Doubts About Study of Gay Canvassers Rattles the Field. In other words, "GAYS CAUGHT LYING AGAIN & AGAIN!"

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S. Downey

Jun 14, 2015, 6:21:36 AM6/14/15
He was a graduate student who seemingly had it all: drive, a big
idea and the financial backing to pay for a sprawling study to
test it.

In 2012, as same-sex marriage advocates were working to build
support in California, Michael LaCour, a political science
researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked a
critical question: Can canvassers with a personal stake in an
issue — in this case, gay men and women — actually sway voters’
opinions in a lasting way?

He would need an influential partner to help frame, interpret
and place into context his findings — to produce an
authoritative scientific answer. And he went to one of the
giants in the field, Donald P. Green, a Columbia University
professor and co-author of a widely used text on field

“I thought it was a very ambitious idea, so ambitious that it
might not be suitable for a graduate student,” said Dr. Green,
who signed on as a co-author of Mr. LaCour’s study in 2013. “But
it’s such an important question, and he was very passionate
about it.”

Last week, their finding that gay canvassers were in fact
powerfully persuasive with people who had voted against same-sex
marriage — published in December in Science, one of the world’s
leading scientific journals — collapsed amid accusations that
Mr. LaCour had misrepresented his study methods and lacked the
evidence to back up his findings.

On Tuesday, Dr. Green asked the journal to retract the study
because of Mr. LaCour’s failure to produce his original data.
Mr. LaCour declined to be interviewed, but has said in
statements that he stands by the findings.

The case has shaken not only the community of political
scientists but also public trust in the way the scientific
establishment vets new findings. It raises broad questions about
the rigor of rules that guide a leading academic’s oversight of
a graduate student’s research and of the peer review conducted
of that research by Science.

New, previously unreported details have emerged that suggest
serious lapses in the supervision of Mr. LaCour’s work. For
example, Dr. Green said he had never asked Mr. LaCour to detail
who was funding their research, and Mr. LaCour’s lawyer has told
Science that Mr. LaCour did not pay participants in the study
the fees he had claimed.

Dr. Green, who never saw the raw data on which the study was
based, said he had repeatedly asked Mr. LaCour to post the data
in a protected databank at the University of Michigan, where
they could be examined later if needed. But Mr. LaCour did not.

“It’s a very delicate situation when a senior scholar makes a
move to look at a junior scholar’s data set,” Dr. Green said.
“This is his career, and if I reach in and grab it, it may seem
like I’m boxing him out.”

But Dr. Ivan Oransky, A co-founder of “Retraction Watch,” which
first published news of the allegations and Dr. Green’s
retraction request, said, “At the end of the day he decided to
trust LaCour, which was, in his own words, a mistake.”

Many of the most contentious particulars of how the study was
conducted are not yet known, and Mr. LaCour said he would
produce a “definitive” accounting by the end of next week.
Science has published an expression of concern about the study
and is considering retracting it, said Marcia McNutt, editor in

“Given the negative publicity that has now surrounded this paper
and the concerns that have been raised about its
irreproducibility, I think it would be in Michael LaCour’s best
interest to agree to a retraction of the paper as swiftly as
possible,” she said in an interview on Friday. “Right now he’s
going to have such a black cloud over his head that it’s going
to haunt him for the rest of his days.”

Only three months ago he posted on Facebook that he would soon
be moving across country for his “dream job” as a professor at
Princeton. That future could now be in doubt. A Princeton
spokesman, Martin Mbugua, noting that Mr. LaCour was not yet an
employee there, said, “We will review all available information
and determine the next steps.”

Critics said the intense competition by graduate students to be
published in prestigious journals, weak oversight by academic
advisers and the rush by journals to publish studies that will
attract attention too often led to sloppy and even unethical
research methods. The now disputed study was covered by The New
York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal,
among others.

“You don’t get a faculty position at Princeton by publishing
something in the Journal Nobody-Ever-Heard-Of,” Dr. Oransky
said. Is being lead author on a big study published in Science
“enough to get a position in a prestigious university?” he
asked, then answered: “They don’t care how well you taught. They
don’t care about your peer reviews. They don’t care about your
collegiality. They care about how many papers you publish in
major journals.”

The details that have emerged about the flaws in the research
have prompted heated debate among scientists and policy makers
about how to reform the current system of review and
publication. This is far from the first such case.

The scientific community’s system for vetting new findings,
built on trust, is poorly equipped to detect deliberate
misrepresentations. Faculty advisers monitor students’ work, but
there are no standard guidelines governing the working
relationship between senior and junior co-authors.

The reviewers at journals may raise questions about a study’s
methodology or data analysis, but rarely have access to the raw
data itself, experts said. They do not have time; they are
juggling the demands of their own work, and reviewing is
typically unpaid.

In cases like this one — with the authors on opposite sides of
the country — that trust allowed Mr. LaCour to work with little

“It is simply unacceptable for science to continue with people
publishing on data they do not share with others,” said Uri
Simonsohn, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the
University of Pennsylvania. “Journals, funding agencies and
universities must begin requiring that data be publicly

Mr. LaCour met Dr. Green at a summer workshop on research
methods in Ann Arbor, Mich., that is part education, part
pilgrimage for young scientists. Dr. Green is a co-author of the
textbook “Field Experiments: Design, Analysis and
Interpretation.” He has published more than 100 papers, on
topics like campaign finance and party affiliation, and is one
of the most respected proponents of rigorous analysis and data
transparency in social science.

He is also known to offer younger researchers a hand up.

