News and analysis
May 29, 2015

In the Drive to Prove Results, a Los Angeles Charity Gets Snagged in High-Profile Controversy

The Los Angeles LGBT Center will plow ahead with a canvassing project intended to change attitudes about same-sex marriage despite new revelations that a researcher studying the work fabricated data about its effectiveness. The scholar, Michael LaCour, has also now admitted that he wrongly claimed to have conducted the study with money from the Ford Foundation and Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

Even so, "people are really determined to continue," said Dave Fleischer, director of the Leadership Lab at the $66 million Los Angeles LGBT Center. We are "really interested in voter persuasion and prejudice reduction. Nobody feels like the problem is somehow solved or that it is not worth solving."

He said he also hoped the controversy wouldn’t stall philanthropy’s growing interest in conducting rigorous scientific studies of what works. "When it comes to reducing prejudice, we actually need to learn how to do it better," he said. "If you’ve got false information you believe is true, you are never going to get better."

Unable to Replicate

The Leadership Lab, founded in the wake of California’s 2008 vote to ban gay marriage, known as Prop. 8, works to reduce discrimination against gay people largely through face-to-face interaction.

In December, Science magazine published results of a study by Mr. LaCour, a graduate student at University of California at Los Angeles, and Donald Green, a Columbia University political science professor, that centered on the lab’s work to canvass voters. It found that voters’ attitudes were markedly changed when canvassers talked about their own experiences as gay individuals. The results were widely covered by the news media, and cited by some as a possible game-changer in the marriage-equality fight.

But this month, another pair of researchers raised questions about the validity of the study after trying and failing to recreate it. The Leadership Lab had done its part, creating control, placebo, and treatment groups of voters in its canvassing to meet the requirements of a rigorous scientific study.

But Mr. LaCour never surveyed the participants.

"He fabricated a data set to get a set of conclusions that were in many ways favorable to us," Mr. Fleischer said.

‘Design Is Sound’

The co-author, Mr. Green, a giant in the fields of political science and voter persuasion, was not complicit and requested that Science retract the study, which it did on Thursday.

In an email to the Chronicle, Mr. Green said he does not think the fraud in this case will deter similar experiments.

"The research design is sound, and other researchers are likely to employ it — with actual post-treatment interviews," Mr. Green said.

Mr. Fleischer said he first learned about the problem with the study in a phone call with Mr. LaCour on May 19.

"I can’t tell you how shocking it is that he didn’t just measure," Mr. Fleischer said, adding that the lab had deployed about 1,000 volunteers as part of the work.

The research as it was first published was very affirming, he said, "but we don’t want phony stuff. That is not helpful to anybody."

Mr. Fleischer quickly put together a meeting for the Leadership Lab and its volunteers to explain that the study had been thrown into doubt. The Los Angeles LGBT Center issued a statement, and he posted an explanation on his personal Facebook page, Mr. Fleischer said.

He estimates he has heard from about 50 people since the story became public last week, and most of the feedback has been supportive.

"I think people mostly felt sorry for me that we had been lied to," Mr. Fleischer said.

He also contacted all of the reporters who had covered the study in December. Mr. Fleischer said he has racked his brain about whether he should have known something was amiss but pointed out that the lab had kept away from the data analysis to protect its integrity.

New Study in the Works

"There has been increasing interest in the philanthropy community for the last several years on measuring results and the need to make sure we are doing the best we are capable of to make sure our work has an impact," he said.

Some nonprofits have resisted foundations’ call for an independent analysis of their effectiveness, but Mr. Fleischer said he hopes grant makers won’t be deterred.

Despite the debunked research, he and his colleagues still have some wonderful qualitative evidence that personal interactions between gay people and voters can make a difference come election day, Mr. Flesicher said.

The Leadership Lab won’t have to go entirely without scientific analysis of its work. The two researchers who originally uncovered problems with Mr. LaCour’s study are now conducting a new one on the effectiveness of the Leadership Lab’s canvassing model to change voters’ attitudes about transgender individuals in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

"If we are honestly measured, and we are not having an impact? Of course, I want to know, because then we will try something else," he said.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.