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UCLA Researcher Accused Of Forging Major Same-Sex Marriage Study
A study indicating that gay canvassers could convince voters to support same-sex marriage just by talking to them has been retracted after it turns out that one of the researchers may have fabricated the data. The study—"When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality"—from Columbia University researcher Donald Green and UCLA grad student Michael LaCour garnered a lot of attention after its publication in Science in December, including a segment on NPR's This American Life. It claimed that gay canvassers could change voters' minds to support same-sex marriage by talking to them for 20 minutes, which stirred up a lot of excitement for progressive activists.
Green retracted the study on Tuesday after finding out that LaCour may have fabricated the results. In a retraction letter to Science, Green said he was "deeply embarrassed," Retraction Watch reports.
Green was not made aware of the problems with the work until after David Broockman and Joshua Keller, two grad students at University of California, Berkeley, decided they wanted to extend the study. The two began a pilot study, but they soon found that they couldn't duplicate the results LaCour had supposedly achieved. They couldn't even get close to the number of people LaCour had purportedly signed up for his online survey—about 9,500—to sign up for their own online survey. The pair ended up recruiting Peter Aronow, a political scene professor at Yale University, to help them. They found several irregularities in the data that indicated it may not have been "collected as described." When the group told Green about this, he contacted LaCour's advisor at UCLA, Lynn Vavreck. She confronted LaCour, who in turn couldn't provide the raw data, claiming he had mistakenly deleted it, Buzzfeed reports.
As far as anyone can tell, over 1,000 volunteers from the L.A. LGBT Center did spend "hundreds of hours," as one canvasser told This American Life's Ira Glass, hitting the streets and talking to voters about same-sex marriage. These voters were people LaCour claimed he had signed up for the online survey by offering them $10 to enroll, plus $2 for each person they referred to the survey, then another $5 for the follow-up survey—that survey would ideally show that they had changed their minds. The about 9,500 people who signed up for the survey were to answer 50 questions about a number of topics, two of which involved same-sex marriage.
However, Qualtrics—the online survey firm LaCour claimed to have used—had no evidence of that raw data ever being deleted, as LaCour said he'd accidentally done. Weirder still, they also said they didn't even know about the study.
Qualtrics told iO9 that they're a "self-service platform on which our customers create and own their own survey content with response data. As such we can confirm that Qualtrics did not collaborate with Michael LaCour or any other party to author a study about public opinion surrounding same-sex marriage, as some other media outlets have reported."
According to Vavreck, LaCour couldn't produce any contact info for the respondents of his survey either.
Not only that, but the three organizations that LaCour claimed gave him money for the survey—the Ford Foundation, Williams Institute at UCLA and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr., Fund—all told Buzzed they didn't. Green said that LaCour eventually admitted that he didn't actually pay any respondents.
Green told Ira Glass that LaCour was still standing by the the claim that he did not fake the data, and seemed shocked by all of it.
"This is the thing I want to convey somehow," Green said. "There was an incredible mountain of fabrications with the most baroque and ornate ornamentation. There were stories, there were anecdotes, my dropbox is filled with graphs and charts, you'd think no one would do this except to explore a very real data set...All that effort that went into confecting the data, you could've gotten the data."
Green said that just because the data may be false, it doesn't mean it's not true that minds can be changed in this manner. He advocates for a new, real study to be done.
As for LaCour, he had previously posted to his website that he would be accepting a position at Princeton University in July. However, that mention has disappeared. A spokesperson from Princeton told Retraction Watch that "As you've correctly noted, at this time the individual is not a Princeton University employee. We will review all available information and determine next steps."
LaCour's only comment on the issue so far has been these tweets, which also appear as a statement on his website.