Science retracts troubled gay canvassing study against LaCour’s objections

science coverFollowing revelations of data issues and other problems (which crashed our server last week), Science is retracting a paper claiming that short conversations could change people’s minds on same-sex marriage.

The co-author who admitted to faking the data “does not agree” to the retraction, according to Science. Here’s more from the note:

Science, with the concurrence of author Donald P. Green, is retracting the 12 December 2014 Report “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality” by LaCour and Green ( 1 ).

The reasons for retracting the paper are as follows: (i) Survey incentives were misrepresented. To encourage participation in the survey, respondents were claimed to have been given cash payments to enroll, to refer family and friends, and to complete multiple surveys. In correspondence received from Michael J. LaCour’s attorney, he confirmed that no such payments were made. (ii) The statement on sponsorship was false. In the Report, LaCour acknowledged funding from the Williams Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Per correspondence from LaCour’s attorney, this statement was not true.

In addition to these known problems, independent researchers have noted certain statistical irregularities in the responses ( 2 ). LaCour has not produced the original survey data from which someone else could independently confirm the validity of the reported findings.

Michael J. LaCour does not agree to this Retraction.

As LaCour told us last week, he told ScienceInsider he plans to reveal his side of the story shortly:

In an email exchange yesterday with ScienceInsider, LaCour promised to provide a full “report” in his defense. LaCour said he is “doing [his] best to finish as quickly as possible.”

[Update, 10 p.m. Eastern, 5/29/15: LaCour has posted his response.]

Here’s more background:

Science had issued an “expression of concern” about the study on May 20.

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27 thoughts on “Science retracts troubled gay canvassing study against LaCour’s objections”

  1. The role of Donald Green is puzzling here. As the only other author, it was his task to check what he and LaCour were actually submitting to Science.
    Imagine you are an eminent professor. A PhD student you don’t know comes up to you and says: I have hundreds of thousands in funding, I have a big research project already up and running somewhere, and now, look, here are the cool results which every major journal will actually fight for and which will catapult us into world’s news for weeks and months!
    Well, would you ask any questions in the place of the professor? Like: show me your funding, show me your data? Actually, yes, even if it meant scaring the PhD student away and losing that hot results, a scientists should always rely on facts and not wishful thinking.

    1. These aren’t hard scientists…This is Political Science number-crunching, which the journal should probably stay away from in any case.

    2. I agree that Professor Green’s role in all this hasn’t been given as much attention as LaCour’s, but I don’t think you accurately characterized Green and LaCour’s relationship, at least from what I understood in the reports that have been published. My understanding is that the two of them met at a workshop Green may have helped organize and where Green presented on how to conduct the type of experiment LaCour claimed he did in the Science paper. That’s where they initially spoke, and I believe LaCour followed up with the plan for the study he wanted to conduct, and I believe that was Green’s role: to validate the design study and make it appropriate to answering the research question LaCour proposed. His authorship comes from the fact he gave the workshop and helped with the design of the experiment.

      Later, LaCour presented pilot data to Green which he found impressive, but he was unwilling to help author the work without a larger replication. Once LaCour provided more data demonstrating the effect, Green was convinced it was real and helped write the methods and interpretation sections of the manuscript. Green’s error was believing the experiments were carried out according to the design he’d helped LaCour make. Given he had no reason at the time to suspect his design hadn’t been followed, and given he and LaCour were not at the same institution, it doesn’t strike me as terribly odd he didn’t smell a rat until the students at Stanford contacted him. Comparing Green’s response to LaCour’s, I don’t see any reason to suspect wrong doing on his part, just a little too much faith in LaCour, who if the latest reports coming out are true has at least some skill at deception. I have a feeling Green will nonetheless be taking a much closer look in the future at data he hasn’t collected himself.

      1. This study made some extrordinary claims. It was supported by extraodinary statistical results.

        Professor Green should have given it some extraordinary attention before putting his name to it.

  2. I have never had a high opinion of so called “soft science”. Richard Feynman already warned of the charlatans that practice it 30 years ago .

    Hard science is the only science that matters, in my opinion. It derives its prestige from the fact that the laws of nature are both unchangeable and mathematical. When studying a reality with these characteristics, the scientific method is the best tool available: you make an educated hypothesis, design a falsifiable experiment to test the hypothesis in measurable ways, test the hypothesis, then go on doing falsifiable experiments until one fails. If no such experiment fails, you have learned something. The laws produced through this method have predictive power and allow humanity to design planes, cars, the internet, cures to cancer, you name it.

    Social science is just cargo cult science and should not be given any kind of deference.

      1. Leonid, I presume that you want to put religion into the same field as science? I happen to be both a Christian and a chemist but I would never presume to put my ideas about one area into the other, simply because they don’t cover the same topics.

        Now, if you wish to make them the same, you end up with “scientism”, which is essentially cargo-cult science as it is neither science nor religion.

        1. Tony: On the other hand, there is a growing body of cognitive science research on ‘religion’ and religious beliefs and practices.

          1. I’ll refer you to the work of Scott Atran or Pascal Boyer — their research explores how the evolution of cognition conditions humans for belief in supernatural beings and forces through hyperactive agency detection, for example — and research by others on cost signalling and prosocial behavior. The starting point has a Durkheimian quality: every culture around the world has religious beliefs, but those beliefs are so radically different in so many ways that they cannot be based on empirical observation. Instead, human cognition must possess some feature that conditions us to create and accept supernatural accounts of phenomena, supernatural beings, supernatural forces, etc. Presumably these features of cognition also have some adaptive advantage (e.g. prosociality or cost signalling), but that gets into the realm of evolutionary psychology rather than cognitive science per se…

        2. sorry for delayed reply. I am an atheist, as you might have guessed. Christian religion postulates certain dogmas which contradict our knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology: basically everything which includes a god and an immortal soul. But this is an entirely different discussion. I only wish to say the excerpting religious dogmas from verification by scientific methods, while dismissing social sciences as non-scientific, is not logical, to an atheist at least.

