While the dust in the case of the fabricated data published in Science last December remains very much unsettled, the deadline by which the primary author, Michael LaCour, claimed he would respond to the allegations has passed [Correction: his self-imposed deadline has not yet passed; it is tomorrow, May 29. Note to self: try looking at a calendar sometime.], seemingly without a response, while more accusations of dishonesty on LaCour’s part have surfaced.
First, another fraud accusation has surfaced, this time concerning unpublished results (the results have, however, been presented at at least one conference) in a paper titled “The Echo Chambers are Empty: Direct Evidence of Balanced, Not Biased Exposure to Mass Media”. Economist Tim Groseclose looked into LaCour’s methods and writes:
The paper examines the news “diet” of voters. It concludes that the news diet of Republicans hardly differs from that of Democrats. In contrast to conventional wisdom, voters do not, primarily, get their news from “echo chambers.”
I could find no problem with the main results of the paper. However, to derive those results, LaCour writes a section describing a way to measure media bias, which he uses to classify a media outlet as “conservative,” “liberal,” or “centrist.” I found many problems with this section, and I am highly confident that LaCour faked the results for this section.
This is just an accusation at this point, and Groseclose has not yet seen the raw data or the code LaCour used to derive it, but he presents some strong statistical evidence for the accusation. However, we can be fairly certain about another example of LaCour’s dishonesty. Virginia Hughes of Buzzfeed discovered lies on his CV concerning his research funding, which she details in perhaps the best article I have read on the case:
In the study’s acknowledgements, LaCour states that he received funding from three organizations — the Ford Foundation, Williams Institute at UCLA, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr., Fund. But when contacted by BuzzFeed News, all three funders denied having any involvement with LaCour and his work. (In 2012, the Haas, Jr. Fund gave a grant to the Los Angeles LGBT Center related to their canvassing work, but the Center said that LaCour’s involvement did not begin until 2013.)
There are at least two CVs that were reportedly published on LaCour’s website but have since been taken down. Both list hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for his work. One of these listings, a $160,000 grant in 2014 from the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota, was made up, according to reporting by Jesse Singal at The Science of Us.
If you were thinking that things couldn’t get worse than made up data on one, possibly two papers, and made up funding sources, you were wrong. It turns out LaCour may also have lied about receiving a teaching award, as Jesse Singal of Science of Us discovered:
In that section [of LaCour’s CV], he lists as one of his awards: “Emerging Instructor Award, UCLA Office of Instructional Development, 2013-2014. One of three UCLA graduate student instructors selected for excellence in their first year of teaching” (formatting his). But a staffer in the office of instructional development told Science of Us that it does not give out an award of that name. “I don’t know if he either misnamed our department or if it’s from another department,” said the staffer, who only agreed to be quoted if I didn’t use her name. “I’m not clear on what happened.”
To make himself seem even sleazier, when Singal contacted him about the award, LaCour first asked Singal not to publish anything on the award until he released his official response, then took his CV off his webpage, then put a new version of the CV that does not list the award back up, after which he emailed Singal saying,
“I’m not sure which CV you are referring to, but the CV posted on my website has not had that information or the grants listed for at least a year.”
In my original post on the case, I speculated about how LaCour may have come to the decision to commit fraud of this magnitude, suggesting that he may have found himself between a professional rock and a hard place and chosen to lie his way out of it. As more and more examples of possible dishonesty have surfaced, I have started to believe that the real explanation may simply be that LaCour isn’t a very honest person.
UPDATE: It is offical! Science has retracted the paper. The statement just posted gives two confirmed (via LaCour’s attorney) cases of false information in the paper, the statistical irregularities first noted by Broockman and Kalla, and LaCour’s failure to produce his data as the reasons for the retraction. The statement ends, “Michael J. LaCour does not agree to this Retraction.”