The social science world is reeling as it becomes clear that one of their newest rising stars, Michael LaCour, is a fraud. As a graduate student at UCLA, LaCour co-published an electrifying paper claiming to show that, contrary to conventional wisdom, people’s long-established views can be changed quite easily through a brief encounter with a sympathetic figure arguing the opposite. To show this, canvassers (ostensibly) went door to door speaking with neighborhood residents about same-sex “marriage.” According to LaCour, speaking with a homosexual person about his desire to marry had a significant and lasting impact on the views of people who had previously claimed not to support same-sex “marriage.” He claimed as well that the shift impacted other residents of the same household who were not present for the original conversation.
The paper was published in Science in December of last year, and earned LaCour attention from major news outlets all over the country, along with a job offer from Princeton. Two weeks ago, another doctoral student from UC Berkeley released damning evidence that the study was fraudulent. The dust hasn’t fully settled yet, but it’s hard to see at this point how LaCour can salvage either his position or his career.
Various lessons have been drawn from this unedifying case. Economics professor Tim Groseclose made the interesting suggestion that the academic community is likely to see more such cases, given the way graduate students are incentivized to work with complex statistical techniques that authors don’t fully understand. Certainly we should all view “definitive studies” with a healthy skepticism, knowing how easily data can be falsified or fudged.
Several others have noted how amply the episode illustrates the Academy’s proclivity towards confirmation bias. Social scientists were thrilled with LaCour’s (faked) results, for reasons we can all readily imagine. How wonderful to think that the fight for “marriage redefinition” could be won so easily! No doubt it was also gratifying to receive what appeared to be confirmation that opposition to same-sex “marriage” was mostly rooted in ignorance and bigotry, which the slenderest ray of human sympathy could easily dispel. Wanting desperately to believe the message, researchers didn’t look too hard at the actual data.
There is, however, another point that I would make in light of this sorry episode. As beleaguered traditionalists in a losing cultural battle, we often overlook the extent to which progressives win, not through actual persuasion, but rather by projecting an aura of inevitability with respect to their desired outcomes. Many Americans are persuaded to reconcile themselves to progressive views, not because they really believe in a “right to marry” (for example), but more because it just seems to them that resistance is futile. Ironically, we ourselves often help to feed that narrative with our dour assessments of the inevitability of cultural decline.
Consider, for example, the way that the legislative battle over marriage has developed. Traditional marriage has won many legislative victories over the last decade in the United States, and even its losses have been close and hard-fought. But whenever marriage wins at the ballot box, the left immediately begins speculating: shall we try again in the next election cycle, or the one after that? If marriage loses (even narrowly!), it’s over and they have won.
Imagine setting up a sports championship with those sorts of rules. “If the Cleveland Cavaliers win, we’ll schedule another game. We’ll just keep doing that until the Golden State Warriors win one, and then we’ll crown them the victors and go home.” LeBron James is an amazing athlete, but even he wouldn’t stand a chance against those sorts of odds. Even this, however, is a too-generous assessment of how the legal struggle has proceeded. Sometimes, as in the case of California’s Proposition 8, a major legislative victory is nullified not by a series of rematches, but simply by our political elite’s refusal to acknowledge it. The left has done terrible damage to the democratic legitimacy of our Republic through their fight for “marriage equality.”
Obviously, in the game of Democracy, we can’t expect progressives to play fair. Most frustrating of all, however, may be our own side’s willingness to accept that this is how things are and must be. Grimly reconciling ourselves to cultural decrepitude, we make our worst projections into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Is there another way? Clearly, it is difficult, but at the least we should try to remember that culture is not static, and trend lines can shift at surprising times and for surprising reasons. For centuries people have been predicting the end of history, culture and religion, not to mention truth, justice and the American Way. These things have a way of refusing to die, even when the prognosis appears to be bleak.
If our Supreme Court were (against all expectations) to rule that equal protection does not guarantee a right to same-sex “marriage,” I would celebrate. I don’t expect that to happen. Nevertheless, I’ll confess that some part of me hopes that a Court decision against marriage might actually prove beneficial in the long run, just as a kind of “breaker” or “time out” in a game that is presently being played on utterly unwinnable terms.
In the minds of less-engaged Americans, this will probably mark the end of the marriage debate as a live civil rights issue. But as we’ve seen in the case of Roe v Wade, victories won by judicial fiat are less definitive in the court of public opinion. It doesn’t take great legal sophistication to recognize that the opinion of His Majesty Anthony Kennedy cannot truly be adequate to settle a raging culture war. Is it possible that a Supreme Court loss could set the stage for a new, more promising chapter in the struggle to save marriage and the family?
LaCour’s research was uncritically accepted as authentic because progressives already believe that their long-term victory is certain, and that their opponents are motivated primarily by hatred and ignorance. For too long we have permitted (and sometimes even helped!) them to perpetuate that narrative of inevitability. Moving forward, let’s endeavor to prove that we have been underestimated.
Editor’s note: In the photo above appears Donald P. Green, left, a co-author of a challenged study by Michael LaCour, right. The image is from Mr. LaCour’s Facebook page.