NY Magazine has the best summary of the LaCour affair. This is the recent case of a study published by a graduate student that showed the effectiveness of gay & lesbian survey-takers of persuading people to support marriage equality…which has since been found to consist of falsified data. The article summarizes how the study was exposed, and there were grounds for suspicion long before the news broke. Reading the protocols and doing a little math, for instance, revealed that this graduate student had apparently paid out about a million dollars for this survey. And it just unraveled from there.
Once the pieces of the puzzle were exposed, the problem was obvious. But why were people reluctant to question the results? This bit was telling:
But even before Broockman, Kalla, and Aronow published their report, LaCour’s results were so impressive that, on their face, they didn’t make sense. Jon Krosnick, a Stanford social psychologist who focuses on attitude change and also works on issues of scientific transparency, says that he hadn’t heard about the study until he was contacted by a “This American Life” producer who described the results to him over the phone. “Gee,” he replied, “that’s very surprising and doesn’t fit with a huge literature of evidence. It doesn’t sound plausible to me.” A few clicks later, Krosnick had pulled up the paper on his computer. “Ah,” he told the producer, “I see Don Green is an author. I trust him completely, so I’m no longer doubtful.” (Some people I spoke to about this case argued that Green, whose name is, after all, on the paper, had failed in his supervisory role. I emailed him to ask whether he thought this was a fair assessment. “Entirely fair,” he responded. “I am deeply embarrassed that I did not suspect and discover the fabrication of the survey data and grateful to the team of researchers who brought it to my attention.” He declined to comment further for this story.)
This isn’t just a problem with political science, or academia, or atheism — it’s people in general. Once a monkey is declared king, all the other monkeys stop thinking.