Science Fraud and our retraction

You may be aware of the this recent incident of supposedly discovered fraud:

IN December, Science published a paper claiming that people could change their minds about same-sex marriage after talking for just 20 minutes with a gay person. It seemed too good to be true — and it was.

On Wednesday, the journal distanced itself from the study, after its accuracy was disputed, and one of the authors could not back up the findings.

We joined in on the initial enthusiasm for the reported research, and now we want to recognize that the results are disputed. The question remains, how do scientists with much to lose take the chances involved in publicly putting forth cooked data? The article linked to above offers an answer:

Economists like to say there are no bad people, just bad incentives. The incentives to publish today are corrupting the scientific literature and the media that covers it. Until those incentives change, we’ll all get fooled again.

8 thoughts on “Science Fraud and our retraction

  1. This is not “supposed” fraud and the results aren’t just “disputed”–there’s pretty damning proof (if the initial response wasn’t good enough proof, the fact that LaCour could not produce the surveys, that Green retracted the paper, and that LaCour admitted to not having paid anyone or receiving the grant he supposedly received surely is enough).

  2. Okay–but the New York Times doesn’t sound that cautious to me: “It seemed too good to be true–and it was.”, e.g. (Also note that the NY Times reports that LaCour has already admitted to falsifying some of the details of the data collection.)

  3. Doesn’t the fact that such high-risk fraud continues to happen give us reason to think that there are probably plenty of people who are doing this and getting away with it? I wrote about this incident recently and argued that it’s a good reminder of the need to use a little more critical thought about scientific findings in general:

    I’d say the problem has more to do with the public and media understanding of what “science” is than it does with bad incentives. There will always be reasons for people to fudge their research, not to mention the ways that biases slip into people’s methodology unconsciously. As long as the public image of science continues to be the idea of a body of known information and the media continue to report on science by talking about “results” and saying things like “studies have shown,” people are going to continue thinking that they have no responsibility to understand how experiments work and what goes into turning “data” into “results.”

  4. My fiance is a political scientist and was actually critical of the New York Times for being too cautious. As he explained it to me, there is almost no room for reasonable doubt that the data was completely faked. The initial survey results are identical to the data collected by another firm. The ‘post-treatment’ results are precisely the ones you would get from adding a constant to the people who had met with a canvasser and adding random noise to cover it up slightly. The reported response rate for the survey is astronomically high compared to standard survey responses – and attempts to replicate had response rates under half of what he reported. What’s more, he claimed to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from various organizations, all of whom deny giving him money. As my fiance said, not only did he fake the data, but he did so extremely obviously.
    LaCour’s only response – so far – has been to say that he gave survey participants ipads rather than money directly – which doesn’t address the overwhelming amount of evidence that he faked the data. It’s not clear what explanations he could bring forward which would explain away everything satisfactorily.

    As for the question about whether this happens frequently, I’m obviously no expert, but I doubt that fraud this extreme happens too often. The results were so substantial that people were bound to replicate the study in other areas (do canvassers affect opinions on abortion, immigration, etc..). I think it was just a matter of time before those attempts failed and he was caught. And if he had more experience (this was his first substantial paper) he might have known that. Still, I certainly agree that it’s useful to have a healthy dose of skepticism when reading about scientific results in popular media.

    His motives really confuse me, to be honest. LaCour is openly gay. I would think he would realize that faking this data could have seriously detrimental affects for the minority he’s a part of. But – perhaps – that damage was outweighed by the prospect of a tenure-track job.

  5. SE & Dr M, it seems there may be no end to the bad news. I think it is starting to look almost like a mental problem operating. The risks are just too big to be remotely sensible for a grad student to undertake.

    The comments on the post bring up a lot of points. Let me say that I make extensive use of technical innovations dependent on all sorts of levels of scientific work. It would be bad faith for me to adopt a general scepticism about whether science can produce knowledge. I’m also fairly embedded in a scientific community and I have a lot of respect for those colleagues, much more than I have for a number of the philosophers at UH, harsh though that may sound.

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