Study On Changing Minds About Same-Sex Marriage Disavowed By Co-Author

Study On Changing Minds About Same-Sex Marriage Disavowed By Co-Author

UPDATE: May 20, 2015 -- Earlier this week, Columbia University professor Donald Green requested the retraction of an article he co-authored about a study purporting to show that face-to-face conversations between gay activists and opponents of same-sex marriage could change the latter's opinions over the long term. The article appeared in Science magazine this past December.

Green's letter to Science requesting the retraction cited his co-author Michael LaCour's "failure to produce the raw data," along with apparent irregularities in those data discovered after publication by another team of researchers. Academic watchdog website Retraction Watch posted an excerpt of the letter Wednesday.

“There was a mountain of fabrication,” Green told The Huffington Post.

Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science Journals, issued a statement Wednesday: "At this time, our Editorial staff is assessing the report. Given the fact that the [co-author] Dr. Green has requested retraction, Science will move swiftly and take any necessary action at the earliest opportunity. In the meantime, Science is publishing an Editorial Expression of Concern to alert our readers to the fact that serious questions have been raised about the validity of findings in this study."

In response to Green's allegations, LaCour, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, told HuffPost, "I’m gathering evidence and relevant information so I can provide a single comprehensive response. I will do so at my earliest opportunity."

HuffPost's original article about the allegedly fabricated study appears below.


It’s common knowledge that Americans are changing their views on same-sex marriage and gay rights at a breakneck pace. What has remained something of a mystery is how exactly this change occurs. A new study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science may have uncovered a clue.

Some anti-gay voters in California changed their minds five time faster than their neighbors on gay rights, according to the new study. The secret? Openly gay activists went door to door, engaging these conservative opponents in “heartfelt, reciprocal and vulnerable conversations” about what marriage meant to them, according to a press release about the study. The activists didn’t just push gay marriage, they made a point of listening to their opponents' concerns and experiences, the release said.

“In an era where the constant talk is of implacable differences and polarization, what’s interesting here is that you have an honest, open, two-way conversation, and opinions do change,” said Columbia University professor Donald P Green, a co-author on the study.

Green has researched and written about public opinion and prejudice for more than two decades. He had reached a fairly bleak conclusion about voters, he told The Huffington Post this week. “I used to think that attitudes were stable,” he said. In 2009, he published an exhaustive review of the existing studies on reducing prejudice and found that most methods, including TV ads, mail, phone calls and even door-to-door canvassing have minimal effect, and what slight change in attitude may occur typically disappears within a few days.

The groundbreaking news in Thursday’s study, “When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment on Transmission of Support for Gay Equality,” is that the change in attitude these California voters experienced after talking about gay rights with an openly gay person persisted steadily throughout the year that the study was conducted.

“The findings always seemed to be that you could produce short-term change in, say a controlled environment, but when people go back to their normal social milieu the change dissipates,” Green said. “Now I think part of the reason our attitudes are so steady over time is that we almost never have a conversation akin to the conversations” activists had in this study.

The study examined the work of a group of gay and straight canvassers from the Los Angeles LGBT Center. In the wake of the passage of California’s gay marriage ban in 2008, the activists had more than 12,000 one-on-one conversations in Los Angeles neighborhoods that overwhelmingly supported the ban.

Michael J. LaCour, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California Los Angeles who co-authored the Science paper with Green, said he became interested in these canvassers because of the purity of their mission: They weren’t collecting signatures, asking for money or trying to turn out the vote. Rather, the sole purpose of their conversations was changing minds on gay rights.

In 2013, LaCour and Green began the year-long scientific assessment of the LGBT center’s work, comparing the successes of the gay canvassers with their straight counterparts, along with a placebo group consisting of openly gay canvassers who talked about the value of recycling instead of gay marriage. The conservative voters answered questions in online surveys before and periodically after the canvassing. (The voters did not know the surveys were related to the canvassing, and the canvassers did not know the voters were taking the online surveys.)

Initially, gay and straight canvassers had a similar effect on voters, the study found. But those who spoke with the straight canvassers seemed to snap back to their original opinion after a couple of weeks, and those who spoke with gay canvassers maintained their new view throughout a year of surveys. Perhaps even more intriguing, those who lived in the same household as the voters who spoke with gay canvassers also reported changing views on gay rights -- not so with the households of those who spoke with straight canvassers.

“It’s a subtle hint that what’s going on here has to do with conversations in the household and maybe even the mental images that are conjured,” Green said. “Perhaps the conversation was something like, ‘Honey I met a gay man and he was nothing like the gay man I thought I would meet.”

The study’s findings line up with polling that shows that Americans who know someone who is gay are more likely to support gay rights. Over the past few decades, the number of people who are openly gay has skyrocketed. Naturally, so has the number of Americans who say they know someone who is gay.

LaCour is now conducting a similar study involving reproductive rights, and expects to find similar results. He paraphrased Harvey Milk: “It’s harder to deny people rights if those people have names and faces.”

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