the road right next to my friend's home, crying, thinking about my wife, wanting to know God, wanting to be clean. I'm a former Marine captain and I was the White House tough guy, and I used to never cry — and if did, I wouldn't let anybody know it. I thought the next morning I would wake up and be embarrassed. But I felt better than I had in years.
Can you recollect what you were crying about?
Sure, I can remember vividly. I was feeling totally lost and lonely and helpless and really conflicted about my own sinful behavior. A lot the stuff I was charged with in Watergate, some of it was true and some of it wasn't, but my attitude towards other people and my self-obsession — I had a lot to think about in my life that I wasn't very proud of. For the first time in my life, I realized I'd made a mess of things.
I'm trying to figure out the timeline here. When did that evening in your car happen in relation to Watergate?
That was in August of 1973, and that fall, my life absolutely plummeted. Initially the lawyers had told me I was not a target of the Watergate investigation. Within one month of my conversion, they told me I was a target, and I began to see the whole thing closing in on and me and getting worse and worse and worse and worse.
People think it was a jailhouse conversion — that my life fell apart and I converted. But I knew before that I was a different person. I began to have different values and a different attitude. I began to study the Bible. I was in a small prayer group with a group of men who really nurtured me and taught me lots of what I needed to know as a Christian and helped me to live my faith.
I admit I was one of those people who assumed it was a jailhouse conversion — that the pressures of Watergate prompted your spiritual crisis.
They really ran on parallel course. When the new [Watergate] prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was appointed, the first thing he said in his press conference was, "We have to look at the role of Mr. Colson." So I knew then that I was going to be dragged into it. That was two months before I went to visit my friend, so certainly by then I was beginning to feel the pressures of Watergate.
I was also feeling very depressed because I had worked around the clock for two years to get Richard Nixon reelected. He was my friend, I liked the man, I believed in him, and I'm watching everything I've worked day and night to build collapse around me. That was a very disillusioning experience. As much as being worried about my own future, I think that was what had me searching for something more meaningful in life.
How many of the Watergate revelations did you already know about?
A lot of it came as great surprises. I had no idea about the meetings that had taken place. As the prosecutors said when they brought the indictment against me, they could only charge me on two counts because I hadn't been in the vast majority of the meetings that constituted the cover-up. I also didn't know there was a taping system, so that was shattering. I spent most of 1973 being shocked by headlines, and not believing a lot of them at first.
Speaking of being wrong! It must be pretty stunning to learn such things about people you'd been working closely with for years.
Yeah, but you don't make any close friends in the White House. No one does. So that part wasn't so bad, but I realized how easily everything you put your heart and soul into for two years, three years, four years could go down the garbage. That was the disillusioning part.
If Watergate didn't prompt your conversion, do you feel that your conversion affected how you handled Watergate?
Oh, yes. One day I did a show with Mike Wallace. This was when Watergate was absolutely at a fever pitch and the trials were going to begin and by this time I'd been indicted. He asked me how I could be a friend of Richard Nixon, given the things Nixon had said on the tapes. And I said, "Well, he's my friend and I don't turn my back on my friend."
I got home that night and realized that there was no way I could be a good witness for Christ if I compromised on what I could say, or was not as fully honest as I could be. So I decided the best thing I could do was plead guilty. I sent my lawyers into the Watergate prosecutors to say I wouldn't plea bargain, and that I had not done what they charged me with [conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary], but here was something I had done [obstruction of justice] — and if they wanted to charge me with that, I would plead guilty. And I did.
When you look back on that era, what's your biggest regret?
My biggest regret is that I saw things going on that I should've known were wrong or I knew were wrong but then I rationalized them away. I didn't say anything. I should've spoken up a number of times and said, "Wait a moment, this isn't right," and I didn't. That's my greatest regret.
What do you think stopped you from speaking out?
A couple of times it was because I was in meetings with the president and [Henry] Kissinger where they said, "This is life and death national security, people are going to die if we expose these sources." So part of it was national security. Part of it was, to be perfectly honest, I wanted to stay in the inner circle. It was self interest.
Thinking back on it today, how would you characterize yourself pre-conversion?
I think I was the typical Type A person who rushes through life mostly using people. I thought much more about my own self-interest than anybody's else's. That led to the breakup of my first marriage; I was responsible for that.
When you think about that person now, how do you feel about him? Do you identify with him, do you see yourself in him?
I can't imagine I lived the way I did. I cannot imagine. I shudder when I think about it, because I feel so totally differently about life. Now, please don't get the impression that somebody who's a really bad guy and then all of a sudden finds Christ, the next day he's a saint. It doesn't work that way. I've been 37 years as a believer in Jesus Christ, and I've discovered that every year you grow a little more than the year before. It isn't like all of a sudden you turn a switch and you go from A to B. You do in one sense, because your whole worldview is very different; you realize you've got to see things the way God sees them, not the way you do. So that part changes fast, but it doesn't immediately reflect itself in how you live. That part takes time.
Paul, who was the greatest apostle of the Christian Church, said, "I die daily." He meant the old Paul had to die so the new Paul could live, and I think if we're honest with ourselves, we all need to do that.
What was the effect of your conversion on your social life? I can't imagine the new you fit very well into your old D.C. political circles.
I used to go to all the cocktail parties and drank too much and smoked constantly. I stopped doing that, but I still went back to the same people. Many of them couldn't quite figure me out, but I didn't abandon my old friends. I've always been loyal in my life, so I kept a lot of my old friends. And I have to tell you, over a period of time, many of them became believers.
Even to this day, I go out of my way to spend time with people who are in the same position I was in before my conversion, because I know how much they need to find Christ, and how much they need to have hope in their lives. I don't just stop seeing people.
Interesting. Given that you shudder when you think about your past self, I would expect that your past social circles would feel profoundly alienating.
My attitude about the cultural question is a very different issue. When I think back to all the cocktail parties I went to where everybody was trying to be seen with the most important person in the room, or where everybody was elbowing everybody else out of the way — today I just can't imagine doing that. The few times I've gone back to political events — I'm fond of my own friends in politics, but I can't wait to get away.
I've always had a populist attitude, I was always offended by elitism. When I applied to college, I applied to Harvard and Brown and was accepted at both, and Harvard called me in to tell me they had offered me a full scholarship. I thought the dean was kind of uppity and I just got turned off by the atmosphere, so I went to Brown, which was considered the poor cousin of the Ivy League in those days. I just always wanted to be a little bit different. I didn't like the elitist style of people in the Northeast, and today I found myself really repulsed by it. So maybe I already had those streaks, but they've been intensified.
Let me ask you about your time in prison. You were there for, what, about half a year?
I went to prison in June of 1974. I spent seven months there, and hated every minute of it, obviously. But I got out and was glad, because it was part of what I needed as a Christian: to see how other people lived, to be in a position where I was helpless and had to learn how to lean on God. And in the 35 years since I've been released from prison, I've spent all my time in ministry, most of it in ministry to prisoners.
What was it about your experience that inspired that decision?
When I was in prison, I saw the absolute futility of the prison system. There's no way you can take a bunch of criminals, stick 'em in a dormitory where they sit around at night comparing the crimes they committed and how they're going to do it next time, and expect to rehabilitate them. It's demeaning, it's demoralizing, it doesn't give people aspirations to do the right thing. It almost encourages the wrong thing. So I got out of prison and I realized: This isn't working.
That's what got me to start the prison ministry. But as I was trying to put Bible studies in all the prisons, they were growing so fast I couldn't keep up with them. The figures were astounding. When I got out, there were 239,000 people in prison. Today there are 2.3 million. So I started asking myself, "Why is this happening?" The prevailing view well into the 1970s was that crime is caused by environmental factors — by dysfunctional childhoods, by racism, by poverty. So the criminals became victims, victims of society, which to me didn't make sense. Then I came across two people who were doing studies on criminal behavior, and they came to the conclusion that crime is not caused by environment or poverty or deprivation. It is caused by individuals making wrong moral choices, and that's exactly what I was experiencing working with thousands of prisoners. So I got in touch with those guys and learned a lot from them.
Why are those incompatible views? It seems to me that negative environmental influences could make it harder to make good moral choices.
Professor [James Q.] Wilson at Harvard did a study on causes of crime and decided it was caused by lack of moral training during the morally formative years. So it's a character issue and it's a family issue, breakdown of the family, which got me really interested in the biblical worldview.
[Psychiatrist] Samuel Yochelson said something very, very significant; he said crime is caused by people making wrong moral choices. The answer to crime therefore is the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle. I think that's exactly what a Christian conversion is: to leave a wrongful style of life behind and realize, if you want to follow Christ, you have to live a different way. I think that's the answer to the crime problem, which is why I've spent all my career on it.
A lot of your fellow conservatives are lock-em-and-leave-em types; they're perfectly happy with the status quo of the criminal justice system. Why do you think that is?
When I first got out of prison and started talking about this in the late '70s and early '80s, most of my conservative friends thought I'd lost my mind, and most of them were against me. Then I began to develop my arguments and write about them — I wrote two books on moral justice and restorative justice: the notion that, instead of just punishing people, you put them to work and [have them] make restitution and do service — and frankly since then there's been a big change.
I tell my conservative friends who disagree with me, "You guys aren't being conservative. You're taking a big government solution, you're thinking prisons are going to change people and that's just not the case." I think I've converted a lot of my old conservative skeptics.
A lot of people who work on prison reform issues hail from the left, including the far left. What's it like to work alongside people with whom you disagree about so many other things?
I find you can work side by side. I've had no problems with that; I enjoy some of these people. There are some I find mean-spirited and just don't want to work together, but most of them do. Especially in Congress. The latest bill that was just passed on level sentencing — so that cocaine users don't get off easier than crack users — people are saying, "This campaign was led by an odd assortment of people, the ACLU and Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship." And the prison rape bill was engineered by conservatives; Jeb Sessions, a republican from Alabama, for goodness sakes, took the lead along with Ted Kennedy.
So we've been building some unlikely alliances. We disagree profoundly on questions of religious liberty, but we certainly agree that prisons aren't rehabilitating and that the prison system is a high-cost, unproductive solution. You learn to take people where you find them and not put them in a stereotypical category.
Let me ask you a few questions about wrongness and religion. We sometimes associate being wrong with being evil; if you read Saint Augustine, for instance, he grapples with the question of whether or not mistakes are sins. What do you think Christianity teaches about making mistakes?
Of all the religions and philosophies in the world, Christianity is the most interested in people who've made mistakes, because it says you can repent and be forgiven and start over again. Buddhism doesn't offer that, nor does Hinduism, nor does Judaism, nor does Islam. Christianity is the religion of second chances. I've preached in prisons in 40 countries and I've preached in 800 prisons in America, and I talk about the fact that you can be forgiven of your sins and be given a new life. In Hindu countries, their eyes open like saucers because they've never heard that. I think Christianity is one of the most tolerant of all religions when it comes to making mistakes.
Christianity also preaches humility and an awareness of our human fallibility. Yet evangelicalism presupposes that you have access to the absolute truth about God. How do you square those two things?
I don't think it's hard to do at all. If you're a Jew, you believe exactly what you're taught, which is that you're born of the covenant people. If you're a Hindu, you believe exactly what Hindus teach about reincarnation, about karma and consciousness, about the idea that we are a dream in the mind of God. These are all truth claims. And I respect everybody's right to make a truth claim.
My truth claim is that Jesus says, "No man comes to the Father but through me." Therefore I want people to come to Christ because I want them to be forgiven of their sins. It is a truth claim, but it is not an exclusive truth claim, because what Jesus is saying is: Everybody is free to come. You don't have to be born in to a certain heritage. You have to believe a certain thing. Everybody is free to come and be forgiven. That's my truth claim.
What exactly does it mean to "respect" everyone's truth claims, given that in the end you're trying to get everyone to recognize your truth claim as the real one?
We can't all be right. Ultimately I want everybody to find what I have found in life, I want to share it with people. But I also recognize that all religions have good things in them, and a lot of them share many common values. I believe moral teaching is universal, I believe we are made with a desire for certain goals and outcomes, that that's just the way we're wired. So Hindus have some very good values, Muslims do too. I don't feel exclusive. I think a lot can be learned from different faiths.
In the end, you've got to decide for you, what is the right road to God? And Christians in that sense don't have any wiggle room. We're not given any leeway in that.
What do you see as the role of doubt within religious faith?
I see doubt as a confirmation that someone is a true believer. If we believed completely, if we didn't have any doubts, we would be incapable of loving God volitionally. Richard Dawkins famously said, "If God really were God, he would have made himself well known to people." Precisely the opposite. He wouldn't make himself better known, he'd make himself less known. If we got to the point where we knew everything about Him and we had no doubts at all, love wouldn't be love. It would be like looking out your window at the tree outside; you'd just take it for granted.
You've experienced two almost completely different lives, two completely different worldviews. Can you imagine undergoing other major conversions in the future? Are there things you believe today that you can conceive of rejecting in the future?
