Is study on people's opinion on same-sex marriage cooked up?

The reputed Science Magazine has retracted a widely publicised study that contended people’s opinion on gay marriage could be swayed after brief face-to-face conversations with people having a stake in the matter.
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Updated on May 31, 2015 12:21 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByHarikrishnan Nair, New Delhi

The reputed Science Magazine has retracted a widely publicised study that contended people’s opinion on gay marriage could be swayed after brief face-to-face conversations with people having a stake in the matter.

The study, “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality,” published in December 2014 was authored by Michael J LaCour, a political science PhD student at the University of California, and Donald P Green, a political science professor at Columbia University.

Previous research suggested that no matter how well a person might have argued the case, shifting a person’s political opinion was almost impossible. A person might succeed for a short while, but eventually people return to their original beliefs.

LaCour and Green’s study contended this was not true. They claimed that once canvassers had done their job in their study, the shift in opinion among respondents persisted for months.

The results were remarkable and received much attention, including from The New York Times and Washington Post. Jesse Singal wrote in Science of Us, “It rerouted countless researchers’ agendas, inspired activists to change their approach to voter outreach, generated shifts in grant funding, and launched follow-up experiments.”

But a close scrutiny by students David Broockman, Josh Kalla and political scientist Peter Aronnow showed how LaCour had not even conducted a survey for the study.

uSamp, the company hired to do the survey, told Broockman, Kalla and Aronnow that it was impossible for them to do the survey.
How then did LaCour manage it? Simple. He apparently cooked it all up.

They accused LaCour of blatantly lifting data from a Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project (CCAP). When Broockman contacted uSamp, the company confirmed that neither could it do the survey nor did an employee named Jason Peterson, who apparently kept in touch with LaCour, work with the company at any time.

Science reported that Green contacted the magazine and requested the retraction after the irregularities was brought to his notice. Reportedly, when Green requested the raw survey data, LaCour refused on the grounds that he had destroyed it “in the interest of institutional requirement”.

“In addition to these known problems, independent researchers have noted certain statistical irregularities in the responses,” Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt wrote.

“LaCour has not produced the original survey data from which someone else could independently confirm the validity of the reported findings."
On May 29, Michael J LaCour responded to the allegations on his website. He admitted the shortcomings and apologised for lying about the methodology of the study but said he stood by the study’s findings.

He admitted to have cooked up much of the funding sources to give the study credibility. What he did instead was lotteries as incentives to participate in the study.

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