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Here’s Why We Don’t Trust Research

by Robert W. Hunnicutt   |  May 26th, 2015 1

bad_research_2Anti-gunners always lambaste gun owners for opposing government-funded research on gun control issues. That opposition is founded on intimate knowledge of the sort of pseudo-science that emerged when the government supported research in the past, and got a pretty big boost from this recent scandal (tip of the hat to SGN contributor Clayton E. Cramer for discovering it).

A Columbia University professor and a graduate student from UCLA teamed up to design a little social experiment in which they hired a group of canvassers from the Los Angeles LGBT Center to go door-to-door in neighborhoods that voted for Proposition 8, a measure that briefly, but unsuccessfully, banned gay marriage in California. For those who have restricted their reading entirely to gun magazines for a decade or so, LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered. Sometimes a Q is added at the end for “queer.”

The canvassers followed standardized scripts meant to convince those voters to change their minds through non-confrontational, one-on-one contact. The thinking was that if these benighted souls had actual contact with those who choose an alternate lifestyle, their opinions might change. Some canvassers made clear their own sexual identity, others did not, and the study compared results achieved when they were open about it or made no mention.

Well, to make a long story short, follow-up surveys seemed to show that doorway conversations with canvassers who openly identified as LGBT led to measurable changes in attitudes among those surveyed. The research was published in Science magazine to approval all around. Happy ending, right?

Not so fast. A pair of Berkeley researchers tried to replicate the results online and their findings didn’t jibe. They informed Columbia professor Donald Green, who asked the UCLA grad student, Michael LeCour, for a peek at the raw data. The latter’s answer was pretty much “the dog ate my homework.”

After some investigation, Green came to what must have been a painful conclusion: “There was no data, and no plausible way of getting the data.” It appears that canvassers talked to people in the Proposition 8-supporting neighborhoods, but the crucial follow-up surveys were never sent.

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Covering the scandal in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova wrote:

“There’s another issue at play: the nature of belief. As I’ve written before, we are far quicker to believe things that mesh with our view of how life should be. Green is a firm supporter of gay marriage, and that may have made him especially pleased about the study. Did it have a similar effect on liberally minded reviewers at Science? We know that studies confirming liberal thinking sometimes get a pass where ones challenging those ideas might get killed in review; the same effect may have made journalists more excited about covering the results.”

Um, yeah. And that’s why gun owners are justifiably skeptical of research conducted by people who are politically vested in a particular outcome. If research could be conducted by little green men from Mars, maybe. Conducted by academics steeped in the left-wing ethos that reigns on campus today, not so much.

After all, it was our own Clayton Cramer whose research debunked Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America, an award-winning book that purported to show that early Americans really didn’t own all that many guns. His problem was that he hadn’t read the primary sources and Cramer had. The dog ate his homework, too.

We are starting to see a lot of ends-justify-the-means thinking in what is supposed to be the cool, appraising world of research. On topics like global warming, there is an orthodoxy that verges on censorship that Galileo would recognize. Keeping ambitious academics out of the gun world is a vital piece of work for us.

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