Did UCLA grad student lie about pro-gay study?

Doubts about research rattle the field
Donald P. Green, left, a co-author of a challenged study by Michael LaCour, right, from Mr. LaCour’s Facebook page.

Donald P. Green, left, a co-author of a challenged study by Michael LaCour, right. (photo from Mr. LaCour’s Facebook page).

The following comes from a May 25 New York Times article by Benedict Carey and Pam Bullock:

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 experiments.

“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.”

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.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center sent canvassers into neighborhoods that had voted against same-sex marriage. Mr. LaCour’s job was to track voters’ attitudes over time using a tool called the “feelings thermometer.” (photo: Emily Berl for The New York Times)

The Los Angeles LGBT Center sent canvassers into neighborhoods that had voted against same-sex marriage. Mr. LaCour’s job was to track voters’ attitudes over time using a tool called the “feelings thermometer.” (photo: Emily Berl for The New York Times)

Mr. LaCour approached Dr. Green after class at summer workshop on research methods 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.”

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.

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.

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, a 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 happening.”

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  1. St. Christopher says:

    Sorry, but the HomoFascists lie as a work of honor. It is a classic means-end analysis (no, this likely had nothing to do with graduate studies). Sure there is pressure, sure there is cheating, but when something is accomplished by homosexual activists — say presiding over a trial on the constitutionality of a State petition, as with Judge Vaughn Walker — truth is lost.

    Does this mean all homosexuals lie? The answer is “no, but . . .” You will certainly get a lie out of active homosexuals unless they have decided to convert, and live a Catholic life. Yes, this does mean that society is well within its rights to limit homosexual involvement in many things. Should Judge Walker have recused himself? Of course.

    • Your Fellow Catholic says:

      What a ridiculous pack of nonsense. You realize that no judge has ever recused himself from cases in which straight issues are at stake right? That women judges do not and should not recuse themselves on sex-involved cases. That no Catholic judge has ever recused himself when Catholic morality questions come up. You get that, right?

      • Anonymous says:

        Those judges who have a vested interest – one of whom is openly gay, or married gays already should recuse themselves.

        • Your Fellow Catholic says:

          Your opinion, but the matter has been thoroughly litigated. It might have even gone so far as the Supreme Court (I”m certain it went to the ninth circuit). Judges are not instructed to recuse themselves unless they have a direct financial interest in a case, not some general benefit for entire classes of people. Should a man be allowed to sit as a judge in a case, say, about the right to obtain a vasectomy? Of course he should. Or a woman about abortion? Or a black judge about t civil rights law?

      • St. Christopher says:

        Homosexual sexual rights are very different, “YFC” (as you know). Homosexuals largely define themselves by their sexuality, which is blatantly obvious. They have even convinced many in the German Catholic Church that there is something “holy” and “grace-filled” about their sodomy.

        Because of this, many (?most?) homosexuals are simply unable to escape from their Pavlovian response to work, recreating, religion, anything, stimuli without barking about their “sexuality” and about how they are discriminated against.

        There are other offenses, of course, such as Justice Ginsburg, a long time counsel for pro-abortion forces sitting on abortion rights cases. But no where is there any parallel to a judge, himself a sodomite,…

        • St. Christopher says:

          (continued), “judging issues which concern is his core definition. It is like trusting Satan to be a baby-sitter. There are many occupations that could exclude homosexual sexualists, and should, if they involve the proximity of children, or religious functions, or education. Get serious, “YFC”, this is serious.

    • St. Peter says:

      1) The men who actually exposed the study to be fraudulent self-identify as gay. They self-identified as gay on the NPR show “On the Media.”

      2) When the original author of the study was asked by Ira Glass on “This American Life” if their technique could be used for an anti-abortion campaign they said that – though they were pro-choice – it could be used for both conservatives as well as liberals and was not an ideological study.

      3) Do homosexuals lie? Yes! Do heterosexuals lie? Yes as well. For instance, the faked studies that indicates “conversion-therapy”. Lying has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

      4) If society is well within it’s right of…

  2. John Patrick says:

    Actually, sociology is not science. Science is based upon empirical data, not subjective probabilistic theories which come to the conclusion that something is either the case or not the case. Why a so-called scientific journal would publish such nonsense is beyond me. They have no morality, no regard for truth based upon actual scientific evidence.

