The now-discredited study got headlines because it offered hope. It seemed to prove that our sense of empathy, our basic humanity, could overcome prejudice and bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences. It was heartwarming, and it was utter bunkum. The good news is that this particular case of scientific fraud isn’t going to do much damage to anyone but the people who concocted and published the study. The bad news is that the alleged deception is a symptom of a weakness at the heart of the scientific establishment.
The study in question was the brainchild of Michael LaCour, a graduate student at UCLA, along with Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University. Using surveys, they showed that a 20-minute conversation with a gay person would soften the hearts of opponents to same-sex marriage. The simple act of putting a face on an issue could begin to dissolve abstract ideology and entrenched hostility. When it was published in Science magazine last December, the research attracted academic as well as media attention; it seemed to provide solid evidence that increasing contact between minority and majority groups could reduce prejudice.
But earlier this month, other researchers tried to reproduce the study using the same methods, and failed. Upon closer examination, they uncovered a number of devastating “irregularities” — statistical quirks and troubling patterns — that strongly implied that the whole LaCour/Green study was based upon made-up data.
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Source Credits: Charles Seife in Los Angeles Times