Academia recruits privilege; privilege leads to arrogance; arrogance leads to entitlement: Some thoughts on the Michael LaCour fraud case

By | June 10, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 8.34.18 PMMaybe you’ve seen the headlines: Science magazine retracts same-sex marriage and gay canvassers study. (The story was broken on May 20 by the blog Retraction Watch, under the headline author retracts study of changing minds on same-sex marriage after colleague admits data were faked.)

This is bad, people. It turns out this isn’t a case of shoddy record-keeping or inappropriate labeling of images or truth claims that overreach the data. Michael LaCour, the lead researcher on the gay canvassing study, apparently made up basically everything, from the survey team he apparently never worked with to the data points he apparently never collected to the funding sources who never in fact funded his work. (The story of how Three Tenacious Scholars Got to the Bottom of LaCour’s lies is told beautifully by Jesse Singal at Slate Magazine and the New York Times scored the first post-retraction interview with LaCour.)

Now. I’m an academic. I’m an academic who does work on queer issues and issues of social justice. Which means this story matters very much to me, and to the work that matters to me. So here are my thoughts:

1. Don’t make the mistake of thinking LaCour’s story is an anomaly in academia. LaCour’s story is exceptional only in the amount of press it received, upon publication and upon retraction–but is common as dirt in its hubris and dogged commitment to making the argument the lead researcher set out intending to make. Academia rewards those who can convince people to see them as Heroes Working Toward a Heroic Cause. (These heroes sometimes also go by the name Public Intellectual or Superstar in Their Field.) To achieve this narrative arc, academics need to tell a good story, a big story, a story with a clear plot, conflict, climax and resolution. Many academics know exactly what they want the last pages of their story to say, and they spend their careers not only getting to those last pages but also convincing everybody they had a clear plan for their story all along.

2. Academia recruits privilege; privilege leads to arrogance; arrogance leads to entitlement. Some have expressed confusion over why LaCour fake his entire dataset when obviously any effort to replicate the study would quickly reveal it as a fake. Donald Green, a well known and well respected sociologist who co-authored the Science paper and requested it be retracted as soon as the falsifications came to light, said this:

But my puzzlement now is, if he fabricated the data, surely he must have known that when people tried to replicate his study, they would fail to do so and the truth would come out. And so why not reason backward and say, let’s do the the study properly?

Well, sure. But first, LaCour may have assumed the study wouldn’t be replicated because his experience was that the study couldn’t be done in the first place. It was too big, and too expensive, which is probably why he just grabbed another dataset and passed it off as his own.

And second, I think there’s a good chance LaCour assumed nobody would even bother checking his work. Why would they? He told a convincing story, and he did it with forcefulness and confidence, and he did it at a time when people wanted to hear what he had to say.

Privilege is, in part, assuming people will believe what you say by mere dint of the fact that you said it.

3. Academia teaches people to tell mostly-truths (or half-truths, or in the case of LaCour, untruths) so many times that they come to feel true. And once you’ve made a truth claim frequently enough, you might end up assuming you have data supporting your claim even if you can’t really remember what the data are or when you collected said data or where it’s stored on your hard drive or server.

4. I haven’t had a single conversation with another academic in my field about this issue and I don’t know why. This is perhaps the most important retraction that has happened in the last decade, because it reveals so much about hierarchies, institutional power structures, and the myriad ways the peer review system is terminally fucked. I hope other academics are talking about this issue, and I hope that over the next few weeks I can figure out how to open up discussions about this issue with my colleagues, and I hope other academics are already having those important conversations.