Respectful conversation and smiles steal homophobes’ hearts away. That was the message of a much-ballyhooed article in America’s leading science journal, Science, last December.

Michael J. LaCour, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University reported that hostile attitudes towards gay marriage could be changed by a single face-to-face conversation with a gay person. “These large, persistent, and contagious effects were confirmed by a follow-up experiment,” the authors wrote.

Betsy Levy Paluck, professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton, tweeted that it was “the paper with the most astounding results & rigorous methods this year” – an opinion which cropped up again and again in the US media. The study confirmed that it was possible to diminish prejudice with personal contact. In other words, “coming out” works.

These results ought to have been welcomed, because they supported a very optimistic view of human nature. They suggested that it is possible for cordial dialogue and rational argument to change minds. Prejudice is not engraved in stone, but etched on the sands of a beach. What worked for same-sex marriage could also work for pro-life arguments. 

Unhappily, it now appears that LaCour, the junior partner in the study, faked all the data. Professor Green had to ask Science to retract the paper after it was brought to his attention that the results could not be reproduced and that the survey firm used in the study had never heard of it. “I am deeply embarrassed,” says Professor Green. He told the Huffington Post that “There was a mountain of fabrication”.

So far LaCour has not responded to the allegations. “I’m gathering evidence and relevant information so I can provide a single comprehensive response,” he tweeted.

In a sense, this incident is no big deal. Research fraud happens all the time. One of the internet’s most popular and entertaining blogs, Retraction Watch, trawls scholarly literature for retractions because of fraud and plagiarism. There is never a shortage of examples.

But the LaCour scandal ought to be a warning shot across the bow of LGBT research. As flies are drawn to honey, brilliant, highly-competitive and dishonest academics are drawn to dynamic, high-profile, and fashionable research projects. And ratings-hungry journals are all-too-eager to publish amazing results.

Occasionally those amazing results have an amazing back story. In 2004 Hwang Woo-suk, a Korean stem cell scientist claimed that he was first to clone a human embryo. He was feted at home and abroad as a genius. In 2005 he was unmasked as an out-and-out fraud. Last year, as if stem cell researchers and science journals had learned nothing at all, a young Japanese researcher, Haruko Obokata, faked the results of a widely-reported stem cell study which was published in Nature. Her research institute’s prestige was badly tarnished and a colleague committed suicide.

The problem is growing, not shrinking. A scientist who has studied research fraud, Dr Ferric C. Fang, points to familiar problems: gender imbalance, the imperative of publish or perish, cheating and blatant fraud, selective reporting of results, the race to publish first, celebrity science and so on. “The present system,” he writes, “provides … potent incentives for behaviors that are detrimental to science and scientists.”

And another scientist has written passionately in Nature: “Alarming cracks are starting to penetrate deep into the scientific edifice. They threaten the status of science and its value to society. And they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects — inadequate funding, misconduct, political interference, an illiterate public. Their cause is bias, and the threat they pose goes to the heart of research.”

The problem is not restricted to biomedical research. There have been some startling scandals in social psychology recently, especially in the field of social priming. Last year a prestigious German researcher, Jens Förster, was charged with data manipulation. And in 2012, the career of a Dutch professor, Diederik Stapel, unravelled when it was found that he had been faking results for years. He had to relinquish his PhD.

In a sombre assessment of the Stapel case, Dutch investigators found fundamental flaws in the scientific process both in the Netherlands and internationally.

“Virtually nothing of all the impossibilities, peculiarities and sloppiness mentioned in this report was observed by all these local, national and international members of the field, and no suspicion of fraud whatsoever arose… from the bottom to the top there was a general neglect of fundamental scientific standards and methodological requirements.”

They also criticised the editors and reviewers of leading international journals. “Not infrequently reviews were strongly in favour of telling an interesting, elegant, concise and compelling story, possibly at the expense of the necessary scientific diligence.”

A couple of years ago, the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science published a special issue on the field’s crisis of confidence. It focused on the key issue of replicability. John P. A. Ioannidis, of Stanford University, pointed out that the authority of science depends upon its ability to self-correct errors. But as the Dutch report observed, results are seldom reproduced. Researchers are far more interested in producing startling new papers which will attract more funding. “The self-correcting paradigm … seems to be very uncommon,” Ioannidis wrote.

What does this mean for the burgeoning field of LGBT research? It would be both rash and arrogant to say that it means nothing at all. LGBT researchers are clever and passionate and journals are eager to publish articles which support a socially progressive agenda: conditions which make research fraud all but inevitable. Is LaCour the first and only or only the first? Time will tell. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.