Well, I'm a Baptist, and maybe I'll discover someday that adult baptism isn't required. Maybe I'll discover that I've had a misunderstanding of some of the doctrines of the faith. I certainly haven't spent a life studying or writing like Aquinas or Augustine did. I don't profess to have all the answers. I think there's probably a lot of things I could discover I was wrong about.
But I can't conceive that I could be wrong about the fundamental questions. Do I believe Jesus Christ is who he says he is? Does he speak with the authority of God himself? Is there a trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? No, I cannot imagine I could be wrong about those things.
What about outside of religion? For instance, can you imagine having a change of heart on some of your political beliefs?
[laughs] I have those all the time.
Really? Like what?
You get disappointed in people, you think they're doing the right thing and then they let you down. Maybe this is the best way to explain it. I reject ideology, because ideology is manmade. It doesn't matter whether it's the right or the left. I believe you should live your life by the guidance of revealed truth. Revealed truth comes to you, in the case of the Christian, through experience, through natural law, through preserving a moral order, through being very respectful and humble because you realize you have much less wisdom than the giants who've come before you. That to me is the conservative disposition. I find that very humbling. So, yeah, I think I could wake up tomorrow and say, "Maybe I was wrong about X or Y or Z."
If you could hear someone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
Oh, my goodness. Half the politicians in America.
Ha. Do you want me to name one person?
No, not necessarily. You can name as many as you like.
Well, how many people are willing to admit it? I've established beyond a shadow of a doubt that many of the things written about me were false, but I can't get certain people to acknowledge that. I don't care if they do or don't, it's not something I lie awake wondering about.
But who would I really like to hear express a litany of all the mistakes they made? I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. All of us would have a lot of talking to do.
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with sex critic and educator Susie Bright , Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall , Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, at 11:15 AM
As these questions suggest, there's a rich area of overlap between my area of expertise (wrongness) and that of famed "sexpert" Susie Bright. One of the country's foremost sex educators, activists, and writers, Bright is an outspoken advocate of sexual equality and freedom. She was one of the co-founders of On Our Backs , the first sex magazine by, for, and about women, as well as the founder and longtime editor of The Best American Erotica series. Her memoir, Big Sex Little Death , will be published in April 2011. In this interview, she and I talk about why the Vatican is the original sexpert, whether anti-sex crusaders are also anti-intellectual, and which physical activity is (to her own surprise) making Bright sweat these days.
Let's talk about the morning after, which I think of as one of the really iconic moments of personal wrongness.
[Laughs.] I think of the morning after as being a classic case of ambivalence, rather than flat-out regret. I mean, clearly you wouldn't have gone for it if you weren't aware of your self-interest. I'm always aware of my self-interest. The reasons that you shouldn't have done it, or you should have done it a little differently—all those "woulda, coulda, shouldas" can prey on your mind in a terrible way.
But I often think people are a bit cruel to themselves about how they evaluate a sexual experience. Just because your mother might not have approved or you're not going to get married—just because it doesn't meet someone else's standards—doesn't mean it didn't have its fabulous, transcendent, insightful, awesome moments. So I guess I hold those "morning after" situations a little more gently. Sometimes I wish things had gone differently, but to denounce it and say, "This should never have happened"—rarely have I gone there.
Lucky you. Sex and relationships can be so complex and messy that I think a lot of people do wind up going there at some point in their lives—waking up after a sexual experience, literally or figuratively, and thinking, "Oh, man, that was the wrong decision."
I think the most painful situation in my own life was when I was much younger, a teenager, and I went to bed with a best friend's lover. It was so impulsive, and right in the middle of it he started crying, and I was like, "Oh my God, this is terrible." I had great esteem for their love; it wasn't like I was trying to take something away or break them up or hurt anyone. It was a messy, intoxicated, going-with-the-flow kind of moment.
When I think back on it, it just seems like that foolish, impulsive, youthful moment. The ability to imagine the frustrations and hurt feelings that lie ahead—that comes so much easier when you're more mature and you've been there, done that. I didn't even have to get to 18 before I understood that the consequences of interrupting people's marriages in various ways are toxic. Just don't do it. Don't mess with it. You'll be sorry.
I'm interested in this idea of impulsiveness. In looking at why we get things wrong, I thought a lot about all the various ways we make decisions—by impulse, by consulting other people, by trying to assemble the evidence and conduct some kind of rational assessment. I assume that impulsivity governs sexual decisions more than other kinds, and I wonder if you think that makes us more or less likely to regret them.
I don't know. I think there are so many appetites and pleasures and needs that we act on quickly, and yet there isn't a sense of social stigma and shame around them. I had something to eat the other night that made me terribly sick to my stomach, and I suffered for it for a day afterward. But no one's going to say, "Shame on you, Susie! How could you have done that?" Instead we laugh, we indulge. We're much more forgiving; you know, live and learn.
I've taken huge sexual risks and often it's turned out awesome. So it's not like I regret my impulses or think, "Oh, if only I'd thought everything out and planned every move." People who think they can do that about sex are in for a serious surprise.
I hear a fair number of coming out stories that are almost like conversion stories. Like: I thought for sure I was going to get married in my mom's wedding dress, or maybe I even did get married in my mom's wedding dress—
And then I saw the light!
Right, exactly. And my whole original vision of my life and what it was going to be like fell out from under me. Was it like that for you?
No. I'm just the opposite. I imagined that one would simply be attracted to people for all kinds of reasons and there wouldn't be a final determination. That's just me. I think I'm dead in the middle of the Kinsey spectrum . I have always felt attracted to both men and women. My first sexual experience, I went from never having kissed anyone, never having held hands, nothing, just me reading a story book and kissing my pillow, to a threesome where I did everything, all in one afternoon during the World Series.
Is this where I make a joke about third base?
Ha. But you know, the interesting thing about it was it did kind of confirm my notion of what sex would be like: I'm with a man and I'm with a woman and I really like both of them and I'm attracted to both of them and it feels good.
Only later on did I begin to realize for some people, it's definitely not about being in the middle [of the Kinsey scale]. The notion that everyone is bisexual—or for that matter that everyone is anything, any fixed anything—that's baloney. Any sex educator worth their salt knows that you can't pigeonhole people. Including yourself. You're dead if you do. If you think, "Oh, well, you're set in stone, now we're going to predict everything from here on out"-you can't do that. You'll end up lying to yourself and everybody else.
I was thinking about your somewhat funny identity as an expert in sex—which I say as someone who has a somewhat funny identity as an expert in wrongness—
Just don't let anyone call you a wrongpert.
Ha. Why not? "Wrongpert." I love it. It's certainly no worse than "wrongologist," which I've been called so much that I gave in and started using it myself.
Agh. It's like this feminine diminutive that's the kiss of death. You'll notice that men who take an intellectual or professional interest in sexual education do not get called "sexperts," for the good reason that it makes you sound like an idiot. I rue the day that my friends came up with that nickname. Someone just asked me the other day, "Were you the first sexpert?" And I'm like, "Oh, God, now we're going to do origin of the species?"
It has been impossible in this puritan country to be a scholar and an intellectual about sex. Do that at your peril. Look what happened to Kinsey; it wasn't all accolades and flowers. People who've taken sex seriously haven't gotten the same kind of recognition as, say, linguistics or mathematicians. It's an essential of human nature, but if people have a moral agenda against it, they will trivialize it. Like "sexpert."
The linguistics analogy is interesting. It's so acceptable to study language in order to better understand the human mind and the human animal. And yet somehow sex, which is just as intrinsic to who we are, doesn't have anything like that kind of highly respected, longstanding, institutionalized field of inquiry.
That's because the church has said that it is in charge of rigorous sexual analysis. The Vatican is the original sexpert. It's always the religious institution that tries to set the agenda. It's like: "We've decided what the natural laws are and here's what you can and cannot do. We've looked at everything and we've considered what is deviant and what is not, and now you can go forth and play our little game." When their authority is checked, that's when they respond by trivializing the insurgents, the provocateurs, the questioners.
So how do you deal with people like that—people who think everything about you and the work you do is wrong? Or do you just choose not to deal with them at all?
Yeah, great question. I mean, some of them are so unhinged. They take a violent attitude; they're on a crusade, and they're going to gore me with their sword of righteousness. The people who tend to go after you hammer and tong tend to be the manipulated rank and file of a rather cynical leader who is sitting at home counting their banknotes. The people at the top—at best they're indifferent, at worst they're the grossest, most frightening hypocrites. And they have whole troops of little people to get their hands dirty. That part is frightening.
One thing that's interesting to me is that even when that hypocrisy is exposed, it doesn't seem to do much to change the minds of their followers—which I suppose is in keeping with what we know about how hard it is to overturn entrenched belief systems.
We've seen so many of them exposed in recent years—the men of C Street , the people who railed against sexual liberty and freedoms while privately carrying on like a Roman orgy. One disappointment, to those of us who have been fighting the good fight, is that you think that when people like David Vitter get exposed, their rank and file is going to be disgusted and walk away from them. But lots of times, they don't. It's like they're so wedded to the orthodoxy that if they question it, they're going to crumble. And they don't want to crumble. They don't want to have a psychotic break right now, right there on the kitchen floor.
Something has to be there for them to hold onto. And what do you give them? Especially when you say, "You know what, you're never going to be that certain again." When people ask me, "What is your vision of sexual liberation?" as if I'm going to hand them some new crucifix—you've got to be out of your mind. Maturity means taking a respectful attitude toward uncertainty. You can be honest. You can stop lying to yourself. You can find ethics that way. But if you think you're going to just wrap your lasso around the next big truth, you're out of your mind.
I understand the attraction to certainty, but why this certainty? Why the conviction that sexuality is so dangerous, so corrosive, in need of constant controlling?
Yeah, that's the question, isn't it? The thing keep asking everyone these days is: Why is it that some aspects of science are quite readily embraced by almost everyone, but not this one? There's a big surge of popularity in favor of gravity, for instance. Yet when it comes to the things we have learned about our sexual anatomy and physiology, there is this deliberate rejection of scientific knowledge. It gets discussed, it gets proven it, and then we go right back to the Garden of Eden. Nobody wants to hear it. Women have libidos? No, no, no. Women don't like sex. They're not visual. They just want to settle down and have children. And men just want that piece of tail and they want it now and it's not emotional.
I'm very curious, what is the stake in this false consciousness? I am appalled that I'm still going out to this day to college campuses and people are like, "I don't know, does the clitoris exist?" Or "I just don't know why I'd feel attracted to more than one person during my lifetime." Or "Is it bad that I find pictures of naked people arousing?" Why are we still having these discussions?
Is it your sense that some things are getting better? On the one hand, the political, legal, and cultural situation for queer and transgendered people has clearly improved. On the other hand, you've got Christine O'Donnell saying masturbation is the evil to end all evils.
Exactly. I'm so glad you brought her up. This is the most popular sentiment about masturbation in the media right now—this dingbat, this professional moron. She gets paid to be an idiot. She gets run for office by a bunch of callous cynics who have their own financial interests at heart, and I guarantee you they're masturbating up a storm and fucking anything that moves. And yet this is now the voice of authority on human sexuality. Are you kidding me?
So I guess you're saying things are not getting better.
We're in retrograde right now. Sexual knowledge is the privilege of the highly literate, the highly educated, the bohemian. It's esoteric.
Some people actually glorify that esoteric status—as if being in the dark or thinking that sex is dirty and bad is an important part of what makes sex sexy. Do you think there's anything to that?
They don't have a leg to stand on. I've raised kids who don't believe in sin and hell and don't think that sex is intrinsically shameful, and they have just as much mystery and intrigue and romance in their lives as anybody else. You don't become a robot if you're raised with access to knowledge and a critical mind. There's so much we don't know. It's like astronomy: We have not visited other planets, we don't have a clue.
Who do you think should—
Be president? Me.
Ha. Duly noted. But actually, I was going to ask who you think should teach kids about sex and what we should be teaching them.
I would question your phrasing. Sex is part of life. It's not a vocational school. Who should teach our kids science? Who should teach them ethics? Who should teach them the practical skills in life? Sexuality enters into all those things. Clearly I believe in education and public libraries and institutions of public learning across the board, I believe in a clear-minded, matter-of-fact, calm discussion of how bodies work. But it's not like, "OK, children, turn to Page 46, we're going to be learning how to masturbate today."
Thanks to this great new textbook by Christine O'Donnell.
Ha. But what I'm saying is, we all need to be take responsibility for educating our kids and ourselves about sex. We need to get over this culture of prudery. It's prudery that kills people, not sexual education. When you look at what happens with AIDS and other places where sex was targeted as the illness, the vermin, the terror—over and over again, that kind of destruction is based on profound ignorance.
It sounds like what you're saying is that the anti-sex impulse is also anti-intellectual.
