The question of whether gay proponents of same-sex marriage have lasting sway with those who are against it has always been interesting. And recently, a study was published in Science that suggested that, yes, canvassers who have a personal stake in a political cause do have an impact. The problem? The data was likely faked.
In a world where researchers must “publish or perish,” Michael LaCour, a political science graduate student at UCLA seemed to have the perfect opportunity to become a big name. With the help of Donald P. Green, a Columbia professor who literally wrote the book on field experiments, LaCour conducted a study which tracked whether voters’ attitudes about same-sex marriage changed over time when approached by canvassers who actually had a a personal connection to the cause.
The initial survey response rate, according to The New York Times, was staggering. So much so that Green signed on to help LaCour bring his project to its final form:
Mr. LaCour’s job was to track those voters’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage multiple times, over nine months, using a survey tool called the “feeling thermometer,” intended to pick up subtle shifts. He reported a response rate of the participants who completed surveys, 12 percent, that was so high that Dr. Green insisted the work be replicated to make sure it held up.
LaCour told Green that he had lots of money in grants (hundreds of thousands of dollars) and that the reason response rates (which are difficult to maintain over a period of time) were so high was because he was paying participants (something that’s not unethical). This was huge news for the scientific community: here was a study that could be applied to the political arena in practical ways. But here’s the problem: LaCour never showed anyone his raw data and when he was finally asked to produce it, LaCour said he had destroyed it “months prior” due to its delicate nature. Not only that, but it appears he lied about paying his participants as well. According to The Times, LaCour has changed his story, claiming that he had only offered participants a chance to win a tablet, something that he said was enough incentive. Others who tried to use LaCour’s methods, however, found that that kind of incentive just doesn’t hold up. And when researchers started asking questions, like calling the survey company LaCour had supposedly worked with, they found that there was no record of him having done any business with them.
LaCour has been encouraged to retract the study and Green has been accused of bad oversight of the project. And, in all likelihood, LaCour will likely lose the cushy Princeton teaching position he had secured on the basis of being published in a prestigious journal. But there’s more at stake here than just the reputation of two men in the field of political science or a school being mocked for falling for potentially obvious data manipulation.
Because same-sex marriage is still so controversial, many might see this manipulated or imagined data as part of some gay agenda being pushed upon the unsuspecting and innocent population of America. And because it was published in a major journal, it might affect both the journal’s credibility as a whole and in terms of the scientific community’s skepticism of the validity of the studies published in the future. What was once most exciting about this study—its practical implications—will now be what is most reviled about it. And all so a graduate student could get an awesome job after school was over.
That’s a real shame.
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