Researchers Debunk Same-Sex Marriage Study, Saying There's No Data to Back It

The study was hailed as a revelation, giving activists hope that a long talk with a gay person could change a homophobe's mind. Now a coauthor wants it retracted.

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May 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

A headline-making study claiming that just having brief conversations with gay political canvassers could change the minds of same-sex-marriage opponents is being disavowed by one of its authors.

The study was originally published in the journal Science in December, and TakePart and other national publications, including The New York Times, reported the findings.

At the time, the findings were hailed as a win in the fight for same-sex-marriage rights because they seemed to promise that focused change was possible in some hard-to-change attitudes. Just this week polls showed that 60 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage—an all-time high—and these nuptials are now legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

If the study were correct, in theory a 20-minute conversation with a homosexual could change the mind of someone who falls into the remaining 40 percent of Americans who don't support same-sex marriage. That has turned out to be a big if.

On Tuesday, study coauthor and Columbia University political scientist Donald Green wrote a letter to Science calling for a retraction, saying coauthor Michael LaCour's "failure to produce the raw data coupled with the other concerns noted (in a report linked below) undermines the credibility of the findings. I am deeply embarrassed by this turn of events and apologize to the editors, reviewers, and readers of Science."

Problems arose with the study in recent days, as Green saw the basis of his headline-making report crumble in the hands of other political scientists who tried to replicate his results. This past weekend, Green says he received a report from two University of California, Berkeley, graduate students detailing concerns that the study was inadequate.

Green brought their report to the attention of LaCour's graduate adviser at the University of California, Los Angeles, "who confronted him with these allegations on Monday morning, whereupon it was discovered that the on-line survey data that Michael LaCour purported to collect could not be traced to any originating Qualtrics source files. He claimed that he deleted the source file accidentally, but a Qualtrics service representative who examined the account... found no evidence of such a deletion."

There also isn't a paper trail at UCLA of LaCour paying for the survey to be completed, according to Green.

For his part, LaCour has promised a full response, saying, "I'm gathering evidence and relevant information so I can provide a single comprehensive response. I will do so at my earliest opportunity."

Science hasn't yet retracted the study—it has published an "Editorial Expression of Concern" to alert the scientific community that questions have arisen.

In a statement on Wednesday, Science Editor in Chief Marcia McNutt thanked the scientists who tried to replicate the experiment and reported problems.

"No peer review process is perfect, and in fact it is very difficult for peer reviewers to detect artful fraud. Fortunately, science is a self-correcting process; researchers publish work in the scholarly literature so that it can be further scrutinized, replicated, confirmed, rebutted or corrected. This is the way science advances."