Of course it is. It's pro-ignorance, it's anti-literacy. I used to describe my speaking tours as erotic literacy campaigns. I remember one of the first ladies, I think it was Nancy Reagan, was really big on literacy, and I was like: I'm going to be the first lady of erotic literacy. They're anti-democratic and anti-intellectual, and they're elitist. I can't repeat that enough. The enforcement of sexual ignorance by all those self-appointed moral guardians is the epitome of elitism. That is why I despise them, more than anything. They believe there's a different set of rules for them than for everyone else. They want access to everything because they can handle it, but they don't think you can, and they want to decide who's in and who's out.
That's anti-intellectual, but it's also anti-democratic. I always found sexual politics to be a cornerstone of democracy. Sexual speech is the first speech that's repressed.
What do you think parenting has taught you about being wrong?
Being a parent taught me a lot about uncertainty. There's your own more or less constant uncertainty, of course. But also, kids yearn so much for absolutes: Is it all good or is it all bad? You can be the kind of parent where you're like, "OK, little honeybear, here's the thing that 's 100 percent good; you just hang on to that." But hopefully you take a more nuanced view. You tell them, you have to look at the situation. You have to look at the clues, you have to scour the ground. You have to honor context and complexity.
There's this line I read on your Web site: "I had sworn on a stack of Communist Manifestos I would never go to college, so in the beginning, I was quite chagrined"-which I think is the most hilarious 20-word encapsulation of an ethos and an identity I can possibly imagine. And obviously that's something you were wrong about-
[laughing] College is a bourgeois illusion. I still believe that. All the reasons that I feared and loathed it were true. But I went anyway, and there turned out to be some good things, too.
Here's why I bring it up: Is there anything you swear by today that you can imagine someday deciding you were wrong about?
[laughing more] Well, come on, how would I know?
Yeah, yeah, I know, that's whole thing about wrongness: Of course we can't know which of our current beliefs we're wrong about, or we wouldn't believe them. But I still think it's an important exercise to stop and think: OK, which of my convictions can I even vaguely imagine relinquishing? We've all been wrong about some of our past beliefs, after all, so presumably we'll be wrong about some of our present ones as well.
OK, OK. Can I tell you something that's been recent? I have to have some hindsight. There's no way I'm going to guess what the next incredible humiliation is going to be.
Sure, go ahead.
I never thought I would be athletic or take an interest in exercise or raising my heart rate other than dancing and having sex. Sometimes I admired other people's physical prowess, but I was just like, "It hurts, it's bullshit, it's so stupid—
It's a bourgeois institution.
[Laughing] It just wasn't for me. I thought: I'm a bookworm, and I will never do that. And that has been proved wrong. I can't believe I'm a runner. I still cannot believe that's me. I never sweated like this in my life. I was 50 when I started becoming athletically active, and it's been quite a shock to me.
How did that change come about?
I lost both my parents in a short period of time, and the stress of their loss and seeing them go through the end of their life was so intense. There wasn't enough valium in the world to control my anxiety. And one day without even thinking about it, I just started running. I wanted to run until I couldn't think anymore. I just wanted to run and run and run and run and run. It was blind. I didn't think about it, I didn't call somebody and ask them how to do it, I didn't have on the right shoes, I just ran. And then finally I was gasping and drooling and fell on the ground, and I thought: Wow, I think I need to do this tomorrow.
So it was a reaction to extreme stress and grief at first. And then it was, "Do I want to spend my 50s having heart attacks and getting diabetes?" I looked around me at everybody in their 50s, and there was the group that was barely hanging on, and then there were these other people who were having a very full life, who seemed able to have all kinds of physical pleasure. And I didn't want to be the person who was constantly in pain. So this has been a big revelation to me.
I love that story. In one sense, it's kind of a small thing to be wrong about, and yet in another sense it's really sweeping. Whether we're an athlete or a bookworm-things like that are so fundamental to our identities, and they can feel so unchanging. And then they do change, and so do our social lives, our communities, our bodies, our sense of who we are.
Yeah. That kind of release and challenge is now a huge source of strength to me, emotionally as much or even more so than physically. So that was a great thing to find out that I was wrong about. That's my favorite mistake.
What a lovely note to end on. One final question: If you could hear anyone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
Oh, wow. Right, I saw this on some of your other interviews. It's tempting to pick somebody you really can't stand because you want to see them on the hot seat. Didn't someone say Dick Cheney?
Yeah, some Bush administration officials have made cameo appearances right about now.
OK, so my real choice. Huh. I'm the worst person for this. I could never be a judge in a contest or a beauty pageant because I get overwhelmed by the idea that we should just pick one. I can't bear to pick a winner. I want everybody to be recognized for their own special wrongness.
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with Nobel Prize winner
, Innocence Project Co-Founder
, marriage counselor
, Google research director
, Wikipedia co-founder
, NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru
, hedge-fund manager
This American Life
, celebrity chef
, education scholar and activist
, and criminal defense lawyer and pundit
Stress Doesn't Cause Ulcers! Or, How To Win a Nobel Prize in One Easy Lesson: Barry Marshall on Being ... Right
Posted Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010, at 6:35 AM
Not that long ago, Barry Marshall was an obscure physician studying the etiology of ulcers at a hospital in Perth, Australia — several thousand literal and figurative miles from the center of the medical universe. His work was unconventional, not to say heretical, and in 1986, he was invited to discuss it at a gastroenterology conference in the United States. His wife came along and, while doing some sightseeing, overheard a conversation among some other gastroenterologists' wives who happened to be sitting in front of her on a bus. "They were talking about this terrible person that they imported from Australia to speak," Marshall told me. "You know: 'How could they put such rubbish in the conference?' "
In 2005, that "terrible person" won the Nobel Prize in medicine . Marshall, along with his colleague and fellow Nobel winner Robin Warren, proved that up to 90 percent of peptic ulcers are caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori — not by stress, as medical wisdom had long held. In most of the interviews in this series, I've talked to people about being wrong: about what they've learned from their own mistakes, and about how their work — whether as an astronaut or speculator or lawyer or marriage counselor — affects how they think about error. But in this interview, Marshall and I talk about being right. In particular, we discuss how it feels when everyone thinks you're wrong, what it takes to get the scientific establishment to change its mind, and what it's like to finally be proven right. All that, plus a guest appearance by Adrienne Marshall, Barry's wife, who describes how she felt when Barry decided to test his ulcer theory by drinking a batch of bacteria.
Can you describe the received medical wisdom about ulcers before your research?
Peptic ulcers became more common in the 20th century, at the same time that these theories of Freud and other psychoanalysts became popular. And somehow those meshed, and this tradition emerged that ulcers were caused by stress or turmoil in one's life. I don't know where the data came from, but there was this idea that stress caused high acid levels; maybe there was a small amount of evidence for that, although I haven't been able to find it when I've looked. Anyway, all those things added up to convince people that ulcers were caused by stress. There was no proper data of any kind. It was smoke and mirrors as much as anything else, but terribly convincing for everybody.
Are you saying that there was no basically no empirical evidence to support the stress-and-acid hypothesis?
You can always find stress in someone's life if you want to. You ask a few questions and eventually it's, "Yes, I admit, I was worried about something recently." So they tried to find evidence for stress causing ulcers, and whenever they had an experiment which worked, it would just be blown out of all proportion, and everyone would get so much publicity out of it that you would think, "Ah, at last, it's proven." But the data was very bad. And in fact there was plenty of evidence showing that stress didn't make much difference.
What kind of medical advice was dispensed to all these patients with ostensible stress-induced ulcers? "Relax"?
Basically, yes. The medical advice was take antacids and modify your life style. The first drug that came out in the '70s was Tagamet, an acid blocker. By the time Robin Warren and I came along with this idea about bacteria, that was selling $3 billion of medication per year; it was the world's number one drug. And then that type of medication was the number one drug for about 10 years after that, with global sales of $8 billion or something. But it didn't work very well. It was quite sad, really; people were so disappointed, because as soon as they stopped taking their drugs, the ulcers came back.
What was it about you that made you more immune to all this received wisdom about ulcers?
I guess all my life I've made my own decisions. My mother was a nurse, and in her era, most diseases weren't understood; people put mustard plasters on knees and rubbed camphor on your chest if you had a cough and did funny things to you if you had tuberculosis — all these things that really made very little difference once proper treatments were brought in. She used to be annoyed with me because I would challenge everything she said and not believe anything unless someone could show me the facts. For some reason, that's just the way I was.
Is that what got you interested in ulcers — the apparent lack of facts?
Something like that. The thing that initially excited me was: "Ah-ha! A falsehood!" Robin and I had been looking into these bacteria, and we found that they can survive in stomach acid. You probably don't think that's particularly weird, because you know that there are bacteria that live in Old Faithful and hot springs and so forth. But it really wasn't well-known in the early '80s that there were bacteria that could survive in all these harsh environments. So it started out as: Let's just prove that these bacteria live in the stomach and try to find out how they do that.
That led to ulcers via the side door, if you like, because we were trying to find out who had the bacteria — and lo and behold, we noticed that everybody with ulcers had them. So we said, "Hang on a minute, scientists have been trying to find the cause of ulcers for 50 years. Have they checked out the possibility that it could be an infection?" The answer was, "No, because it's impossible for bacteria to live in the stomach. We wouldn't even consider that."
At what point did you start to suspect that your own theory was right?
We pretty well knew that we had discovered the cause of ulcers within two years of starting the work. One reason was that I was starting to treat a few people with antibiotics, and nine out of 11 seemed to be cured. At the time, the cure rate for ulcers with any other treatment would have been one out of 11. So even though that work was anecdotal and not blinded and not publishable, it was very convincing.
I assume another reason you were so certain is that — rather famously — you swallowed a bunch of Helicobacter bacteria to prove that it caused stomach problems. Not to be blunt, but: What were you thinking? Was that just a way of bypassing the human studies review board process? Were you so convinced that you were right and just impatient to prove it?
It was a decision point. I had to find out if the bacteria could really affect a healthy person and cause gastritis. I'd been working very hard in the previous 12 months on piglets, but I have to tell you that piglets aren't piglets for very long. They just about grow before your eyes, so after six months I had nearly full-sized pigs in our offices and I was wrestling with them and it was chaos. And you can't infect pigs very easily, it turns out, so that failed rather miserably. And the skeptics were so determinedly skeptical that I felt like: I'm never going to prove to these guys that the bacteria are harmful. By then everybody knew that 40 percent of the population had the bacteria and did not have ulcers, so that was making life difficult for me. So I took some bacteria off a patient and cooked it up.
If nothing had happened, it really would have been a spanner in the works for the whole theory. I thought, "If it doesn't work, I'll quiet down about the whole thing; maybe I'll just run away and do some other career for a while because I'm wrong." But then of course it worked.
What did your colleagues think?
I didn't quite explain to my boss what I was doing. He was passing the endoscope on me and I was lying there gagging away, he says, "Barry, I'm not sure why you asked me to do this test on you, and I don't want you to tell me." It was don't ask, don't tell. I wrote the experiment up in the third person, because it was very disreputable to be doing a self-experiment of one and then writing it up, and the editor of the medical journal of Australia stuck his neck out and published it. Afterward a couple of people figured out that it was really a self-experiment on me, but I didn't own up to it straight away.
You didn't realize it was going to be a great PR stunt?
No, I didn't. I was always very embarrassed talking about it. Then the word leaked out, and it's kind of a funny story, actually. After our Lancet paper was published in 1984, Robin and I went out to dinner with our wives, and we were having a few drinks and I let slip that I'd done the experiment. So then he goes home and in the middle of the night, he gets a phone call from a journalist in the United States who'd gotten the time difference wrong. The journalists said, "I'm from Star ," and Robin thought it was like Time magazine or something, and he gave this very in-depth interview about these bacteria that might cause ulcers. At the end the journalist said, "How can you be so sure these bacteria are really harmful?" and Robin says, "Well, Dr. Marshall drank them, and he got so sick he half killed himself!" That was the alcohol talking.
So they write this article in Star that's like "Australian Researcher Experiments on Guinea Pig Lab Assistant!"
I have to ask: How did your wife feel about this little stunt?
[Hollering into the distance] Adrienne, come up here! [To me] I'm not allowed to tell other people what she thinks.
That seems like a good policy.
Adrian [laughing]: I was a bit worried about him. He was very sick, and he didn't talk to me about it ahead of time or I would have probably suggested strongly that he not go ahead with it. But I was more surprised by the reaction of his colleagues when it came out that it was actually a self-experiment. He already had a reputation for being a bit rash and a bit of a hothead, and I fully expected his colleagues to write him off as a complete lunatic. But it was the exact opposite. They all thought it was a wonderful thing to do, which surprised us both, I think. He got a lot of credibility for it, which I wouldn't have expected.
By the time of that self-experiment, Barry, you were reasonably sure that you were right, and you'd been saying so in public for quite some time. Can you describe the general response you received when you first began to publicize your work?
