Fake Science: Parents have some relevant experience here

Another much-hyped study almost certainly will be yanked from the scientific literature. Retracted. Deleted but not forgotten. It was too good to be true, the results appear to be fabricated. This time it’s gay marriage and attitude change. You might remember it. Back in December, we were treated to the remarkable news that a mere 20-minute conversation with a gay activist could change a person’s mind about gay marriage. The prestigious journal Science published it. Major media covered it including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and NPR. Even Science Friday, my beloved, took the bait.  

Parents might not have taken it. Many have relevant experience on these matters. Persuading other people. 

We’ve been down this path before. Seen it. Done it.

Let me reframe the issue so it might sound even more familiar. Let’s say presenting people with new information, accurate information.  For the sake of changing public opinion. Dispelling myths. Correcting misinformation. Targeting exaggerated fears and risks.  To ultimately change not only attitudes and beliefs but behavior. In some cases, health behavior. To protect against disease and illness.

Say measles. 

Some might recall the study last year showing the difficulty of changing opinions about vaccination? Not only is it difficult to persuade some parents to vaccinate, but also even trying can backfire. Attempts to influence opinions can strengthen anti-vaccination beliefs. I wrote about it here but here’s how co-author Brendan Nyhan put it:

Surprising as this may seem, our finding is consistent with a great deal of research on how people react to their beliefs being challenged. People frequently resist information that contradicts their views, such as corrective information— for example, by bringing to mind reasons to maintain their belief — and in some cases actually end up believing it more strongly as a result. Brendan Nyhan, New York Times

If there’s one thing psychologists, economists and parents - all parents, every single one of us know over and over again – it is no easy feat to convince another person to change their minds or behavior. It’s the one persistent theme running through the social science literature. And my household. And yours. 

Any parent who’s ever tried to convince a toddler or teen to do anything knows it. I will not convince my daughter that electronics distract her or prevent a good night’s sleep. I cannot persuade my other daughter that eating breakfast will help her get through the morning in a more congenial, even lively fashion. No amount of reassurance will persuade my son he isn’t at great risk of a nightmare every night I turn off the lights. While I might whittle away day after day, I have no expectation that my kids and I will soon come to agreement on any of these issues. Certainly not after a few minutes. 

So the idea a gay activitist can convince a total stranger on the street to support gay marriage, for any length of time let alone a year after one brief conversation strikes me as improbable. I can’t imagine most people would really believe it. Certainly not keen social observers. We aren’t falling for it. The Daily Beast got it wrong in their headline. Why We Fall For Fake Science.

We didn’t. No parent would upon further reflection of life as they know it. I can’t imagine many social scientists truly believed the study. It goes again much of what they know. When I first heard about the study I assumed, like many incredible findings (e.g. 20 minutes of Mozart makes kids smarter), that the results were either a fluke finding or due to a very narrow task or specific methodology not easily generalized or replicated. 

So here we have more of the usual nonsense. A journal rushing to publish a dramatic study, one that a social scientist surely would conclude resulted from either a very narrow methodology or a fluke finding. Sure to get picked up in the media. Thus a study in a prestigious journal on a hot-button issue with sensational results.  Just too good to pass up.  All the usual suspects bit here. The journal editor, the media plus the co-author who supervised the research done by the grad student on the other side of the country. No one in academic research should believe that a graduate student held $739,000 worth of grant money. It just doesn’t happen. Not many full professors bring in that kind of dough, especially in the social sciences. New York Magazine reported the grants, at one point listed on the grad student’s online vitae, were faked too.

If I sound jaded, forgive me. Retractions are at an all-time high. I seriously doubt these recent events shook up many social scientists. Still, the New York Times declared it so in what has to be one of their least elegant headlines– Doubts About Study of Gay Canvassers Rattles The Field. Um, what?

Speaking of the media. In an op-ed in the New York Times, the Retraction Watch guys pointed fingers at the major players in this latest fake science scandal. They nail the media’s role in perpetuating suspect science:

Most science and health reporters rely on the top journals for news leads. They tend to move in a pack, descending on a small handful of news items each week. When the papers in those journals have the fillip of a hot topic, like sex or race, the frenzy is even greater. And yet many reporters fail to do the necessary due diligence before publishing their work. The drive for scoops is even greater in journalism than it is in science.

A lot of people didn’t do their due diligence here. That’s where you and I come in with our thinking caps and all the wisdom we’ve gleaned from shaping or at least trying to shape young minds and behavior. Thank goodness we have some experience here. On dispelling misinformation. On persuasion. On changing minds and behavior. And sadly on fake science. 

NOTE: The Retraction Watch guys say retractions happen most in top-notch journals. Probably because fraudulent leanings mostly afflict ambitious young researchers bent on securing positions in elite universities. Like Princeton where our latest faker was suppose to land. The university says he isn't on the faculty at this point. Uh huh. 

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