More Americans than ever before — a record-high of 60 percent, according to Gallup this week — support gay marriage. But in the wake of a new scandal rocking the academic world, it’s a good time to remind partisans and activists that the ends don’t always justify the means.
This week it was revealed that a highly publicized study — celebrated by many in the media as “groundbreaking” — was actually faked.
UCLA grad student Michael LaCour and Columbia professor Donald Green purported to show that a 20-minute conversation with a gay person made people more supportive of gay marriage. “Contact with minorities,” they concluded, “coupled with discussion of issues pertinent to them is capable of producing a cascade of opinion change.”
The study was published in the influential journal Science, and mainstream media gushed over the results. It was covered everywhere from the New York Times to “This American Life.”
After benign inquiry by other researchers raised red flags about the study, LaCour admitted to falsifying at least some of the results. Now Science is investigating the paper and has published an Editorial Expression of Concern to alert readers to the allegations. LaCour was supposed to start teaching at Princeton this summer, but he’s no longer listed on the school’s website.
Advocates for gay marriage were stunned. As Mark Joseph Stern, who writes for Slate on LGBTQ issues and science, put it: “Obviously, I’m disappointed because the study pointed the way toward a brighter future, suggesting a method by which equality advocates could persuade more people to support gay rights.”
Of course, faking science to change hearts and minds, no matter the cause, is a terrible idea and wholly counterproductive. Among opponents of gay marriage there’s a growing distaste for the kinds of bullying and intimidation tactics designed to force detractors into submission. The doctored study will only encourage the perception that advocates are going too far.
And, as a supporter of gay marriage, I can attest that too often they do go too far. Last year, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eichwas forced to resign when the tech community found out he’d privately supported California’s efforts to ban gay marriage. The online-dating site OKCupid even blocked its website for users of the Web browser Eich created.
For a group that is demanding more tolerance, the zero-tolerance policy for opposing viewpoints is chilling.
Princeton jurisprudence professor Robert P. George called this “a strategy of intimidation aimed at demonizing and marginalizing anyone who dared oppose their agenda.”
The irony is that the faked study seems like an accurate description of reality, even if it can’t be quantified in as decisive a way as the authors wanted.
There is plenty of good science proving the connection between storytelling and empathy. A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared the brain activity of a person telling a story to people listening to it and found striking similarities in the insula response, the region that governs empathy. An Amsterdam study from 2013 found that “fiction readers who felt emotionally transported into a story scored higher on a scale of empathic concern one week after their reading experience.”
Recently, we got the real-world embodiment of these hypotheses: Bruce Jenner.
Almost 17 million people tuned in to watch the ABC special — one of the highest-rated news programs of the year on any network, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter — in which Jenner came out as transgender.
Most people don’t know a transgender person. According to GLAAD polling, only 8 percent of Americans do. But Stelter reported that while Jenner got some negative feedback on social media, “those comments were mostly drowned out by a virtual embrace of Jenner and his transition. Courage and bravery were the two big words.”
Last year I met Kristin Beck, formerly Kris Beck, a U.S. Navy SEAL who transitioned from male to female in 2013. She was the first transgender person I’d spoken to at any length. Hearing her story, in her words, was eye-opening. I challenged friends who were uncomfortable with her lifestyle to watch her documentary, “Lady Valor.” Many said they were surprised by their own empathy and compassion.
That’s the power of storytelling. Gay advocates don’t need to bully opponents or fake scientific studies. Changing hearts and minds happens organically — it’s not best achieved at the barrel of a gun.