Mixer: A groundbreaking study; but was it a fraud?

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friday mixer bannerUCLA graduate student Michael LaCour published a study in Science magazine last December, suggesting that people who opposed or were on the fence about same-sex marriage can be convinced – cajoled, coerced – to change their minds after having a conversation with a gay or lesbian canvasser.

And, the research suggested, those changed opinions lasted, and spread.

Here’s the scenario: Someone shows up at your door, asks you up front – on a scale of one to ten –what your opinion is on a social issue… you have a chat about it for a few minutes at the door… and then they ask for that number again.

And here’s why it’s a big deal: It was published in a major research journal, it’s been pointed to as an example of a big societal shift, and it’s been reported all over the place, including in a recent episode of public radio’s ‘This American Life’.

But other doctoral graduates and students at the University of California-Berkeley pointed out irregularities in the research.

And when LaCour’s partner, prominent researcher Donald Green, became aware of those irregularities, he contacted This American Life to retract the study that the episode was based upon.

In an interview with NPR, Green said there’s a lot of blame to go around.

“Quite a bit of blame I think. You know,” he said.

“I should have been the one to have noticed this. And looking back on it, I wasn’t suspicious enough,” Green added.

This isn’t the first time LaCour’s been accused of lying. He also said he got nearly $800,000 in grants, which he reportedly didn’t. And he cited a teachers’ award on his Curriculum Vitae that he actually didn’t win.

UCLA is investigating the accusations and retractions. In the meantime, LaCour’s doctorate, and a recent offer of a teaching job at Princeton, all hang in the balance.

We reached out to LaCour for comment, but he hasn’t responded to our interview request.

Tom Bartlett’s been following the case for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and  Jesse Singal is a senior editor at New York Magazine, who edits a blog about the science of human behavior.

Both joined me for a conversation about flawed research, whether it was a small incident that turned into something much bigger, and the ramifications for the issue of marriage equality.