Why it doesn't really matter that a grad student may have faked a gay marriage study

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The lead author of a study widely cited by gay marriage advocates has requested a retraction after finding out that his co-author, a graduate student, may have faked the data.


The study, published in Science in December 2014, suggested that conservative voters' views on gay marriage could be altered after just a short conversation with a gay canvasser. But after a separate group of researchers attempted to do a follow-up study and contacted the author, Professor Donald Green, it came to light that his co-author, graduate student Michael LaCour, had misrepresented some data.

Gay marriage advocates were thrilled when the study seemed to show gay people could increase support for their cause by talking with and changing the minds of opponents by telling their personal stories. It's supposed results have literally changed how organizations canvas, both nationally and internationally. Now, anti-marriage equality groups will probably glom onto the fact that the study has collapsed.

But, academic integrity and general ickiness aside, the fact that the particular method of changing people's minds may not be as effective as originally suggested doesn't really matter.

Because something is working.

Support for gay marriage has been climbing steadily for decades. Just this week, Gallup published a new poll that suggests 60 percent of Americans support gay marriage. That figure was just 27 percent in 1996 and 40 percent in 2008.

So what does work? If there was an easy answer, gay marriage advocates would have converted the entire country long ago. But there are clues.

One possibility is simply time. Support for gay marriage is high among young people, and it's maintained as they age, so as today's young people grow old and younger generations follow, support is likely to continue to trend upward.


And polls really have suggested that people with gay family members or coworkers are more likely to back same-sex marriage, so while Green and LaCour's specific study may be debunked, the concept isn't necessarily wrong.

It just needs better testing.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.