“If it is an interesting question, Don is interested,” said
Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of
Virginia who has collaborated with Dr. Green.

Mr. LaCour, whose résumé mentions a stint as the University of
Texas Longhorns’ mascot “Hook Em” as well as an impressive list
of academic honors, approached Dr. Green after class at the
workshop one day with his idea.

His proposal was intriguing. Previous work had found that
standard campaign tactics — ads, pamphleteering, conventional
canvassing — did not alter core beliefs in a lasting way. Mr.
LaCour wanted to test canvassing done by people who would
personally be affected by the outcome of the vote.

His timing was perfect. The Los Angeles LGBT Center, after
losing the fight over Proposition 8, which barred same-sex
marriage in California, was doing just this sort of work in
conservative parts of the county and wanted to see if it was
effective. Dave Fleischer, director of the center’s leadership
lab, knew Dr. Green and had told him of the center’s innovative
canvassing methods.

“Don said we were in luck because there was a Ph.D. candidate
named Mike LaCour who was interested in doing an experiment,”
Mr. Fleischer said.

Money seemed ample for the undertaking — and Dr. Green did not
ask where exactly it was coming from.

“Michael said he had hundreds of thousands in grant money, and,
yes, in retrospect, I could have asked about that,” Dr. Green
said. “But it’s a delicate matter to ask another scholar the
exact method through which they’re paying for their work.”

Dr. McNutt said that for Dr. Green to be “in a situation where
he’s so distant from the student that he would have so little
opportunity to really keep tabs on what was happening with him
and with this data set — it’s just not a good situation.”

The canvassing was done rigorously, Mr. Fleischer said. The LGBT
Center sent people into neighborhoods that had voted against
same-sex marriage, including Boyle Heights, South Central and
East Los Angeles. The voters were randomly assigned to either
gay or straight canvassers, who were trained to engage them
respectfully in conversation.

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.

Mr. LaCour told Dr. Green that the response rate was high
because he was paying respondents to participate, a common and
accepted practice. After he told that Dr. Green a second run of
the experiment had produced similar results, Dr. Green signed on.

Mr. Fleischer said that sometime during the project, “Mike had
the strong opinion that we would find that the gay canvassers
were doing much better.”

Mr. Fleischer said he was doubtful that would be the result,
noting that same-sex marriage advocates differ on whether gay or
straight people are better at persuading opponents.

The LaCour-Green findings electrified some in the field. Joshua
Kalla, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California,
Berkeley, saw the study presented before it was published.

“It was very exciting, and partly because it wasn’t just
theoretical, it was something that could be applied in
campaigns,” he said.

He and a fellow student, David Broockman, who will soon be an
assistant professor at Stanford, decided to test the very same
approach on another political issue, also working with the Los
Angeles LGBT Center. Mr. Fleischer of the center said the issue
was transgender equality in Florida. Mr. Kalla and Dr. Broockman
paid participants as they thought Mr. LaCour had, but their
response rate was only 3 percent.

“We started to wonder, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ ” Mr. Kalla
said. “Our response rate was so low, compared to his.”

There are now serious questions about whether Mr. LaCour
achieved the high response rate he claimed. He has acknowledged
that he did not pay participants as he had claimed, according to
Dr. Green and Dr. McNutt, the Science editor in chief.

In a letter that he sent through his lawyer, Dr. McNutt said,
Mr. LaCour said he had instead allowed participants the chance
to win an iPad, saying “that was incentive enough.” Dr. McNutt
said the supposed payments had convinced the reviewers that the
response rate was as high as the study reported.

Dr. Green asked Mr. LaCour for the raw data after the study came
under fire. Mr. LaCour said in the letter to Dr. McNutt that he
erased the raw data months ago, “to protect those who answered
the survey,” Dr. McNutt said.

She said that it was possible some voters had responded to some
surveys, but that it was most likely that too few had done so to
provide enough data to reach persuasive conclusions.

Survey data comes in many forms, and the form that journal peer-
reviewers see and that appears with the published paper is the
“cleaned” and analyzed data. These are the charts, tables, and
graphs that extract meaning from the raw material — piles of
questionnaires, transcripts of conversations, “screen grabs” of
online forms. Many study co-authors never see the raw material.

Mr. Kalla, trying to find out why he and Dr. Broockman were
getting such a low response rate, called the survey company that
had been working with Mr. LaCour. The company, which he declined
to name, denied any knowledge of the project, he said.

“We were over at Dave’s place, and he was listening to my side
of the conversation, and when I hung up,” we just looked at each
other, he said. “Then we went right back into the data, because
we’re nerdy data guys and that’s what we do.”

On Saturday, they quickly found several other anomalies in Mr.
LaCour’s analysis and called their former instructor, Dr. Green.
Over the weekend, the three of them, with the help of an
assistant professor at Yale, Peter Aronow, discovered that
statistical manipulations could easily have accounted for the
findings. Dr. Green called Mr. LaCour’s academic adviser, Lynn
Vavreck, an associate professor, who confronted Mr. LaCour.

Dr. McNutt of Science said editors there were still grappling
with a decision on retracting.

“This has just hit us,” she said. “There will be a lot of time
for lessons learned. We’re definitely going to be thinking a lot
about this and what could have been done to prevent this from

Homosexuality is the sole mental illness removed from the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM, on
the basis of a voice popular vote with absolutely zero medical
and scientific evidence or peer review. The voice vote was
conducted by Dr. John P. Spiegel, the President-Elect of the
American Psychiatric Association in 1973, himself a closeted
homosexual with an attraction to young boys.  

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