When you start off with a new idea like this, all your scientific pals set out to prove you wrong. That's the scientific process. In my case, people were especially interested in showing that I was wrong, because at the time I was not at the pinnacle of gastroenterology, or even in the mainstream. I didn't know all of its secret teachings, if you like. I would just charge in with this stuff about bacteria, and nobody wanted to be told that they had spent their life doing research on something that somebody in western Australia figured out in 12 months. You can imagine that would be a bit difficult to stomach.
That makes it sound like the driving force was ego and insider/outsider status as much as it was the scientific process.
Well, and money. I think there was a strategy in the pharmaceutical industry to keep the new bacteria theory of ulcers under wraps. At the time we made the discovery, a new antacid was coming out every year or two that was stronger or better in some way, and as each drug was rolled out, the pharmaceutical companies funded scientists to do clinical studies on people with ulcers.
If these had been truly scientific people who were genuinely interested in discovery, as soon as they heard about the new bacteria [theory], they would've said to the investigator, "We're testing 300 patients with ulcers; can you just take an extra biopsy and check for bacteria? We want to know what's going on here." But they didn't do that, because the only purpose of these trials was to get a new indication and extended registration for the FDA. If you look at it from a business point of view, it could only do your market harm and lower your share price to find out that you could actually cure people with antibiotics. And that was their point of view.
Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. It's easy to characterize your story as the triumph of an evidence-driven outsider over a bunch of insiders and their vested interests, but isn't what happened actually a pretty good example of how science is supposed to work? As you said a moment ago, the scientific process involves trying to prove other people wrong, and in that sense, the fact that you were subjected to a lot of intense questioning and skepticism and so forth seems appropriate.
Right, sure, that's part of it. In retrospect, I was partly to blame, because I would get data that was rather preliminary and try to publish it because it was exciting and novel and original, even though we didn't yet have any kind of double-blind studies.
But also, we felt it was important to act. Maybe it would have been different if we'd been talking about [a cure for] a skin rash or something; maybe you can afford to wait five years until that's proved. But people died from ulcers all over the place and were having their stomachs or half their stomachs removed; there were permanent, mutilating operations and deaths going on around us. And yet to test our idea, you just needed to take some antibiotics. So we weren't very ashamed about trying to get our message out, even though it was rather preliminary.
Thomas Kuhn distinguishes between what he calls normal and extraordinary science, the latter being the type that brings about a complete change — the famed "paradigm shift" — in a field. Which one do you think describes your work? One can arrive at new ideas and theories and solutions without ushering in a whole new paradigm, after all.
It was definitely a paradigm shift, because it got this stress thing debunked. And the implications of that are much bigger: What else is supposedly caused by stress that we can debunk? A lot of these things that are supposedly caused by stress, you try to track down the reason for that link, and there isn't one, except the fact that we don't have any better cause. Everything that's supposedly caused by stress, I tell people there's a Nobel Prize there if you find out the real cause.
So that's one thing that happened. The second thing is that by 1980, everyone was feeling pretty confident that infectious diseases were going to be wiped out and there wasn't going to be any more problem with them. H1N1 is enough to wake us up to the fact that we don't know everything about infectious disease, but it really happened with Helicobacter first. People had been seriously studying ulcers for 50 years, billions of dollars were spent, and then — what do you know, it's a bacteria. So you have to ask, what other infectious diseases are we missing? I reckon a lot of these mysterious chronic diseases are related to some infectious agent that's been a trigger. It might have happened when you were a child and now it [the infectious agent] is long gone, but it sets you up for a problem later in life. We'll see if I'm right.
Speaking of which, did you find it frustrating that so many people felt you were wrong?
It didn't really faze me too much that everybody thought I was wrong, but it annoyed me that I was having trouble getting research grants and so forth. And at times I'd get internally angry, especially when I was junior and people in senior roles and positions of power could block my plans and go ahead and order for someone to have surgery or continue on with some treatment which was useless.
But it must have been annoying for them, too, because you couldn't tell me anything. I just knew so much. After a couple of years, Robin Warren and I knew more about every aspect of ulcers than practically everyone in the world, because we read nothing else for two years.
When and how did you start to convince people?
Part of it had to do with David Graham, who was chief of medicine at Baylor, in Texas, and a thought leader in gastroenterology. Graham started off as a real skeptic but quickly turned around. To his credit, Graham never said that I was wrong. He said, "I don't know, and I'm going to find out." And a couple of years later, he said, "I've checked it out and it looks pretty good, it looks like it could be true."
And then in 1993 or '94, the NIH had a consensus conference, and Tachi Yamada summed it up. Yamada is currently the head of [the Global Health Program of] the Gates Foundation; he's a very, very smart guy, and he said, "Looks like it's proven: Bacteria cause ulcers, and everybody needs to start treating ulcers with antibiotics."
It was just like night and day after that. The whole thing just went ballistic.
How did it feel to finally be acknowledged as right in such a public and universal way?
It was very satisfying to prove [my critics] wrong. People used to say to me afterward, "Barry, do you feel vindicated?" And I'd say, "I felt vindicated 10 years ago, because I knew what the result was going to be." There's a saying, "Science is not a democracy." It doesn't matter how many millions of people there are on the other side. There's one right, and it's perfectly possible for all the rest to be wrong. And ultimately all those guys were proved wrong, and they either retired or they came over the side of Helicobacter .
I love that it took retirement. It's like that quip by the physicist Max Planck, who said that science proceeds by funerals.
It wasn't quite death, but close. David Graham said, "The great thing about Marshall's theory is that if he's wrong, it's going to be so easy to disprove." The point he was making was that if it's a good hypothesis, you can test it. And ours was very testable; you just had to give people antibiotics and see if they got better. And they did. So everybody who was trying to prove us wrong, if they were good scientists, they just changed sides.
If they weren't good scientists, they kind of clammed up and kept doing what they were doing. If they were running a stress-based business — and there were certainly people, particularly in New York, who did psychoanalysis for ulcer patients and ran stress institutes and things like that — a lot of these guys, it had been their whole life. I do feel sorry for them, but I'm glad it wasn't me, that's all I can say. I'd probably be having a lot of trouble with my ego if I'd found out that all my life's work was for naught.
These days, do you find that everyone believes your theory?
Well, not patients, necessarily. Even now I see people who've got ulcers, and they think they're caused by stress. And I say, "Where have you been for the last 20 years? Have you been under a rock?" It just amazes me that there are still doctors out there that don't know this.
Who's to blame for that? Are health care providers and public health workers failing to spread the word, or is the idea just so entrenched in the culture that it's difficult to eradicate?
It's like a religion or something. It's like there's a certain part of your life when you learn things, and then you just stop. I'll say to patients, "Don't you know that ulcers are caused by bacteria? You need some antibiotics." And they'll say to me, "No, no, no. My doctor told me that in my case, it's definitely stress."
Let me turn the tables for a moment. What have you yourself been most wrong about?
It was very difficult to convince me that Helicobacter doesn't always make people unwell. Because I was interested in ulcers, I was seeing people who were very sick from it, but my colleagues would say, "You know, Barry, 40 percent of the Australian population have Helicobacter , and most of those people don't really have any symptoms." And I'd say, "Well, you didn't really ask them the right questions, you've got to ask them this and that." I spent several years trying to separate out people with Helicobacter from people who don't have it on the basis of things like, do they feel nauseated, are they burping, do they have bad breath or headaches — all those kind of vague systems.
I've had to pull back on this. Now I say, "Probably 75 percent of people with Helicobacter have nothing wrong with them." They go through life with minimal syndromes. It's like having dandruff in your stomach. If you had that, you wouldn't ever know about it. Your stomach would look a bit weird if you looked inside, but you wouldn't feel anything at all.
That being said, I'm still trying to hold my ground on this. There's a history of ulcers in my mom's family, and although she swears she has no stomach symptoms at all, I said, "I better just treat you the same way as everybody else." So I gave her antibiotics. Three weeks later she said to me, "You know, since I took those antibiotics, I've just been feeling great. I have more energy, I feel more positive." I've heard that from a lot of people over the years. So I think there may be a subtle syndrome where you're not at your top performance if you have Helicobacter in your stomach. If you've had something mild all your life, then you don't really know what normal is until you take the problem away.
Who else would you want to hear interviewed about being wrong?
What about George Bush? I tend to be pretty right-wing, and I have to say most people that I associate with at the university are a bunch of lefties, including my wife. But it's going to be interesting over the next 20 or 30 years to see how history judges George Bush, and how the Middle East will turn out. It probably takes generations for those things to change. But you provide a bit of stability, a bit of education for women, Internet, cell phones, travel — it's very difficult to keep a country all locked up after that.
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010, at 12:25 AM
In the spring of 1981, a 12-year-old boy was beaten and forced to watch as his 11-year-old female cousin was raped by a stranger in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. Several weeks later, a man named Raymond Towler was stopped by a ranger for running a stop sign in the same park and brought into the police station for questioning. * After hesitating for 10 and 15 minutes, respectively, both the boy and the girl eventually chose Towler's picture from a photo array. On the basis of that identification, and despite testimony by multiple witnesses that Towler had been home at the time of the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. This May, after 28 years behind bars, Towler was exonerated when DNA evidence showed that he was not the girl's rapist. He was 24 on the day he was convicted and 52 on the day he walked out of prison.
With his exoneration, Towler became the 258th person to be freed by the Innocence Project . Founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project uses DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions while also advocating for reforms to the criminal justice system to help prevent future mistakes. In the interview below, I speak with Neufeld about the origins of wrongful convictions, how police and prosecutors face up to their mistakes (or don't), and why he doesn't speculate about the outcome of his cases anymore.
How do most wrongful convictions come about?
The primary cause is mistaken identification. Actually, I wouldn't call it mistaken identification; I'd call it misidentification, because you often find that there was some sort of misconduct by the police. In a lot of cases, the victim initially wasn't so sure. And then the police say, "Oh, no, you got the right guy. In fact, we think he's done two others that we just couldn't get him for." Or: "Yup, that's who we thought it was all along, great call."
It's disturbing that misidentifications still play such a large role in wrongful convictions, given that we've known about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony for over a century.
In terms of empirical studies, that's right. And 30 or 40 years ago, the Supreme Court acknowledged that eyewitness identification is problematic and can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, it instructed lower courts to determine the validity of eyewitness testimony based on a lot of factors that are irrelevant, like the certainty of the witness. But the certainty you express [in court] a year and half later has nothing to do with how certain you felt two days after the event when you picked the photograph out of the array or picked the guy out of the lineup. You become more certain over time; that's just the way the mind works. With the passage of time, your story becomes your reality. You get wedded to your own version.
And the police participate in this. They show the victim the same picture again and again to prepare her for the trial. So at a certain point you're no longer remembering the event; you're just remembering this picture that you keep seeing.
Other than misidentifications, what other factors play a role in wrongful convictions?
The second most common cause is the misuse of forensic science other than DNA. In most of our cases, DNA [identification] didn't exist at the time of the conviction, so prosecutors relied on other types of forensic science. It could be serology, which was the old A/B/O blood typing. It could be bite marks. It could be fingerprints. It could be other forensic disciplines: tire marks, shoe print comparisons, fiber comparisons. None of these is bulletproof — some of them aren't even credible — so we see a lot of wrongful convictions stemming from those.
And there are several other very common causes as well. You have police and prosecutor misconduct. You have incompetent defense attorneys. You have jailhouse snitches, who as you can imagine are not the most reliable sources. And you have false confessions. Twenty-five percent of wrongful convictions involve false confessions. Most people can't imagine why anyone would ever confess to a crime they didn't commit, unless they were beaten into it. But these people weren't beaten. They wouldn't even meet the legal definition of coercion. It's just that the [interrogation] methods that are effective for getting confessions from guilty persons are so powerful that they net innocent people as well — particularly innocent people who are juveniles or have some kind of intellectual impairment or mental health problem.
I'm curious about police and prosecutor misconduct. I assume that most people in these jobs aren't actually trying to convict innocent people. So how does such misconduct come about?
I think what happens is that prosecutors and police think they've got the right guy, and consequently they think it's OK to cut corners or control the game a little bit to make sure he's convicted. The thinking goes, "God forbid a guilty guy go free because of smart lawyering by the defense" or what have you. They're so convinced that they are right that they feel exempt from behaving right. They don't realize that it's wrong to be unethical. And not just because it could convict an innocent person. It's simply wrong to be unethical.
How do prosecutors typically respond to the work of the Innocence Project, given that you're essentially challenging the validity and quality of their work?
You can divide prosecutors into two classes: those who believe in DNA wholeheartedly and want to cooperate with us, and those who oppose us. There's still a whole category of prosecutors and detectives who say, "No, I'm sure [the guy I convicted] is guilty. I can't tell you how, I can't give you a logical explanation, but he's guilty."
What's scary is that these people are part of a system that's predicated on logic and reasoning to see that justice is done. Yet they will ignore all logic and reason to protect their egos and their psyches. And it requires a complete disconnect, too, because these guys rely on DNA to convict bad guys all the time. But when the DNA works against them, they say something must have gone wrong.
Can you give me an example?
