Wednesday May 20, 2015

Researcher retracts landmark same-sex marriage study, claims co-author 'fabricated' data

Professor Donald P. Green

Professor Donald P. Green (Courtesy of Donald Green; Reuters)

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It was a study that made headlines — partly because it was so hard to believe. Last December, researchers revealed in the journal Science that one brief conversation with a gay rights canvasser could change someone's mind about same-sex marriage.

The highly publicized article stunned political scientists, but has now been retracted on the request of one of the study's co-authors, Columbia University professor Donald Green.

"I have strong reason to believe that the data, particularly the survey data, were fabricated," Green tells As It Happens host Carol Off. "The data were ostensibly from a very-large scale Internet panel survey… the total number of respondents was more than 10,000. But there's no evidence that any respondents were actually interviewed."

When the study "When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality" was published, the results made big news. Stories ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other media outlets, including on the public radio program This American Life. Many researchers believed the methods used by the canvassers could be used to sway public opinion on other contentious issues. 

The survey data was provided by Green's co-author, UCLA graduate student Michael J. LaCour. When another research team tried to replicate the study's findings, they couldn't. They published their own independent research paper, titled "Irregularities in LaCour (2014)."

Green continues: "When my colleague and UCLA professor Lynn Vavreck, who is Michael LaCour's dissertation advisor confronted him with the allegations… He was unable to produce any such raw data, nor was he able to render them from his hard drive, nor was the Qualtrics [database] representative able to verify that the data ever existed. So I can only conclude that they did not exist."

LaCour responded to the allegations on his personal website and on Twitter: "I'm gathering evidence and relevant information so I can provide a single comprehensive response. I will do so at my earliest opportunity."

Michael J. LaCour for AIH

Michael J. LaCour's Twitter page on May 20, 2015.

"I asked [LaCour] yesterday whether he was prepared to admit that the data were fabricated and he said no," Green says, adding that the likelihood that LaCour could prove otherwise is "very, very" small.

In "Irregularities in LaCour (2014)," Green told the independent researchers that he confronted LaCour and that he "has confessed to falsely describing at least some of the details of the data collection."

Green says he doesn't know what might have motivated the alleged fabrication. 

"I wonder whether if this is one of those instances where someone commits a little fraud and has to commit more fraud to cover up the first fraud and it grows and grows and grows."

He's not sure if it could have been connected to furthering same-sex equality.

"I've never been really clear if he had that kind of ideological or political agenda," he says. "It has not come through strongly in my conversations… it may be that he was just interested in demonstrating persuasive effect."

Green is expecting the study retraction to have a negative effect on his own reputation as an acaemic researcher.

"It's certainly going to be with me until I reach my grave," he says. "I think this will always be something that people will say about my research for good or ill. My hope is that something positive can come out of this, mainly that I can use this experience to think about, and perhaps help others think about, ways of preventing this sort of thing from happening again. What kinds of procedures can we put in place to prevent the huge waste of resources that occurred as a result of this fabrication?"

He also thinks that if LaCour is unable to produce data to support his research, that he will face severe career consequences.

"I expect that he will be subject to an academic investigation. He has not yet received his Ph.D; I think that it's unlikely that he will receive it. I think he will probably not, in the end, take the job that he was offered at Princeton. I'm guessing that as the process unfolds, he's likely to have that offer rescinded."