Groundbreaking Study on Shifting Attitudes Toward Gays Used Faked Data

Sometimes the data is too good to be true.

Photo by everything possible/Shutterstock

In December, I wrote a post about a groundbreaking new study published in Science, which had profound implications for the gay rights movement. The study’s researchers claimed that a mere 20-minute conversation about the importance of marriage equality could convince same-sex marriage opponents to support gay rights. People who spoke with straight canvassers demonstrated a slight boost in tolerance; those who spoke with gay canvassers demonstrated—and retained—an even more significant boost in support for gay rights.

Does that sound too good to be true? It was. The study was co-authored by Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, and Michael J. LaCour, then a political science Ph.D. candidate at UCLA. LaCour, it turns out, fabricated the data—and masked his deception so well that nobody, not even statisticians, noticed it for months. When two graduate students, hoping to extend the study, took a closer look at LaCour’s data, however, they realized something was amiss and ultimately cried foul. Green quickly asked Science to retract the story, writing that he was “deeply embarrassed by this turn of events.” LaCour claims to be working on a “comprehensive response” to the accusations.

I’m at once disappointed and a little relieved to discover that the Science study relied upon made-up data. Obviously, I’m disappointed because the study pointed the way toward a brighter future, suggesting a method by which equality advocates could persuade more people to support gay rights. But I’m also a bit relieved to see the study’s thesis—homophobia is so flimsy that a front-porch chat can cure it—discredited. That idea seemed to lie behind Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s obnoxious 2014 opinion upholding same-sex marriage bans. Why, Sutton asked, should the courts vindicate gay couple’s rights? Why shouldn’t gay people instead be forced to go door-to-door, begging their neighbors to let them achieve equal dignity in the eyes of the law? Sutton suggested that he was actually doing gays a favor by ruling against them, since his decision would force them to go vindicate their rights through the democratic process, changing “hearts and minds, even souls” in the process:

Why, it is worth asking, the sudden change in public opinion? If there is one thing that seems to challenge hearts and minds, even souls, on this issue, it is the transition from the abstract to the concrete. If twenty-five percent of the population knew someone who was openly gay in 1985, and seventy-five percent knew the same in 2000, it is fair to wonder how few individuals still have not been forced to think about the matter through the lens of a gay friend or family member.

Sutton wrote that florid passage before the Science study came out, but his thinking is clearly rooted in the belief that if gays simply got out and chatted up more people, they’d win their rights in no time. If that were true, Sutton would have a powerful argument against litigating marriage equality. But we don’t actually know if it’s true. The remaining 37 percent of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage may be firm holdouts who hold near-absolute control over the political process in many states. What will change their minds about gay rights? At this point, probably nothing—which is precisely why the LGBTQ community has relied on the courts to bring constitutional equality to red-leaning states.

I like to believe that the vast majority of human beings are basically good people who want to make the world a better place. But I also understand that older and less educated Americans struggle to see how state recognition of same-sex relationships ennobles gay people in profound and ineffable ways. The country is changing quickly, and a sizable chunk of it will always cling to wounding, stale beliefs. To remedy that, you don’t just need a conversation. You need a constitution.