We took a deposition last week of a guy who was the lead detective in the prosecution of a young man named Jeffrey Deskovic . Jeff Deskovic was a 16-year-old white kid in Peekskill, N.Y., with no criminal record, when a 15-year-old girl was raped and murdered on her way home from school. This was in 1990. Jeffrey went to the police and said, "I knew her, I liked her, is there's anything I can do to help you solve this crime?" Well, the detective he spoke to had been told by somebody in the police academy that people who commit crimes often come forward offering to help. So this guy locked his sights on Jeffrey and after multiple encounters, the kid confesses. They then did DNA testing on the semen recovered from the girl, and Jeffrey was excluded. But [the prosecutors] never disclosed that; they simply dropped the rape charge and argued at trial that she must have had consensual sex with somebody else and Jeffrey was the murderer. Twenty-five years later, we took that DNA profile and ran it through the convinced felons database, and the profile of the semen matched a serial rape-murderer who was serving life in prison for attacking and killing another teenage girl in another town in Westchester a year and a half after the victim in Jeff's case was killed.
Given that factual backdrop, you'd think that people would say, "You're right, we made a terrible, terrible error, we investigated the case incorrectly, and it led to this tragic result." But no. Even with the DNA evidence, even though the serial murder-rapist gave a full, detailed confession and provided all kinds of details that no one knew, but the real perpetrator could know, this detective just last week said, "I'm sorry, that's ridiculous, Jeffrey Deskovic is guilty. The only false confession in this whole matter is the false confession given by the serial rape-murderer."
Would you say that detective was an outlier, or is that kind of denial routine?
I'd say, just based on my own experience, that about half the time police and prosecutors bury their heads in the sand and insist that they were right no matter what the evidence says. Look at the New York City police in the Central Park jogger case. It's right on point. They're in terminal denial. They still haven't got any insight. A woman is viciously attacked by somebody, raped, and left for dead. Five kids are picked up in the park that night, they're all interrogated, the interrogations are not recorded but the ultimate confessions are. Later the kids say the confessions were coerced and that they're innocent, but they get convicted.
Years later, DNA testing shows that some other guy who had three rape convictions and didn't know any of these kids committed this rape. Everyone in the DA's office who did the investigation has now concluded that this guy acted alone, and they vacated the convictions [of the youth]. The police department hired their own experts to write a bogus report saying, "The DAs were wrong, our confessions were valid, these guys must have been involved." They just can't get beyond that. It's remarkable.
This isn't the first time I've heard stories like this, but I never stop being disturbed by that degree of denial, given the seriousness of the stakes.
It is disturbing. But the truth is, when I run up against this, I don't worry for our clients. Our clients are going to get out. They've got the testing. A prosecutor can say the earth is flat until the cows come home, and eventually we're going to prevail.
What's troubling are all the people who we haven't done testing for, or for whom there's no biological evidence. If a prosecutor or a detective is totally unable to admit they're wrong in one case, what that tells you is that they will be making dozens and dozens more erroneous decisions, because they're not allowing new information to affect their views. If you can't admit you're wrong, you should just stay home and knit sweaters. You shouldn't be involved with any occupation where your decision-making can have an impact on other people's health, life, or liberty.
Stated that way, it sounds like the problem boils down to specific individuals. Do you think that's the issue — so called "bad apples" — or do you think there's something about the legal system or the psychology of what happens when you get involved with a wrongful conviction that actually makes a lot of people resort to denial?
I don't think it's specific to the legal system. I think generally speaking it's difficult for people to admit they're wrong, and the higher the stakes, the more difficult it becomes. So what you really want to do is educate people that it's OK to be wrong. It doesn't mean you're a fool. It's not going to be the end of your life.
I'll give you an example. I'm on the board of a medical center and a medical school, and I've watched the culture of medicine change somewhat over the last 20 years. It used to be much more difficult for doctors to admit error; they would hold on to their original beliefs and were completely inflexible. Today many more people understand that if you do an investigation into a medical error, the individuals involved are not going to be taken out and hung. They're not going to be fired. They're not even necessarily going to be sued. Instead, you'll use what you learn from those errors to improve the system. And through that I've noticed a much greater willingness on the part of health care providers to admit error and move on.
Is there any analogous shift happening in the law?
No. In the criminal justice system, the culture hasn't changed. We don't have inquiries when wrongful convictions occur; they just happen and that's the end of it. We should have a system in place where you do audits when you get a wrongful conviction — where you look at a person's body of work to see if this was a one-off situation or there was evidence of a systemic defect, either with an individual, with a police department, or with a way of doing things. If you could show people that what you were going to do with this data was simply improve the system, I think the culture would change and people would be more willing to admit they were wrong.
What about legislative shifts? As the fallibility of these various investigative tools becomes more obvious, is the legal system starting to implement reforms?
The only way you get national change is through a Supreme Court decision or an act of Congress. But we are moving incrementally to get reforms implemented in a city here, a state there. But it's certainly not the vast majority. It's not even a sizeable minority. It's a few. There's a great deal of resistance because people don't want oversight. Nobody likes oversight, even though we all need it.
In those localities that have implemented reforms, what happened to prompt that change?
It usually takes a kind of perfect storm. You'll have some very compelling narratives of wrongful conviction. You'll have very progressive leadership in the legislature. You'll have a forward-thinking police chief or prosecutor who gets it and wants to be ahead of the curve. But there's only a couple of state legislatures that have introduced these kinds of reforms. Ohio and Vermont gave us reform packages in the last 12 months. New Jersey did it several years ago. That's about it for states. For individual counties or cities, there's a few dozen in the country.
I think many Americans have this perception that our legal system is basically sound and trustworthy, and that wrongful convictions are anomalous. How right or wrong is that perception? To what extent do the 258 wrongful convictions to date reflect the scope of the problem?
The 258 figure is unquestionably just the tip of the iceberg. In many of our cases, the biological evidence has been lost or destroyed in the intervening years, so clearly our exoneration numbers would be much, much, much higher if we could bring more cases to lab. Over the years, our exclusion rate [in which the DNA result excludes the convict as a possible perpetrator of the crime] has been about 50 percent. That's not to suggest that the false conviction rate is 50 percent, because obviously we have a self-selecting data set of people who write to us and claim to be innocent.
Similarly, for 20 years, the FBI has been keeping data on cases that get sent to them by local law enforcement agencies for testing. These are cases where a prime suspect has already been identified based on other kinds of evidence — a confession, an ID, circumstantial evidence, whatever. Over the years, they've had a 25 percent exclusion rate; one-quarter of all initial prime suspects are excluded based on DNA. Now, that, too, doesn't mean the wrongful conviction rate is 25 percent, because some percentage of those cases would have been either dismissed or acquitted even if there hadn't been DNA testing (although the acquittal rate is very low in this country). But what these numbers tell you is that, my God, there are a lot of people in prison from before DNA evidence who are innocent.
Are those numbers dwindling now that DNA testing is routine?
Well, it's certainly better to have DNA testing than not, but it's a misperception to imagine that it's going to solve the problem. People think, "Oh, now we have DNA evidence, so this issue will gradually disappear." The truth is it doesn't disappear, because you can only use DNA testing in a small minority of violent crimes. If there's a drive-by shooting, there is no blood left behind. If there's a robbery, there is no semen left behind. In many crimes, police departments have to rely on less reliable means of investigation to decide who to prosecute.
That's why we have these recommendations for reforms, because we know that DNA alone is not going to solve the problem. Unless we change some of these other root causes of wrongful conviction and make the process more reliable, we will continue to wrongfully convict people at alarming rates.
Do you think working on these issues for so long as changed your own attitude toward rightness and wrongness?
Well, that and marriage. [Laughs] They've both made me much, much more willing to say, "I'm wrong."
I'll tell you something. One of the things we used to do at the Innocence Project is we would try, just informally, to predict which cases would end up being exonerations and which ones would end up confirming guilt when the DNA came back from the lab. And I was wrong more than I was right. What that tells me is that I was raised in the system before DNA evidence, where I relied on all these other types of investigative tools to determine guilt or innocence. That's one of the important things about DNA for me: It taught me how unreliable my own intuition is. Now when people say, "What do you think is going to happen?" I say, "Whatever happens happens, I have no idea and I don't want to speculate."
Last question. If you could hear anyone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
Cheney or Rumsfeld.
They're popular choices.
Good. I like to know that I'm very mainstream.
* Correction, Aug. 18, 2010 : This article originally misidentified Raymond Towler as Raymond Fowler.
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Monday, Aug. 9, 2010, at 4:08 PM
Whatever else you want to say about it, wrongness is a capacious subject. Since this blog began, I've interviewed people about the relationship between error and medicine , encyclopedias , computers , space travel , corporate culture , hedge funds , mountain climbing , storytelling , Israel , omelets , education , Leona Helmsley , and the Cleveland Indians , among many other subjects. And yet, somehow, I've yet to broach the issue of how our thoughts and feelings about wrongness affect one of the most important — maybe the most important — arena of human life. I'm talking, of course, about love.
Enter Harville Hendrix . Hendrix is the author of the best-selling Getting the Love You Want , along with the also-best-selling Keeping the Love You Find and many other books. With his wife and business partner, Helen LaKelly Hunt, he pioneered the concept of "conscious partnership" and developed a form of counseling he calls Imago Relationship Therapy . Oprah Winfrey, who has hosted Hendrix on her show 17 times, refers to him as "the marriage whisperer." I sought Hendrix out to ask him why most of us are so attached to being right and so threatened by being wrong — and what we can do to rethink those attitudes about wrongness to improve our relationships with our partners, our families, and ourselves.
Thanks for agreeing to talk to me. I've been thinking a lot lately about the desire to be right and what a powerful effect — usually a negative one — it has on relationships.
It's a question that's very relevant to me and one I've thought about a lot. Every couple I see, both partners think they're right. And as you point out, that doesn't tend to go well. You know, there's an old phrase, "You can either be right or be in a relationship." Which really means you can either insist on being right—never mind whether you really are or not—or be in a relationship.
Why do you think most of us are so insistent about being right?
There are two ways to think about that. One is a very natural and nonpathological analysis, which has to do with the way we are designed as human beings. I call it "concentric consciousness." For all of us, we are at the center of our own universe, and everything else is the periphery. So it makes sense that we think that the way we see things is the way they really are. That's natural.
If we were talking about philosophy instead of psychology, we'd call that realism: the idea that the world is precisely as we perceive it to be.
Exactly. There's a philosophical theory called the correspondence theory of truth, which pretty much describes most people's ordinary, everyday, nonreflective way of thinking about themselves and the world. Simply put, it means the belief that there is an exact correspondence between what I see and what's really out there: "My perspective is universal and what I see is what is real." That's a very real part of the human experience.
And yet anyone in the intellectual history of the culture understands that there's no such thing as direct perceptions. That went out the window when Copernicus pointed out that the sun is at the center of the universe, not the earth. By the 15th century, philosophers understood that human perception involves interpretation, and that idea has been developed considerably by postmodern philosophers and psychologists. All we have is the capacity to interpret phenomena. We do not have access to the thing in itself, as Kant would have said. All we have is a representation of the thing, and that representation is clouded by our own subjectivity.
Nonetheless, as you started out by saying, we often insist that we do have access to the thing in itself — that we're right and can know that we're right. Something tells me that a universal dose of Philosophy 101 wouldn't really solve the problem — that the underlying issue is largely emotional.
Some people are wounded in childhood by an intrusive or neglectful parent, and that produces emotional pain, and emotional pain produces self-absorption. And when you are wounded and become self-absorbed, your natural inclination to see yourself as the center of the world and everything else as on the periphery is amplified to the point where you cannot be flexible with data. You can't actually take in new information very well. When you're wounded early, you organize the world in a certain way, in order to give yourself some sense of inner cohesion. You make up your mind about the way things are, who you are, who your parents are, and although that helps you survive, it also means you have all these very rigid ideas surrounding what is fundamentally a fragile inner core.
And the experience of being wrong about those ideas threatens that inner core?
If you're wounded in some way, yes. You form all these perspectives, but for you, those perspectives are not perspectives. They're perceptions: the world as it really is. To have those perceptions turned into perspectives, which would be the healthy thing to do—that threatens your fragile internal organization. And because you rely on the stability of those perceptions—rather than on a stable self—to feel safe in the world, the idea that those perceptions are fallible produces huge amounts of anxiety. As I see it, one of the core reasons we can't admit to being wrong is that doing so threatens our internal cohesion and throws us into chaos.
If you grow up in a healthy family, by contrast, you grow up with that same concentric consciousness, with the same correspondence theory of truth, but you have a solid core. You have flexibly, adaptability, you have the capacity to be curious, so when someone says, "Oh, I didn't like that movie," and you did, you can say, "Well, what did you think about it?" But if you're wounded and defended and scared, you just think, "Well, if you don't like that movie, that means you're wrong or stupid, because the way I see it is the way it is."