    1. It is interesting to note that Feynman used a term from anthropology to convey his point.

      It is also interesting that one example of cargo cult science that Feynman used in his book comes from a “hard science”, the famous electron charge experiments slowly drifting away from Millikan’s original value towards the actual value.

    2. 30 years ago? That would have been around the time John Darsee was caught faking data in cardiology research.

      The puzzling aspect of the comment that “Hard science is the only science that matters” is that humans act, think, form social groups, grow food, engage in conflict, fall in love, and do all of those other “soft” things that are hard to measure and understand, but which impact our lives every minute of every hour of every day. Christian Scientist doesn’t explain why it’s not important to try to understand those aspects of human life — I use ‘understand’ in Weber’s sense, distinguishing it from the kind of explanations possible in hard sciences — except that their subjects are changeable and hard to quantify. That’s not a rationale for rejecting “soft” sciences, merely an acknowledgement of their difficulty and complexity.

      1. Because these so called “social sciences” deal with subjective realities, not with the objective, unchangeable reality that makes the scientific method appropriate. They confuse measurement with laws. Just because you measure that X% of people prefer chocolate vs coffee at a given time and in a give society it doesn’t mean that there is some profound law, like the law of gravity, that explains it and that you will be able to predict always whether a particular individual prefers chocolate to coffee. We are free willed individuals who can change our minds about many things at any given time.

    3. “the scientific method is the best tool available: you make an educated hypothesis, design a falsifiable experiment to test the hypothesis in measurable ways, test the hypothesis, then go on doing falsifiable experiments until one fails. If no such experiment fails, you have learned something”

      This is what social scientists do. It’s not as simple as physics — protons don’t have preferences — but it’s the same structure of inquiry.

      1. But the “reality” that social scientists attempt to uncover isn’t immutable, so their findings are at best snapshots with little to no predictive power.

        The scientific method works marvels to find immutable laws. When the underlying mechanisms are constantly changing then the scientific method is not so good to understand the underlying reality. In the case of humans, we have free will so things can change and do change when studying groups of humans interacting. I am not saying that there isn’t any value in measuring these things but I take issue though with the notion that social science can find laws that model social behavior in the same way Einstein was able to develop the law of General Relativity. It simply can’t.

  3. Didn’t he promise a response by today? Maybe the investigation at UCLA & his lawyer are preventing him from saying anything. But the articles about how his funding / awards are fake don’t look good.

  4. To the different comments on the religion red herring: I agree with Tony Mitchell. Oxford Mathematician John Lennox has dealt with this issue extensively. I remain unimpressed by works like the aforementioned by Scott Atran or Pascal Boyer. “How” is not the same as “why”. For instance, explaining how gravity works is not the same as explaining why gravity (or the universe for that matter) exist to begin with and why the laws of the universe follow mathematical laws that can be understood by our minds.

    I encourage people to read John Lennox’s website but if you don’t have the time, he does a good job summarizing his arguments in this 15 minute video . You’ll find Richard Dawkins among those in attendance.

    1. Fair enough, but many of these “why” questions are scientifically vacuous. It’s easy to assume that our human desire for “why” answers means that there are such answers. Fodder for philosophers, perhaps, but not the realm of science.

      1. Exactly. That’s the role Christianity plays in my worldview. It “adds” to the scientific view of nature, it does not substract from it.

      2. I know I am asking for trouble but what’s wrong with asking why? For me, that is a central part of 1) our humanity and 2) our consciousness. Granted, it doesn’t fall into the realm of science and as you pointed out, it is the realm of philosophers, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

        Back in 2008, I posted a piece on my blog that concerned a conversation a student of mine and I had about belief in God (“A Particular Moment In Time” – His comment/statement was, essentially, that we had outgrown the need for God. I pointed out in my post (and briefly in the conversation) that mankind “invented” gods (not the case please) to explain natural phenomena but that as we learned more and more about what was going on in the world, these “gods” disappeared. But that never eliminated the need for “why” questions, such as “why is there good and evil?” Some will say that good and evil are inherent in each one of us, which would make it genetic. The search for the good/evil gene would surely be scientific but would we want to know that such a gene existed? What would we do with that information?

        Or does the source of that information come from somewhere else? If it did, then it is clearly not within the realm of science but still open to debate and discussion.

        And with regards to debate and discussion, I would suggest that if we are to continue this discussion, we can do it on my blog through the piece that I have indicated above. I have a newer piece (posted in 2013) that links to this piece as well (“Removing the Veil” – Everyone is welcome to post their thoughts on this topic on either posts and we will go from there.

  5. Wow, it’s amazing how the retraction appears to place the entire blame on LaCour. Is Donald Green not to accept any responsibility here? He is happy to take credit when his name appears in Science, but when the retraction comes he tries to quickly wipe his hands clean? As the senior scientist here with a graduate student on a two author paper, Green is arguably MORE culpable than LaCour. Whilst LaCour bears a lot of the responsibility here, Green has clearly been revealed as an incompetent manager and scientist. Or are we to truly believe he was just a victim?

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