On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine people were found dead inside a mansion outside San Diego, California. The people belonged to a cult known as Heaven’s Gate and the cult leader, Marshall Applewhite, had convinced the other thirty-eight members to join him in a mass suicide.
Applewhite had told the members that there was a spaceship following the Hale—Bopp comet that was passing by earth and that, if they joined him in this deadly ritual, their souls would “evacuate this Earth”, board the spaceship, and achieve another level of existence that was “above human.”
The bodies of cult members were found by a man named Richard Ford, and it is actually his story that prompted my thoughts about this article.
Ford was a member of Heaven’s Gate from 1994 to 1997. He was known as “Rio D’Angelo” in the cult, but he did not participate in the suicide because he had taken a break from the group until a message from another member prompted him to visit the house where the suicide occurred.
In fact, five years later, when Ford was interviewed by the LA Times, he still believed in the teachings of the group.
“They weren’t trying to kill themselves because of a crazy idea, although some people saw it as a crazy idea,” he said. “It really is an advanced level of being.”
He doubled down on these statements in a follow-up interview ten years after the event.
“I am against suicide and so was the group,” he said. “What happened to Heaven’s Gate was an “EXIT,” … They “EXITED” their bodies (vehicles) and are now with their Guide and Teacher in the Spirit world (the Valley of the Shadow of Death) helping mis-guided Spirits before their ascension.”
Remember, this is someone who literally saw the bodies of thirty-nine of his fellow believers. There aren’t many facts that are more cold, clear, and obvious than death. And yet still, in the face of overwhelming evidence, Ford could not change his mind.
How is this possible? How can someone continue to believe something so blatantly wrong in the face of such powerful and obvious facts?
It’s easy to dismiss cult members as crackpots, but they are far from the only ones who fail to change their minds when confronted with new evidence. Let’s leave the extreme world of cult behavior behind, and investigate our tendency to stick with wrong beliefs in general. Why don’t facts change our minds?
Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
As Morgan Housel writes, “Someone else agreeing with you is like evidence of being right that doesn’t have to prove itself with facts.”W