May 21, 2015

Fake data in important political-science experiment

Last year, a research paper came out in Science demonstrating an astonishingly successful strategy for gaining support for marriage equality: a short, face-to-face personal conversation with a gay person affected by the issue. As the abstract of the paper said

Can a single conversation change minds on divisive social issues, such as same-sex marriage? A randomized placebo-controlled trial assessed whether gay (n = 22) or straight (n = 19) messengers were effective at encouraging voters (n = 972) to support same-sex marriage and whether attitude change persisted and spread to others in voters’ social networks. The results, measured by an unrelated panel survey, show that both gay and straight canvassers produced large effects initially, but only gay canvassers’ effects persisted in 3-week, 6-week, and 9-month follow-ups. We also find strong evidence of within-household transmission of opinion change, but only in the wake of conversations with gay canvassers. Contact with gay canvassers further caused substantial change in the ratings of gay men and lesbians more generally. These large, persistent, and contagious effects were confirmed by a follow-up experiment. Contact with minorities coupled with discussion of issues pertinent to them is capable of producing a cascade of opinion change.

Today, the research paper is going away again. It looks as though the study wasn’t actually done. The conversations were done: the radio program “This American Life” gave a moving report on them. The survey of the effect, apparently not so much. The firm who were supposed to have done the survey deny it, the organisations supposed to have funded it deny it, the raw data were ‘accidentally deleted’.

This was all brought to light by a group of graduate students who wanted to do a similar experiment themselves. When they looked at the reported data, it looked strange in a lot of ways (PDF). It was of better quality than you’d expect: good response rates, very similar measurements across two cities,  extremely good before-after consistency in the control group. Further investigation showed before-after changes fitting astonishingly well to a Normal distribution, even for an attitude measurement that started off with a huge spike at exactly 50 out of 100. They contacted the senior author on the paper, an eminent and respectable political scientist. He agreed it looked strange, and on further investigation asked for the paper to be retracted. The other author, Michael LaCour, is still denying any fraud and says he plans to present a comprehensive response.

Fake data that matters outside the world of scholarship is more familiar in medicine. A faked clinical trial by Werner Bezwoda led many women to be subjected to ineffective, extremely-high-dose chemotherapy. Scott Reuben invented all the best supporting data for a new approach to pain management; a review paper in the aftermath was titled “Perioperative analgesia: what do we still know?”  Michael LaCour’s contribution, as Kieran Healy describes, is that his approach to reducing prejudice has been used in the Ireland marriage equality campaign. Their referendum is on Friday.


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »