The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Co-author disavows highly publicized study on public opinion and same-sex marriage

Steve Visano, 54, places a ring on his partner’s hand during a group wedding ceremony Feb. 5 at a hotel in honor of Florida’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage equality, in Fort Lauderdale.  (Lynne Sladky/AP)
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A highly publicized and influential scholarly study about people’s views on same-sex marriage has been disavowed by one of its co-authors, citing “irregularities” in the data provided by his partner in the research. He is seeking a retraction of the study, published in the journal Science.

The study purported to show the ease with which peoples’ minds can be changed on the subject of same-sex marriage after short conversations, particularly with gay advocates. It was described as being based on survey research conducted in California after voters passed Proposition 8, the referendum that banned same-sex marriage in the state and that has since been struck down by the courts.

The co-author, Donald P. Green of Columbia University, acted on his own to request a retraction from Science in a memo dated May 19, first reported by the blog “Retraction Watch,” which closely follows scholarly publications for errors, retractions and fraud.

[Retraction Watch tracks academia’s seamier side] 

Green said two University of California at Berkeley graduate students who had attempted their own research “brought to my attention a series of irregularities that called into question the integrity of the data we present.”

When Green’s co-author, Michael LaCour, was shown the information, Green said he could not provide the survey data he claimed to have collected. Nor would LaCour provide “the contact information of survey respondents so their participation in the survey could be verified,” Green said.

Green then requested the retraction. His memo is appended at the bottom of the paper in which the Berkeley researchers and their professor at Stanford, David Brockman, reported what they called “a number of irregularities” in the Science data.

“I am deeply embarrassed by this turn of events and apologize to the editors, reviewer, and readers of Science,” Green wrote at the conclusion of his memo. He also listed the paper as “retracted by Donald Green” on his curriculum vitae.

LaCour, in an e-mail to The Post, said, “I’m gathering evidence and relevant information so I can provide a single comprehensive response. I will do so at my earliest opportunity.” In a post on his Twitter account, LaCour stated that “I look forward to addressing the concerns raised.”

The study attracted widespread attention in part because it seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and scholarship about how people cling to their own points of view, sometimes regardless of what they read or hear to the contrary.

“One conversation can change minds on same-sex marriage, study finds,” was the headline in The Washington Post reporting the conclusions in December.

“Gay political canvassers can soften the opinions of voters opposed to same-sex marriage by having a brief face-to-face discussion about the issue, researchers reported Thursday,” a New York Times report said. “The findings could have implications for activists and issues across the political spectrum, experts said.”

The study was also covered in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and the Los Angeles Times, among many other news sites, according to Retraction Watch. This American Life built a segment around the study, which was hailed by activists around the country as perhaps creating a new paradigm of persuasion that could be deployed to boost a wide variety of causes.

This story has been updated to include an e-mail response from Michael LaCour.

*Correction: An incorrect link to USA Today originally in this story has been removed. 

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