Donald P. Green, professor of political science at Columbia University, has requested a retraction of a study he co-authored with UCLA graduate student Michael LaCour. The study claimed that when voters were visited by canvassers promoting the legalization of same-sex marriage, they were profoundly more likely to change their minds if the canvassers were themselves gay-identified and shared their personal stories.
Green was contacted by two other researchers, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, who wanted to replicate the study, but they found discrepancies in the data when they attempted to do so. After investigating these irregularities — and after LaCour was unable to produce the original raw data to explain them — Green requested that the journal Science retract the study because the concerns “undermined the credibility of the findings.”
“I am deeply embarrassed by this turn of events,” Green said in his retraction, “and apologize to the editors, reviewers, and readers of Science.”
LaCour, for his part, has not publicly commented on the allegations. “I’m gathering evidence and relevant information,” he said on Twitter, “so I can provide a single comprehensive response. I will do so at my earliest opportunity.”
One of the things that made the study’s data suspicious is that they were just too good. They received national attention, and in fact, the popular radio show This American Life devoted a segment to the study just last month. Host Ira Glass penned a response to news of the retraction on Wednesday, saying of Broockman and Kalla, “How they figured it out is a great story in itself.”
“Green today told me if there was no survey data, what’s incredible is that LaCour produced all sorts of conclusions and evaluations of data that didn’t exist,” Glass wrote. He added that Green explained to him, “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.”
Brookman told Retraction Watch that there is something compelling about how “swift and transparent” the retraction has been. “The study’s findings had huge implications for people who were trying to advance the cause of equality and have changed how advocates do their work. Every minute we knew the truth and did not disclose it really was a lie by omission to the advocates out there.” In fact, the study’s canvassing model has been utilized in Ireland, where citizens will vote on a national referendum to legalize same-sex marriage this Friday.
The uninhibited response to the call for a retraction is in stark contrast to how conservatives have tirelessly defended any number of junk studies, like those purportedly demonstrating the viability of ex-gay therapy, the harms of affirming transgender people, or the consequences of same-sex parenting — even when those studies have been rejected by the consensus of medical and social science professionals. Mark Regnerus, who claimed his research found that children raised by gay parents had less favorable outcomes, is perhaps the best representation of this juxtaposition. His study has been scrutinized since its publication for the way he conflated the experiences of young people whose parents divorced with those raised from birth by same-sex couples, and just this month, researchers released a full new analysis of his data in the same journal in which it was originally published. Though his conclusions were thoroughly debunked by the new study, Regnerus stood by the structure of his study and his claims, asserting, “I was very clear about how I classified respondents.”
Despite Green’s insistence that the study bearing his name be retracted, he’s still optimistic about the results that could be found if actual data were collected. As he pointed out to Glass, “Just because the data don’t exist to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method of changing minds, doesn’t mean the hypothesis is false. And now the real work begins.”
Indeed, there’s a reason LaCour’s positive results were plausible. Polls over the years have consistently found that having a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian makes respondents substantially more likely to support legal recognition of same-sex marriages. Just this week, a Gallup poll found for the first time that a majority of Americans (51 percent) believe that people are born gay or lesbian, with only 30 percent believing sexual orientation is impacted by upbringing and environment. The polling on this question follows a nearly identical trend to the national polling momentum on support for marriage equality itself, which reached 60 percent in this week’s Gallup poll and has been similarly high in other polls.
This suggests that there is at least a correlation between understanding an LGBT person’s personal experience and supporting LGBT equality under the law, a fight that won’t end even if the Supreme Court rules for marriage equality this summer. As Mark Joseph Stern reasons at Slate, it’s a wake-up call that changing minds on these issues is not easy, a truth that counters the suggestions made by some judges and Justices that the LGBT community can easily achieve equality through the democratic process instead of relying on the protections of the Constitution. Even if LaCour fabricated his results, the question at the root of his study is one still worth researching.