Influencing Hearts, Changing Minds? ‘This American Life’ Featured Story Retracted

If you’re a This American Life fan, you probably heard the episode a few weeks ago that focused on changing minds. It opened with a discussion of how society lauds those who stand their ground, but that taking in new data and changing one’s stance based on that, is actually the rarer phenomenon. However, the program would go on to focus on people who did change their minds — including a number of people in a study about the public view of same-sex marriage.

It was an exceptional story, and very telling. Changing the minds of people opposed to marriage equality wouldn’t happen with arguing, insulting, and statistics. Instead, canvassers discovered they could change minds simply by being personable and friendly, chatting about marriage rights, then other topics, mentioning how they were affected, then coming back to the marriage question. The transcript is here, and at this time, is still visible, though the episode can no longer be dowloaded.

The researchers were so skeptical that this could be real that they did the entire study a second time– a huge cost, by the way. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. And again, the same result. Professor Green says he and his colleagues have read 900 papers. And they haven’t seen anything like this result– anyone who’s changed people’s views and it lasted like this.

The story wasn’t only told on This American Life. Other outlets shared it too. How incredible is it to learn that we can change people’s minds by truly connecting to them?

Unfortunately the researchers who were so skeptical weren’t skeptical enough, apparently. They published the findings in The Journal of Science.

However, after the story had reached millions, a pair of UC Berkeley students wanted to attempt an extension of it. According to a report in Retraction Watch, Some numbers began to look odd to them — and when they began their own version, their results didn’t match up. The contacted the authors of the original study, who looked more closely into it. What he found caused him to ask the scientific journal to retract the story.

Ira Glass, of This American Life, had similar compunctions, and after issuing retractions on his show’s website, contacted the researcher to find out more.

What he learned was that while Dave Fleischer and Steve Deline wook the study completely seriously, Mike LaCour, with hwom they worked for two years, may have been completely fabricating the data.

Mike’s got his laptop set up with him gazing intently at it. And his group of about a half dozen research assistants clustered around him gazing at it raptly. The way you would at election results on a presidential election night. As though, here the results are slowly trickling in.

While the researchers say they still don’t know for certain what happened exactly what happened, they say LaCour admits he fabricated at least some data. He may have created the data ahead of time, and set the graphs up on his laptop so they appeared to trickle data in gradually.

LaCour was in line to take an assistant professorship at Princeton. This has been removed from his website since he admitted to faking the data — presumably that career move has been lost to his fakery in the study on changing minds. It was initially replaced with a promise to prepare a statement — ‘a single comprehensive response’ at his earliest opportunity.

I’m gathering evidence and relevant information so I can provide a single comprehensive response. I will do so at my earliest opportunity.

It was later replaced with

I appreciate your patience in my forthcoming comprehensive report, as I gather evidence and relevant information, since I only became aware of the allegations about my work on the evening of May 19, 2015, when
the not peer-reviewed comments in “Irregularities in LaCour (2014),” were posted online.

This study in changing minds appeared to be an exciting breakthrough, and a revolutionary way to make a difference, and this is a dissapointing development for data lovers and political change proponents.

About The Author
Steph Bazzle
Steph Bazzle is a homeschooling mom who likes to write about justice, equality, and religious issues.