I'm interested in this idea that having your perspective challenged produces anxiety. That comports with something another therapist said to me, which is that our capacity to tolerate being wrong hinges on our capacity to tolerate emotion.
I think that's right. To entertain the possibility that you're wrong is to feel anxiety about your inner organization, as well as shame, embarrassment, and even guilt about the erroneous perspective. And shame and guilt are almost intolerable emotions. So in order not to experience that anxiety and shame and guilt, you become rigid in your perceptions.
How does that rigidity play out in our relationships?
Well, for starters, most couples do not know that the correspondence theory of truth is inaccurate. They don't think philosophically; they operate out of the idea that their experience is what's true. So they feel they have to diminish or devalue and sometimes even annihilate their partner's perspectives, because to see things from that person's point of view would mean you'd have to give up on the absolute truth of your own, and that would trigger anxiety and everything that follows from it—chaos and shame and guilt. So this adamant commitment to your own perceptions translates into destroying your partner's perceptions. Not that people are aware that this is what they're doing, of course; they think they're just defending the truth.
In Western culture, we have this narrative about romance in which falling in love is about finding a previously missing part of our self — our "better half," our "soul mate." Or, as Phil Collins put it, "two hearts living in just one mind." I assume that part of what's so difficult and uncomfortable about disagreement in relationships is that it constitutes a kind of implicit betrayal of that idea.
In the early stages of love, you actually do experience a kind of merger of consciousness. People who are falling in love seem to kind of fuse together for a while; you sort of surrender your own personhood. But at some point you differentiate. You say, "I am me and not you, and this is what I think and not that." And "Actually, I don't really enjoy that kind of movie," or "I really like butter pecan ice cream better than vanilla, even though it was fun to eat it with you sometimes." For the other person, it's like: "You really think that? Did you lie to me?" But nobody lied. There's a kind of collusion in romantic love not to breach reality.
You know, it reminds me on a personal scale of something that happens on a political scale of well. I'm thinking of utopias — how we have this dream of a perfect society characterized by unanimity and perfection but, in fact, utopias tend to either fall apart or turn disastrous fairly quickly. Whereas if you accept that differences of opinion exist instead of trying to eradicate them, you can achieve a more stable society. It sounds like the same goes for relationships — that the dream of unanimity and perfection is ultimately destructive.
It is destructive because it is impossible. None of us share our partner's perspectives in every detail, and the power struggle that happens after the romantic phase is always triggered by something showing up in the relationship—in the person's behavior or belief or thought or action—that you had denied or overlooked, or that the other person had withheld. That's what produces the tension that puts people into conflict. And then you go into polarity: "I'm right." "No, I'm right."; "You did that." "No, I didn't." "Yes, you did."
This process that couples go through is what I call negation of each other. They don't really consciously know that when they say, "That's not what you said," or "That's not right," or "That's so stupid," that in fact they're annihilating each other, but they are. And they do it over and over and over again. You just get annihilation and counter-annihilation until they reach an impasse when they can't talk anymore. And that's what comes walking into our offices. They can't resolve that.
Can you break down this idea of negation and annihilation for me? What specifically happens for people emotionally when these kinds of disagreements appear in relationships?
I think the first emotion is anxiety. When people begin to finally get it that, "Oh, he really does like butter pecan ice cream" or "He really does have that thought," that triggers enormous anxiety. Anxiety is the motivating feeling that comes up behind all the other ones—bargaining, anger, depression, everything.
How would you define anxiety?
Anxiety is the anticipation of danger. Fear is the experience of danger: You see a tiger in front of you, you have a fear reaction, you do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, which is usually to run or hide. Anxiety is the fear that the catastrophic is going to happen. If I suddenly discover that my partner has had an affair, I anticipate all kinds of catastrophic consequences: I will lose this relationship, I will lose my security, I will lose my status in the community, I will maybe lose my children. All kinds of catastrophic scenarios come to mind, depending on your own fears and also your own value system. But it's all a forward projection. Fear is the experience of the present being dangerous. Anxiety is fear of the future.
Got it. So once people's anxiety is triggered by these disagreements, what happens next?
Typically the anxiety is followed by anger. Anger is an attempt to coerce a person into surrendering their reality, so that there's only one reality in the relationship instead of two. And when the anger triggered by the anxiety doesn't work, people experience depression. Depression is the experience of the loss of power: "I can't make my world happen."
Once they go into depression, couples—if they stay together—will then enter a bargaining stage. The bargaining goes like this: "Well, OK, I'm different and you're different, so let's make a deal about whose reality is going to be in the forefront." It's like, "Okay, you're a Baptist and I'm an Episcopalian, so we'll go to a Baptist church one Sunday and an Episcopalian church the next Sunday." They're trying to orchestrate a kind of interchange of realities, and they often think that this is a really enlightened move and the one that should and will save their relationship. So when it doesn't work, people go into despair. And then they come to me hoping that I will help them make better deals. But making better deals never works, because deal-making still involves giving up some part of yourself.
So what do you do with couples that have reached that point?
With my wife, Helen Hunt, I developed Imago relationship therapy , and as part of that, we have developed a process we call "dialogue." Dialogue is a generic word, but we have a special structure for it; we call it mirroring, validating, and being empathic. And what we've found over the years is that, with couples, you have to hold them in the process and give them some coaching in learning to listen. People have to learn to listen and listen and listen and listen until they finally get it that their partner has their own inner world—that you like apples and your partner likes oranges and that it's okay to like oranges.
One of my axioms is that if you want to be in a relationship, you have to get it that you live with another person. That person isn't you. She's not merged with you. She's not your picture of who she is. She doesn't live inside your mind. She doesn't know what you're thinking, and you don't know what she's thinking. So you have to back off and move from reactivity to curiosity. You have to ask questions. You have to listen.
It sounds like you're not just coaching people to accept their role in any given disagreement — like, "OK, maybe how I react to my in-laws isn't fair, maybe my partner has a point." You're asking them to accept disagreement in general, without automatically interpreting it as rejection or creating friction around it. That's a pretty tall order. Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Does it work?
We find that over time, if they're in a safe and regular environment, most couples can begin to tolerate difference instead of seeing it as bad. That's when we see them moving toward health. And then when they stay in that process and discover that nothing catastrophic occurs when you accept that what your partner says is true for them , the anxiety relaxes. That's when you know you're getting to more solid ground: when people move to, "Well, tell me more about that, I'm really curious: What is it like for you to think that or feel that or do that? What's going on when you're late and don't call?" Curiosity then becomes a bonding experience, and that can then lead to excitement and to wonder: "Gee whiz, I have two worlds: I have my world and your world, and both of them are right, and we no longer have to be in a power struggle about it. We can be in mutual acceptance."
I will say, though, that I've never found anyone willing to surrender their perceptions until they're in a safe environment—unless they are absolutely forced to do so because reality crashes in on them in some dramatic way: because they learn that their husband or wife has an affair or has embezzled a bunch of money or what have you.
Let's talk about those kinds of situations, because they're some of the most dramatic experiences of wrongness most of us will ever experience. Not many of us will ever be involved in, say, a wrongful conviction, but a whole lot of us get cheated on or get betrayed or just generally invest our trust in an untrustworthy person and suffer the consequences. In your experience, how do people respond to this kind of dramatic collapse of an emotional belief?
The first thing that happens is shock, of course—enormous shock that an unwanted reality is in fact true. In a catastrophe like divorce, it's particularly shocking because that's the one thing that seems to rupture what we would call the attachment impulse the most. Attachment is so necessary and central to our sense of trust and safety in relationships, so when that attachment bond is ruptured, it's hugely anxiety-provoking. People do all kinds of crazy things in order to protect themselves from the pain of the rupture.
If the catastrophic discovery is something like, your partner has three kids in another city, you can't make that reality go away, so you go into depression. But again, I think the operative word here is anxiety. Unpredicted realities produce enormous amounts of anxiety for most people. What you do with that anxiety depends on your mental health and your level of maturity. If you're mature, you may find it a problem to be solved rather than a catastrophe. But it takes very healthy people to do that, and we don't have a whole lot of those people on the planet yet.
Speaking of all the other people on the planet, if you could hear any one of them interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
George W. Bush.
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with Google research director Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, at 3:04 PM
Google, the company, entered this world in 1998. I'm not sure how long it took for Google , the verb, to follow — but I do know that millions of people engage in that particular activity many, many times each day. For half of all Internet users worldwide, Google is the portal to the collected and digitized wisdom (and folly) of humanity. Google's search engine has changed how we conduct research, plan vacations, resolve arguments, find old acquaintances, and check out potential mates. It's also given us new ways to interact with maps, mail, books, news, and documents, radically reshaping the way we think about almost every imaginable medium.
Peter Norvig, the director of research at Google, has been involved in this project since its toddlerhood. Norvig joined the company in 2001 and, from 2002 to 2005, served as its director of search quality — a position that put him charge of the company's core Web search algorithms. Below, he and I talk about (among other things) how engineers think about error, what's good about failing fast, and why Google buys cheap computers.
I'm interested in the way that attitudes about error vary across professional cultures — doctors typically think about error very differently than pilots and politicians and so forth — as well as across the cultures of different companies, even within the same field. How would you characterize the overall attitude toward error at Google?
There's a story going back to the founding of Google: One of the venture capitalists came to [company founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and said "OK, the first thing you have to decide is, is this company going to be run by sales or by marketing? They said, "We think we'll take engineering." He laughed and said, "Oh, you naive college kids, that's not the way the real world works." And they said, "Well, we want to try it." Ten years later, that experiment is still running; engineering is still the center of the company. And it seems like it's worked.
And, like you say, it does create a very different attitude toward error. If you're a politician, admitting you're wrong is a weakness, but if you're an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you're always right, then you aren't getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.
What about errors not in experimentation but in implementation or execution? What do you do about mistakes like that, which can presumably compromise your product?
As an engineer, you're just used to the idea that there are errors. No matter how good you think you are, the industry standard is that if you write 100 lines of program, there's probably going to be one error in it. So you have to build all your systems expecting that. We built an entire development process around the idea that errors exist and the need to minimize their impact.
What does that process look like?
Well, first, there are two kinds of error we deal with. One is, there's a clear error in the code: It's supposed to do one thing and it does something else. In that case, you know when you've got it wrong, and you'll know when you've got it right. The second is, how good are the results? Say you do a search and it shows you links; there is no definitive right or wrong to the question of, "Did it work?" But you can say, "Well, this one worked better than that one."
That's interesting. Thomas Kuhn, the great historian and philosopher of science, makes a similar point — that you can't say whether an individual theory is right, you can only say which of two theories fits the facts better.
Right. And we test at both levels — the clear-cut case where it's wrong, as well as the one where you're trying to figure out what works better. At the first level — and we share this with most software companies — before anyone can check in a piece of code that they've written, somebody else has to sign off on it. And then we have all these review processes and test processes at multiple levels to see if [your code] gives the right answer. A large proportion of the code you write is testing what somebody else wrote or what you yourself wrote. The work you're doing is often about, "Am I getting the right answer?" rather than, "How do I compute the right answer?"
What do you do about technological failures? I assume that sometimes it's not the software but the hardware that goes wrong and that the price of those problems can be pretty steep.
I think Google was early in accepting hardware errors. Other companies have tried to say, "Well, if you can buy big, expensive computers that are more reliable, then you'll have fewer breakdowns and you'll do better." Google decided to buy lots of cheap computers that break down all the time, but because they're so much cheaper, you can design the system with multiple backups and ways to route around problems and so forth. We just architect the system to expect failure. Google was very innovative in this area and saved a lot of money as a result.
How did that innovation come about?
In part, I think it was visionary. But, in part, it was just that the problem we are attacking made it easier. If you're doing a Web query and some of the computers break in the middle and you don't get exactly the same result as someone else doing the same query, well, OK. You don't want to drop the top result; if I do a search of the New York Times , I want nytimes.com to be the top result. But what should the 10th result be? There is no right answer to that. If a hardware error means we dropped one result and somebody had a different result at No. 10, there's no way of saying that's right or wrong. Whereas if I'm a bank, I can't say, "Oh, one out of every million transactions, I'm just going to lose that money." I can't have that level of failure. But at a search company, you're more tolerant of error.
I've been at both ends. My previous job was at NASA, where you really don't want your shuttles to blow up very often. So there they spend hundreds of millions of dollars to protect their astronauts' lives. Here, we're kind of at the other end. Failure is always an option at Google.
I want to talk about innovation, because it seems to me that the price of trying new things is that most of them fail. How do you build a tolerance for that kind of failure into a public corporation that's accountable to its bottom line? Getting things wrong might be necessary to getting things right, but failure can be costly.
We do it by trying to fail faster and smaller. The average cycle for getting something done at Google is more like three months than three years. And the average team size is small, so if we have a new idea, we don't have to go through the political lobbying of saying, "Can we have 50 people to work on this?" Instead, it's more done bottom up: Two or three people get together and say, "Hey, I want to work on this." They don't need permission from the top level to get it started because it's just a couple of people; it's kind of off the books.
