Friday, May 29, 2015

Michael LaCour, 'Gay Canvassers' Fabulist, Responds to Attacks on Retracted Homosexual Marriage Study

Stick a fork in him, this dude's cooked.

Michael LaCour, the embattled UCLA political science graduate student, has released his long-awaited response to the incendiary controversy surrounding his retracted research paper, published at Science, "When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment on Transmission of Support for Gay Equality."

If you're now just getting up to speed on this, see my previous entries, "'In a couple weeks I'm betting there's going to have to be a shakeup at UCLA...'," and "The Journal Science Retracts Homosexual Marriage Paper After Lead Author Accused of Falsifying Data."

LaCour's response is here, "Response to Irregularities in LaCour and Green (2014)." Also at Political Science Rumors, "Michael J. LaCour - Response to Irregularities in LaCour and Green (pdf)."

As I continue to learn more about this controversy, I'm increasingly convinced of one thing: LaCour needs to own up to his responsibility, tell the truth, and move on while he still has a (sliver of a) chance to salvage his life.

His main argument at the response is that the research data was sound, but that his methods were flawed. One problem, however, is that no one can review his data, because he deleted the entire data set that was the basis for the study. LaCour claims that he was required to delete his data in order to protect the privacy rights of the survey participants, and that he was required to do so by UCLA's North General Institutional Review Board (NGIRB) of the university's Office of the Human Research Protection Program (here and here). But the NGIRB indicates that LaCour conducted all of his research prior to ever contacting the Review Board, and thus without official pre-clearance, LaCour "was in violation of University policy." Also noted by the Review Board:
The NGIRB notes that your paper in the December 12, 2014 edition of Science indicated that the research had UCLA approval. The NGIRB recommends that you notify Science that the research was not reviewed by the UCLA IRB. [Bold in the original.]
LaCour wasn't required of anything by the NGIRB, because the university washed its hands of the matter. They cut the dude loose. Threw him under the bus. Whatever you wanna call it. His claim that he had to delete his files is belied by the facts.

In any case, LaCour's critics David Broockman, Josh Kalla, and Peter Aronow stand by their original rebuttal of the study, and they've rejected LaCour's attempt to respond to the allegations:

The New York Times has more, "Study Using Gay Canvassers Erred in Methods, Not Results, Author Says":

The graduate student at the center of a scandal over a newly retracted study that has shaken trust in the conduct of social science apologized for lying about aspects of the study, including who paid for it and its methodology, but he said Friday in his first interview that he stands by its finding that gay canvassers can influence voters’ attitudes on same-sex marriage.

The student, Michael J. LaCour, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the attack on his study — which was retracted Thursday by the journal Science — amounted to an academic ambush. “It’s completely unprecedented in the way it was done,” he said, referring to an account of the case posted by two colleagues last week, questioning his work. “They never contacted me directly, there was no transparency, and as a grad student I don’t have the same protection as a professor.”

Mr. LaCour disputes one of the main charges against him: that he improperly erased his raw data. That was one of the charges that led his co-author, Donald P. Green, a widely respected political scientist at Columbia University, to ask the journal to retract the study last week. The destruction of the data was not improper, he said, but in fact was required by U.C.L.A.’s institutional guidelines to protect study participants.

“At the end of the day, I was the one responsible for the raw data, and if something were to happen and reporters tracked people down, that’s a lawsuit,” he said.

But a researcher familiar with U.C.L.A. guidelines, but who declined to identified by name because of the continuing investigation of the case at the university, said the language in the guidelines requires only that researchers erase “unique identifiers” and not the entire data set.

Mr. LaCour said he lied about the funding of his study to give it more credibility. He said that some of his colleagues had doubted his work because they thought he did not have enough money to pay for a such a complex study, among them David Broockman, a political scientist at Stanford and one of the authors of a critique of his work published last week. Mr. LaCour said he thought the funding sources he claimed would shore up the plausibility of the work. “I messed up in that sense, and it could be my downfall,” he said.

Three funding sources that Mr. LaCour listed as providing support for his published paper denied on Thursday that they had done so. The Ford Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund and the Williams Institute at U.C.L.A. said they had not given Mr. LaCour any money. But the Haas Jr. Fund had provided money to the group that Mr. LaCour was working with, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and the graduate student had applied for and received a grant from the Williams Institute, but it came too late to help with the study, he said.

“The Ford Foundation grant did not exist,” Mr. LaCour wrote in a public timeline posted late on Friday.

One of the most damning facts in the critical review of Mr. LaCour’s work was that the survey company he told the Los Angeles LGBT Center he was working with did not have any knowledge of his project. He now says that, in fact, he did not end up using that survey company but another one.

In an earlier interview, Dr. Green of Columbia said he had asked Mr. LaCour repeatedly to store his raw data in a databank at the University of Michigan. Asked about that, Mr. LaCour said he had not been sure whether Dr. Green was referring to the analyzed, “clean” data, or the raw material, which included names, addresses and phone numbers. “Again, I was under strict guidelines to protect identities, and it’s not that commonplace to ask for that data,” he said.

I suspect the lawsuits LaCour alludes to are far from a distant possibility. Indeed, as you can see from the embedded tweets above, it looks like the Los Angeles LGBT Center may be gearing up for litigation already.

Expect updates. Meanwhile ICYMI, from Maria Konnikova, at the New Yorker, "How a Gay-Marriage Study Went Wrong."