  3. Anonymous says:

    No matter what man may say, we must always rely on
    Sacred Scripture and also the
    Doctrine of the Faith contained in the
    “Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition” (aka CCC; 1997; dark green cover in the USA).

    Sacred Scripture and Doctrine of the Faith:
    Gen 19:1-29; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:10; Jude 1:7.
    CCC: # 2357, 2358, 2359, & 2396.
    ———–
    For more info on the CCC including quotes from our Popes, go to’
    ” What Catholics REALLY Believe SOURCE:
    http://whatcatholicsreallybelieve.com/

  4. Anonymous says:

    We sin regarding the Sins of others when – aiding or abetting –

    CCC: ” 1868 Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:
    – by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
    – by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
    – by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
    – by protecting evil-doers. ”

    It is not pastoral, charitable, or merciful to – ignore, confirm, or approve mortal sins of any kind.

    Assisting in sending (unrepentant) Souls to Hell is not an option – it’s the work of the devil – a mortal sin in itself.
    CCC: ” 2326 Scandal is a grave offense when by deed or omission it deliberately leads others…

  5. mike magee says:

    The unknowable hypothetical is: Given Judge Walker recused himself, would another judge rendered a different opinion?

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes many judges have come to exactly the same conclusion, and the prop8 case itself was appealed first to walkers successor after walker had retired, then to a ninth circuit panel of judges

  6. Anonymous says:
  7. Anonymous says:
  8. juergensen says:

    Sodomites live a lie. For the truth about sodomites, read these:

    http://www.tinyurl.com/HomoAbusers

    http://www.tinyurl.com/SodomiteMyths (don’t miss Myth No. 8!)

    • Your Fellow Catholic says:

      juergensen, the “sodomite myths” is itself a lie, as has been demonstrated over and over to you and others on this site, yet you continue to push it. Also, your readers should know that the head of the lobbying arm for the organization that you cite is the same Mr. Duggars who has been revealed to be a serial child molestor of young girls.

      • Anonymous says:

        HOMOSEXUAL ACTS –

        SACRED SCRIPTURE: Gen 19:1-29; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:9-10;
        1 Tim 1:10; Jude 1:7.

        DOCTRINE of the FAITH: CCC – 2357, 2358, 2359, 2396.

      • Canisius says:

        YFC Truths are still Truths even if you do not like them…

        • Your Fellow Catholic says:

          Canisius, I know you are a busy guy, so perhaps you didn’t ever get to read the proof that the “myths” that juergensen posts are, in fact, lies about gay people. It is a sin to lie, so if you spread lies that you know or should know are lies, then you are guilty of sin: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2010/winter/10-myths

        • Catherine says:

          Canisius is right. “Truths are still Truths.” Also, what Josh Duggar did as a teenager was very very wrong and he has admitted it. Josh Duggar does not even have the fullness of the faith and yet even with Josh Duggar’s past public record of sincere repentance YFC is inferring that God should not forgive anyone for their past sins. When the very repentant sounding poster named Mark F, shared his repentance for his past transgressions he was not attacked for turning over a new leaf. Mark F. was encouraged and commended for striving to avoid sinful acts. How extremely frightful for the soul of YFC who is not a teenager but an adult who openly proclaims his love of promoting mortal sins and attacking those who repent of them.

          • Anonymous says:

            This is a general question-not specific to the Duggars.
            So do you think a non-Catholic Christian can be forgiven for mortal sins without going to confession?

      • St. Christopher says:

        Actually, ‘juergensen” is correct.

        Sodomy, a detestable sin beyond almost all others, brings with it a stable of other evils, including the strong tendency towards sexual sins against male children, doing anything to avoid liability and to advance its sexual agenda, and hatred of institutions of normalcy: church, family, school, and Christian fellowship. All of these must adopt the multi-colored flag or be destroyed.

        Homosexual sex is a heresy against the ordering of Mankind by God. Too bad so many Catholic priests and bishops like and tolerate homosexual sex. They need to go, as do all homosexual sexualists that refuse to repent.

        • Your Fellow Catholic says:

          Homosexual sex is not a heresy. Where do you get such crap?

          • yfc, what ever the case. Men having relations with men and women having relations with women is an ABOMINATION!

  9. A millstone weighs about 2000 lbs., it would be better to have one of those tied about your neck than to lead even one of His little one astray. God have mercy on us all.

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