Two or three months isn't very much time. How do you decide at that point whether an idea is going to succeed or fail?
When you talk about being wrong, I think of that mostly from a statistical inference point of view, and within the company, we're really good at making decisions based on statistics. So if we have an idea — "You know, here's a way I can make search better" — we're really good at saying, "Well, let's do an experiment. Let's compare the old way with the new way and try it out on some sample searches." And we'll come back with a number and we'll know if it's better and how much better and so on. That's our bread and butter.
OK, but what about things that can't be measured experimentally?
Right, that's the question. When it comes to something that doesn't really have statistics, that's harder for us. Take something like launching Gmail, where it wasn't a question of, "Can we make it work?" It was a question of, "Well, gee, who are the other players in this game?" It was Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL, and they were all either partners or rivals or both to us, so then the question is, "How are they going to react if we do this?" And we had this idea to offer it for free but to have ads on the sides, so it was like: "Are people going to think that's creepy?"
You can't really do experiments for things like that; you can't get at it through statistics. I suppose you can have focus groups, but focus groups really aren't important; it's more about what the press is going to say. So those types of decisions have to be made more on gut instinct rather than a statistical basis. And as a company, that's harder for us.
Can you parse the idea of gut instinct for me? What is it? What are you actually relying on when you make those so-called instinctive decisions?
Good question. I guess it's experience. It's projecting into the future based on what you've done in the past. Is this going to work? Are we going to be able to build it on time? Is it going to perform as expected? You get a feel for things like that by having built similar projects.
The harder part, I think, is judging the likely reaction. Yes, we can build this, but are people going to like it? Or: Is somebody else going to build a better one first? Or: How are other companies going to react to this? I guess that's also an experience thing, but that part's much harder, because it involves not just what we can do, but how other people are going to respond to what we can do.
So how good would you say your gut instinct is? When you fall in love with an idea or a project — when your intuition says, "We should go for this, this is going to work" — are you usually right?
I think we often have good intuition about where things are going in general. As a company, we made a big bet on mobile and the Android platform because we knew that people were going to be using their phones rather than their desktops for computing, and that gamble worked out. But the details —w as creating the android platform the right way to do it? Should we have partnered with someone else or created a different system? — that was harder to say. A lot of the time, the strategic ideas are clear, but how to get there is not.
Earlier in this series, I interviewed Ira Glass , the host of This American Life , and he said that for every story we hear on the show, they start developing 10 or so and go into production on three or four. He also talked about sitting in on a meeting at The Onion and learning that they kill 30 or 40 pretty funny headlines in order to generate one really funny one. What about you guys? What would you say is your failure-to-success rate?
It's hard to say, because it varies a lot. Some teams are taking on projects that they pretty much know can be done. Let's say you've got some storage system that's not fast enough or big enough and we need to design one that's going to be better. Essentially we have to build that; we have no other choice. So we know it's going to get done. Maybe it won't quite meet the specifications — maybe it takes a little too long and maybe it's not quite as fast — but it gets done. So there you have a very high rate.
Then with things like search quality, we have all these ideas of how to make search better, and I'd say maybe half of those end up working. Sometimes you start down a path and then you find out it doesn't help, it doesn't make any difference.
Half strikes me as a pretty good ratio. What about the success rate for the kinds of experiments your users see, like all the stuff in Google Labs ? Do those catch on fairly often, or is it mostly like, "Well, that was a nice idea."
Most of the things you see in Google Labs are there because we didn't quite know what to do with them, so certainly less than half of them become hits. I don't know what the exact number is. Some of them are already winnowed out by the time they get there; if we thought they were really big, they'd be on the main site rather than the Labs site. Some of them are there because it was easier; maybe there's a security issue or brand-image issue with making it part of the main site, and we didn't want to go through that process if we don't have to. So we said, "Well let's throws it on Labs and if it becomes really popular, we'll think about how to integrate it."
Despite all the experiments Google has initiated since it began, the vast majority of your profits — I've heard between 97 percent and 99 percent — come from just one thing: advertisements related to search. Obviously, then, income generation is not the metric you're using to decide if a product succeeds or fails. What is?
You're right that most of the money comes in through ads. But you can think of everything else as bringing in customers so that they'll click on the ads. We know the value of adding a new customer, and we can see what the usage is of individual sites. So we can say, "This feature is popular, our usage is going up, and because usage is going up, we're making more money." We do things to make Google better so people will come to Google and click on the ads.
What's interesting, though, is that we're now at the scale where we can also do things that just make the Web better. We do a lot of open-source projects, because if we release code and some other company makes something really cool that makes the Internet better, we benefit, too. About half of Internet users are using Google search, so if another company builds something and two people start using the Internet because of it, we're going to get one of them.
Google has been remarkably successful at creating popular products. How does the company create a culture that's conducive to generating new ideas?
Well, we have great people, and that's a huge part of it. But I think the main thing is just trying a lot of ideas. We've built the ultimate system for making demos internally. If a startup company has an idea, it's like, "Well, I need a copy of the Web to make my idea work, I need a thousand computers, I gotta go raise money to do that." So they spend months or years raising money and building infrastructure.
Whereas we have all of that. Somebody can learn how to use it in their first day and say, "OK, I have an idea, and these pieces are already here, and I can just connect them together and see if it works." And if it doesn't work today, next week I'll have another idea. And I haven't wasted months going down one path. It's like playing with tinker toys or something. You plug 'em together, you try something, and if you think it's good, you keep going. And if it isn't, you put them down and start on something new.
I'm struck by how long some products stay in beta testing at Google. Gmail, for instance, was launched in 2004 but wasn't upgraded from beta status until 2009, by which point it had 146 million users. What's the reasoning behind that?
There's two parts to that, a technical engineering part and a public relations part. From the technical engineering point of view, you define a project and say, "These are the features this should have, and until it has all those features, it's still beta." But then there's another decision which is: When is it worth launching? Something can be missing a couple of features and still be worth launching, and we've chosen to do it that way, whereas other companies seem less likely to do so. I don't know why the PR people are open to that here. Maybe it gives the impression that Google is always changing and products aren't quite finished. And maybe they want to give that impression.
The whole beta model is completely at odds with conventional production and manufacturing; you never see General Motors release a beta version of a car, for instance. What's the cost-benefit tradeoff involved in releasing versions of products that you know are still flawed and incomplete?
There's a big difference between the products we have, which mostly live on our servers where we have the ability to update them every day, and a car, which once you ship out becomes very expensive to recall. Traditional software is somewhere in between; if you're selling CDs that you put in boxes and ship to stores, there's a cost to updating that, but it's less than the cost of a car. But for us, it's a process of continual change. We expect to change our servers every day; that's natural for us.
Is part of the benefit to you the open-source advantage — the fact that your customers find the flaws for you?
Yeah, sure, both explicitly — in terms of them saying, "Hey, here's a problem," and also implicitly, in terms of how they interact with it. We see the statistics, we measure how often they click on the first result, how often they have to do a follow-up search, and we get an idea of whether they're satisfied or not. And then we make a change and see if the statistics look better.
Last week in this column, I spoke with Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger about how we use the Web to organize, validate, and disseminate information. Google's stated mission is to organize the world's information. Does the company do anything to prioritize more accurate or at least more credible results in its searches?
In a sense, the core innovation behind Google — this notion of page rank, of how many other people are pointing to your result — is a crude measure of credibility. And that came about because of frustration with the quality of the results yielded by earlier search engines. The first search engines were built on a kind of library-sciences technology: To do a search, you looked for documents that mention those key words the most times. So you would often end up with results that were off-target but happened to have a high density of the keywords. Page rank said: If everyone else is pointing to this page, it must be a good one.
That's still how it works to a degree, but multiple things have happened since then. One is that now there's a war between the good guys and the spammers — people who are trying to artificially inflate certain pages by reverse — engineering our system and building pages that can falsely claim credibility. So we have to watch out for that. And then part of the problem with credibility by citation is that it takes time. You don't instantly gather links the first day something is published, which makes it harder to follow new news items and so on. So we need a way to weigh the freshness of a new result versus the accumulation of credibility over time. But yes, we are always looking at quality and credibility as well as salience.
Interesting. It sounds like page rank uses consensus as a stand-in for credibility. That slippage is hardly unique to Google-all of us use consensus as a stand-in for credibility sometimes-but it can be pretty misleading.
Yeah, that's always a problem. One way we try to counter that is diversity. We haven't figured out any way to get around majority rules, so we want to show the most popular result first, but then after that, for the second one, you don't want something that's almost the same as the first. You prefer some diversity, so there's where minority views start coming in.
What do you think have been Google's biggest mistakes?
I can't speak for the whole company, but I guess not embracing the social aspects. Facebook came along and has been very successful, and I may have dismissed that early on. There was this initial feeling of, "Well, this is about real, valid information, and Facebook is more about celebrity gossip or something." I think I missed the fact that there is real importance to having a social network and getting these recommendations from friends. I might have been too focused on getting the facts and figures — to answer a query such as "What digital camera should I buy?" with the best reviews and facts, when some people might prefer to know "Oh, my friend Sally got that one; I'll just get the same thing." Maybe something isn't the right answer just because your friends like it, but there is something useful there, and that's a factor we have to weigh in along with the others.
What about you yourself — what have you personally been most wrong about?
One thing is how fast things change. I was in a meeting a while ago and somebody was discussing a new project — this was in an area I hadn't touched for a while — and I said "Oh, isn't it the case that such and such?" And they kind of snorted derisively and said, "Yeah, well, that's the way the Web was four years ago, but that approach doesn't work anymore." I think that's happening constantly. You think you have this experience — and we talked about how important experience is for having intuitions — but experience can go out of date very quickly.
If you could hear someone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
Last night I saw Jeff Ma speak — he's the MIT student who did the card-counting in Vegas, which the movie 21 was about. He talked about one of his first days betting and how there are certain situations where the statistics say, "If you're in this position, you should double your bet." So Ma finds himself in that position and doubles his bet and then the dealer deals himself 21 and Ma loses $50,000. Then a couple of hands later he was in the same situation and now he's down $100,000. So he went back to his room and said, "What did I do wrong?" He thought about it and said, "I didn't do anything wrong; the statistics are what they are and I did the exact right play for the statistics. The dealer just got lucky." So he went back and kept playing the same strategy and ended up winning $70,000 or something over the weekend. He makes the point that if you're making the right decision, even if you get a bad result, you're not really wrong.
And if I could interview a dead guy — and automatically improve my French, while we're wishing for the impossible — I'd take [French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Simon] Laplace. I think that he deserves most of the credit for Bayesian probability theory , and most of Bayes' fame comes from having his name on the theorem, not for actually doing the work.
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Monday, July 26, 2010, at 2:15 PM
After Google, Wikipedia might be the single most powerful new influence on how we as a culture organize, disseminate, and access information. For millions of Web-connected citizens, the online encyclopedia is the place of first resort for looking up everything from Shirley Sherrod to sickle-cell anemia . There's no question about its scope or popularity: It has 3.3 million articles in English alone (compare that to the roughly 120,000 articles in the online edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica ) and attracts nearly 78 million visitors each month. There's also no question that it's an astonishing triumph of open-source development: The entire colossus was built by a bunch of largely anonymous and entirely unpaid contributors.
There is, however, a great deal of argument — and consternation — about the accuracy of Wikipedia entries. (A headline in the Onion made the point nicely: "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence.") That's why I went looking for Larry Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia along with Jimmy Wales, then quit the project over disputes about its governance and the quality and credibility of its content. Sanger is also a trained philosopher with a focus on epistemology — the study of knowledge — which made him an attractive person to talk to about how technology is changing what we know, what we think we know, and how we think we know it. After leaving Wikipedia, Sanger founded Citizendium , a rival online encyclopedia, and now spends most of his time on WatchKnow , a nonprofit organization that uses wiki principles to organize and rate nearly 20,000 educational videos for kids.
What got you interested in encyclopedias? Did you have some kind of longstanding fascination with them, or was it just an accident of history?
It was pure accident. I was circulating an idea for a Web site around different Internet acquaintances and one of them happened to be Jimmy Wales. He responded by saying, "Well, I'm trying to get this encyclopedia project going; would you be interested in coming to work on it?"
That was Nupedia — he had registered the domain name, but at that point it was just an idea — and I got hired for that job. And then I found that it was a fascinating problem to organize people online to create encyclopedias.
People have been trying to validate, organize, and disseminate information for a long time. Did you look back to other efforts in history to do so?
When I was first starting Nupedia and Wikipedia, everything was moving so fast that I didn't have time to go back and read Diderot and D'Alembert and all that, which would have been useful. I did read them later. I can't remember when I read The Professor and the Madman , but that made a big impression me.
That's pretty funny, considering that it's a book about the relationship between the editor of a major reference work and a certified lunatic.
It actually resonated very much with the experience I had trying to organize Wikipedia. It's very interesting to me that here you have the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary , and one of his most prolific contributors was in an insane asylum. A lot of the most prolific Wikipedians, or at least many of them, also seem to have a screw loose. But that doesn't mean their work is useless.
Do you have a theory about this? Is there something about the project of organizing knowledge that attracts slightly nutty people? Or that turns normal people nuts?
There are a lot of theories on that, actually. But I think the most important thing to say is that Wikipedia has very few practical constraints about people behaving according to normal rules of politeness and fair dealing. They've got a zillion rules, of course — that's part of the problem — but there is no easy way to rein in the bad actors. And unfortunately the bad tend to drive out the good. A lot of the more sane, sensible people out there are just can't take too much of it.
Yeah, I can imagine that the social dynamics get pretty ugly. But my understanding is that you left Wikipedia over deeper philosophical schisms.
I had lots of deep philosophical schisms with Wikipedia in the end, although also some agreements. The first problem was what we were just talking about: reining in all the bad actors, doing something to reduce the number of trolls and the amount of time we spent dealing with them.
The other problem was that there needed to be some sort of mechanism — it didn't have to be anything like editorships or review before publishing or anything like that — but some sort of low-key role for experts in the system.
Why did you feel so strongly about involving experts?
Because of the complete disregard for expert opinion among a group of amateurs working on a subject, and in particular because of their tendency to openly express contempt for experts. There was this attitude that experts should be disqualified [from participating] by the very fact that they had published on the subject — that because they had published, they were therefore biased. That frustrated me very much, to see that happening over and over again: experts essentially being driven away by people who didn't have any respect for those who make it their lives' work to know things.
Where do you think that contempt for expertise comes from? It's seems odd to be committed to a project that's all about sharing knowledge, yet dismiss those who've worked so hard to acquire it.
There's a whole worldview that's shared by many programmers — although not all of them, of course — and by many young intellectuals that I characterize as "epistemic egalitarianism." They're greatly offended by the idea that anyone might be regarded as more reliable on a given topic than everyone else. They feel that for everything to be as fair as possible and equal as possible, the only thing that ought to matter is the content [of a claim] itself, not its source.
It seems to me that this conflict between amateurs and experts boils down to a conflict between egalitarianism and credibility. You gestured toward this conflict in an essay on the Edge.com , where you wrote, "It's Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I'm on the side of Truth." Do you find that it really is a zero-sum game — that, as a practical matter, we need to choose between these two goods?
I doubt very much that it's a zero-sum game. I think it's absolutely a great thing that people regardless of their credentials can contribute to the shaping of knowledge. And I think we have to creatively design ways of recognizing both the value of amateur work, on the one hand, and the objective value of the knowledge of people who are experts in various fields.
And that's what you were calling for at Wikipedia, right? For human experts to exert at least some baseline control over the content?
Well, I suppose. But you know, I don't like the word "control," because I myself am pretty libertarian in my outlook on these things, quite frankly. It makes me nervous to think of handing the keys over to the experts. But one thing that Wikipedia could do that would not spoil the system — except in the sense that it would cause a huge ruckus among Wikipedians — is simply create a program in which articles are reviewed or rated by experts.
This idea is not new. It's something that we discussed before I even left. It's sort of a perennial idea on Wikipedia, in fact, but they've never done it.
What would qualify someone as an expert?
Well, I can tell you how we do it on Citizendium. Generally we say that to contribute as an editor in a professional field, you need to have the credentials to practice in that field. So if you want to be an editor in law, then you should have a law degree and a few years of experiences. For more academic fields, we generally require a Ph.D.
None of that is to say that we aren't open to other people, but they have to establish their expertise up to that level in some other way. So if someone has a master's degree or even a bachelor's degree in history but has written a bunch of well-respected books — if there's enough evidence for another history editor to recognize the person as legitimate — then we would bring such a person onboard.
Have you read some of the criticisms of expertise that have come out in the last several years — for instance, Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? or, more recently, David Freedman's new book, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us and How to Know When Not to Trust Them ?
No, I'm afraid I haven't looked at those books. I'd like to — they sound fascinating.
I suspect that most people who aren't involved in the making of Wikipedia, who interact with it as an end product, feel that it's basically good enough. They get that it's not perfect, but they have the impression that it's essentially pretty reliable. In your opinion, how right or wrong is that impression?
I think it's pretty dangerous to rely in an uncritical way on Wikipedia. Wikipedia frequently gets things wrong — or, more often, states things in a misleading or biased way. The problem isn't as bad in the hard sciences, but in the humanities and social sciences, certain views tend to come to the forefront, or the leading views on a subject are completely omitted or are left as a footnote. When it comes to subtly representing a dialectic, Wikipedia does a very bad job. But maybe people don't go to Wikipedia to try to master a debate.
What about factual matters? Are those reliable?
When it comes to just basic facts — statistics about geography or demographics, things like that — then as far I can tell, and as far as I've ever heard, those are fairly accurate. They are probably not much less reliable than any traditionally fact-checked source.
One of the ways we get things wrong is by belonging to a community that enforces, often tacitly, one set of beliefs while obscuring or rejecting another. Do you think Wikipedia constitutes a community in that sense, and if so, how would you describe its belief system?
If you're talking about political biases, I actually think that that's one of Wikipedia's least-worst problems. [Laughs] It's really not as bad as the people at, say, Conservapedia seem to think. I do think that there is a liberal bias on most topics where such a bias is possible, and I think that's probably a reflection of the fact that, again, the people who work the most on Wikipedia tend to be really comfortable with the most radically egalitarian views. And those people tend to be either liberals or libertarians.
I think the kind of biases that are in some ways more interesting and more pervasive have to do with individual biases not on political issues but on a host of very specific academic issues. An article can reflect the bias of a few people who just happen to be most motivated to work on it. This is a general problem with Wikipedia: What is praised as consensus decision-making or crowd-sourcing often just means that the person with the loudest voice or the most time on his or her hands is the one who's going to win.
Do you think that as information technology changes, the responsibility of getting it right is changing, too? Is the onus shifting away from the creator of information and toward the consumer?
I think the people who are putting the information out in front of an audience and presenting it as factual are the people who are responsible for it. Unless we're actually in there editing the articles, then it doesn't make sense to say that we have an obligation to make sure that the article reads the way it ought to read.
But maybe the question is, how ought we to read it? Should people use Wikipedia in the same way they would use, say, Encyclopedia Britannica, or do we need to start thinking and acting differently?
What Wikipedians themselves would say — and I agree with them on this one — is that Wikipedia has finally awakened in people an understanding that even carefully edited resources can frequently be wrong and have to be treated with skepticism and that ultimately we are responsible for what we believe. That means constantly going back and checking what we thought was established or what we thought we knew. Wikipedians often say that you should never trust any one source, including Wikipedia.
That's not anything new; it's always been the case that you should check your source against another source. It's just that the way that the Internet has exposed the editorial process has, for more critical-minded people, made it absolutely plain just how much responsibility we ourselves bear to believe the right thing.
Which online resources do you yourself turn to most often when you're looking for information?
Which resources I turn to greatly depend on what sort of information I'm looking for. One of my favorite information resources is Google Maps and Bing Maps . I've often used Google Scholar for an essay I've been working on lately. When I'm looking for some quick fact, of the sort one finds from an almanac or other reference book, I generally search in Google and then pick a non-Wikipedia source. If there doesn't seem to be anything as efficient, I'll fall back on the Wikipedia source. If I'm doing serious research, I don't spend much time on Wikipedia at all, I'm afraid. I do look in on Citizendium's offerings from time to time, when I think it might have something on the topic. I also not infrequently grab various books from my bookshelves, the old-fashioned way.
When you started Citizendium, what kind of practical measures did you use to try to counteract the problems you'd seen at Wikipedia?
The main policies that distinguish Citizendium from Wikipedia are that we make use of real names [for contributors], we do make a low-key, guiding role for expert editors, and we started the project with some ground rules. I think we certainly did succeed in making a much more polite, collegial project. And the average contribution to Citizendium is of much higher quality than the average contribution to Wikipedia.
As measured by what? Caliber of the writing, caliber of the thought, accuracy of the content?
Everything. All of the above.
One of the objections over at Wikipedia to the idea of assigning a special role to experts was that it would slow growth by creating a bottleneck. Were they right to worry about that? You started Citizendium in 2007 and predicted explosive growth, but you currently have only about 14,000 articles to Wikipedia's 3 million-plus.
I don't think that the way editors participate in the project constitutes a bottleneck at all. If there's one bottleneck that has made it more difficult for us to grow than Wikipedia, it's the sign-up bottleneck. One of the things that allowed Wikipedia to grow explosively and with as little friction as possible is that it was not necessary to even create an account in order to participate. On Citizendium, you have to sign up for an account and get yourself approved with an e-mail address, so that adds some friction, that does constitute a bottleneck.
But beyond that, once you're into the system, if anything there's less friction than in Wikipedia. It's easier to work on articles, you'll experience less resistance on the part of the people who are at work on the wiki with you.
What have you yourself been most wrong about?
[laughs] Oh, boy. That's a hard one. I've been wrong about so many things. I don't know what the most important error is that I've ever made; it would require much more thought to figure that out. But I can tell you the one that bothers me more than any, because it's one that, off the cuff, does seem to have made the biggest difference. When I was getting Wikipedia started, I didn't realize just how deeply important matters of governance were going to be. I wasn't thinking about the problem we would face if we were truly successful. I think there's a lot of things I could have done in the first few months that would have allowed the project to take off the way it did and yet avoided some of the long-term governance issues.
Among other things, I could have established a charter that would allow important editorial decisions to be made through a representative body, as opposed to essentially mob rules — what they [Wikipedians] are pleased to call consensus but which of course really isn't.
What do you think kept you from doing that?
I was constantly thinking about how to manage the project, but most of that was about managing the day-to-day aspects rather than the long term development. I think I was really taken with the success of the project, and I was busy just trying to build it up and encouraging people to get involved. I didn't anticipate the potential downsides.
Whom do you wish you could hear interviewed about being wrong?
Hmm. This is one of those questions where as soon as I hang up I'm going to think of what I should have said. There's any number of people from the Bush administration. And I think it would be very interesting if you could interview Jimmy Wales.
This blog features Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .
Posted Thursday, July 22, 2010, at 10:13 AM
Back in May, when the Slate editors and I launched the Wrong Stuff, the plan was that it would run for eight weeks — eight interviews with eight very different people about the role of error in their lives and their fields. We were wary of committing to a longer run, since it wasn't clear that people would have as much appetite for reading about wrongness as they have for, say, vampires, or Mel Gibson, or the BP oil spill.
I should have known better. As it turns out, people love to read about being wrong (or at least, about other people being wrong), and Slate has kindly invited me to continue the series. So beginning next week, the Wrong Stuff interviews will be back. That's the good news.
The bad news is that there are some people I'd love to interview who will not be appearing even in the extended version of this series. Never mind the various dream candidates who have turned me down. ("I'd like to interview you about being wrong" is the kind of phrase that makes certain PR departments instantly delete your e-mail.) I'm thinking, instead, about the people who can't talk to me for the extremely good reason that they are imaginary. Or dead.
I started thinking about this courtesy of one of my very-much-alive interviewees, hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer . At the end of every Q&A, I've asked all of my subjects the same question: "Who would you like to hear interviewed about wrongness?" I've loved the answers to that question, from Anthony Bourdain's ("Dick Cheney — and I'd like him to be water-boarded during the interview") to Diane Ravitch's ("Basically everybody I've been associated with for the last 20 years"), but I was struck above all by Niederhoffer's response. Alone among the interviewees, he replied that he wanted to learn about wrongness from those who are no longer with us: Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and his own father.
I could add to that list: Galileo, who corrected what is arguably the most canonic of western mistakes and then was forced to recant his own rightness. Shakespeare. (Who wouldn't relish talking about error with the man who gave us Othello, Lear, Romeo, and The Comedy of Errors ?) Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council. Plato, who, for good or for ill, gave us the idea of a utopia — a society free of mistakes (and, not coincidentally, artists).
But Niederhoffer didn't stop at dead people. He also suggested that we could learn a lot about wrongness from people who have never lived — that is, from fictional characters. In an e-mail to me, Niederhoffer wrote about the idea of wrongness in Moby Dick , and noted that the harpooner in Melville's novel "would have made a great interviewee."
So he would have — to say nothing of Ahab himself. Or of Emma Bovary , one of literature's greatest victims of self-deception. Or Sherlock Holmes , that literary embodiment of an unattainably accurate relationship to logic and evidence. Or Nathan Zuckerman , the narrator of many of Philip Roth's novels, and as such the navigator of a dense web of illusion and error. Or Elizabeth Bennett, heroine of Pride and Prejudice , who early on describes her eventual true love as "the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry" and who stars in one of literature's most appealing and enduring stories of dramatic wrongness.
Next week, I'll be back with an interview about wrongness featuring a living, breathing person. But in the meantime, readers, tell me this: If you could hold a conversation about error with anyone at all among the departed or the fictional — who would it be?
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .