Two aspiring political scientists exposed a widely referenced study, which maintained that homosexuals discussing gay marriage with citizens proved “capable of producing a cascade of opinion change,” as a total fraud.
Berkeley grad student Joshua Kalla and Stanford professor David Broockman, eager to add to the project with their own study, discovered that the survey firm identified in “When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment on Transmission of Support for Gay Equality” maintained “no familiarity with the project,” “never had an employee with the name of the staffer” believed as assisting the research, and “denied having the capabilities” to conduct such an endeavor.
The debunking unleashed myriad reactions, none as gleeful as the ones that greeted the initial study late last year.
“Perhaps he meticulously planned the whole thing with malice aforethought,” Duke sociologist Kieran Healy speculates about Michael LaCour, the gay UCLA Ph.D. accused of fabricating data. Widener University law professor John Culhane, lashing out at how he imagines conservatives will spin the news, argues at Politico.com that proof of the concoction merely “tells us… that the gay canvasser study should be tried again; properly, this time. Not that gay canvassers have no effect.”
Alternatively, social scientists might explore questions more germane to explaining the sudden shift, more apparent in judges than citizens, on gay marriage.
What happens to donations to traditional marriage initiatives when they result in job loss, let’s say from a tech company that produces a popular web browser, for one who gives to a ballot initiative protecting man-woman unions? Perhaps an experiment could focus on the effects of the mass media’s incessant, not-so-subliminal name calling—e.g., “bigot,” “homophobe,” “hater”—on public opinion. Or, maybe, researchers could study the rather straightforward cause-and-effect of how judges refusing to allow people to vote on the laws that govern them transform the laws that govern people—and ultimately the public’s views. Another alternative might be to gauge the uptick in support for gay marriage resulting from a small business owner—a baker, for instance, who refuses to cook up a wedding cake for a homosexual couple—losing her shop instead of her religious principles.
Codifying gay marriage has never been about canvassers, gay or straight, persuading Americans. Voters, after all, rejected same-sex marriage in California, Wisconsin, Oregon, and other blue states only to watch judges order them to embrace it. America’s evolution on gay marriage came as a conversion by the sword.
A gay guy’s door-to-door pitch influences voters on the question about as much as a front-porch visit from the neighborhood Jehovah Witness peddling a subscription to The Watchtower sways religious convictions. The discredited study’s fiction stemmed as much in its self-flattering hypothesis as it did in its groundless conclusion.
Ultimately, the fraudulent peer-reviewed study says more about the corruption of the media and academia than it does about the corruption of one activist professor. Journalists and professors ostensibly dedicated to the search for truth unravel the institutions they serve when they imagine themselves as already possessing the truth.
The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and other leading publications initially ran uncritical pieces on the research. Princeton hired Michael LaCour, the UCLA Ph.D. allegedly responsible for the faked data, as an assistant professor and Science published his co-authored article.
Would religiously driven academics who purported to discover amazing powers of persuasion in evangelical-Christian canvassers receive such fawning publicity and professional rewards?
We imagine science as disinterested, dispassionate, impartial, objective. The reality of science, particularly so-called social science, occasionally reveals biased partisans gathering data to support a predetermined conclusion. Surely a confirmation bias—hey, social science proved its existence, right?—afflicts partisans on all sides of every issue. But a booster press and colleges and universities seeing nothing problematic with interested parties posing as disinterested researchers ensure a pass to the favored side of questions.
In defense of academia, two young social scientists, whose Twitter feeds betray a decidedly left-wing bent, exposed the faked data. And it’s not as though faith in “When Contact Changes Minds” lasted as long as Piltdown Man, I Rigoberta Menchu, the Kinsey Reports, or other once-widely-believed frauds. But hoodwinker Michael LaCour gets an A for effort. Whether Princeton allows him to grade the efforts of its students this fall, or the hoax plays as a cautionary tale for the rest of academia, remains to be seen.