News broke recently of very serious concerns about the data in a high-profile political science study. Not to put too fine of a point on it, it now appears that a UCLA graduate student and rising star in political science, Michael LaCour, fabricated data nearly out of whole cloth. These data led to a surprising, widely-cited finding about the ability of relatively minor sympathetic contact to change attitudes toward LGBT people over the medium term. The original article is here, a very careful forensic investigation that revealed the likely fabrication is here, and Retraction Watch has a timeline and many relevant links here. This post is intended in part as an open thread for conversation about the article, its lessons, and the retraction. A few thoughts to begin:
- Kieran points out that Andrew Gelman noted in December the size of the effect and expressed surprise at it. Gelman proposed an apt theory for explaining that size (I like the “jumping on a moving train” metaphor).
- In retrospect, people are suggesting that greater a priori suspicion is in order. LaCour’s coauthor says he is “deeply embarrassed” (and who wouldn’t be?), and says he should have looked at the original data. On Twitter:I have to say, I don’t think it’s reasonable to have to guard against blatant falsification (assuming that’s what this turns out to be).
- Psychological social psychology and political psychology, as fields, share a fetish for big effects of isolated causes with cute narratives (think about Larry Sanna’s infamous escalator-and-altruism study). This is a particularly egregious version of publication bias, because in general the social world doesn’t work that way. Most of the time, large aggregate changes (such as the secular increase in support for LGBT rights, which still needs explanation) are not the result of specific, isolated causes, but those are precisely the things that lead to advancement in these fields.
- I find myself feeling bad for LaCour (whom I don’t know at all, by the way). His heretofore very promising career looks a lot less promising now (as it should). I wonder what led to this kind of misconduct. Kieran, again (jeez, he’s insightful):
I wonder about the psychology of fraud. Is it like a student plagiarist who only wants a B & suddenly horrified their paper has won a prize?
— Kieran Healy (@kjhealy) May 20, 2015
This research was part of his dissertation. Which means that the dissertation, other published work, and future research will all be subject to intense scrutiny. Again, not that it’s unwarranted, but poor guy.
- All this presumes that the situation is as it currently seems. LaCour is implying he thinks it isn’t: