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The popular radio show and podcast This American Life recently publicized what appeared to be an astounding piece of research that was published in the journal Science: two political scientists named Michael LaCour and Donald Green sent out thousands of surveys to gauge people’s opinions on various issues. They then had the university’s LGBT club knock on the survey respondents’ doors and have 20-minute conversations. The researchers said they found that those people were incredibly likely to change their minds on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion, even up to a year later.
It turns out it was too incredible to be true: two other researchers, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, tried to replicate the study and found that things weren’t adding up. For a start, the data was too perfect. The responses people gave never deviated from the norm in a natural way. That was a red flag, but the game was over when they realized they weren’t getting the thousands of responses that the other researchers claimed to get, so they called the survey company that Brookman and Kalla suspected the other team had used. That firm said they had never heard of the first researchers, but more than that they said the techniques used in the study were not ones they had the capability to do.
Now, the lead author on the first study, LaCour, who is a grad student, is claiming he never actually paid the survey respondents as he promised but the data is real and he’ll reveal it at some future point in time.
The other author, Green, says that LaCour hasn’t given him the raw data so he can’t verify the results. He’s threatening to ask Science to retract the paper.
Outlets are reporting this as being a case of truly next-level fraud on the part of LaCour, which by all accounts it is, considering the detailed excerpts of survey responses that he included in the paper and the hundreds of hours of work that were wasted on behalf of the LGBT canvassers, who did exist and did do the job they were asked.
But this is also the story of a serious problem in scientific research publishing – Green was a co-author on the paper and he needs to take the blame for this fraud as well. LaCour was a grad student, and Green was the prinicipal investigator, or PI. A good PI should have access to all the data already. The fact that Green is telling reporters that he had to ask LaCour for the data proves that he’s not doing his job, and the result is bad science.
So keep this incident in mind whenever we talk about the benefits of science. The system isn’t perfect because humans are involved at every stage, and humans are lazy assholes. For more examples, check out retractionwatch.com and remember that scientific truth isn’t ever about a single un-replicated study. And kudos to This American Life for correcting the record!