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FiveThirtyEight Roundtable: How Scientific Scandal Can Become Scientific Progress

“Even though LaCour faked all these data, he really got us thinking about this. So in a way, by creating this fraud, he actually moved science forward.” — Christie Aschwanden

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A number of times on What’s The Point, we’ve discussed the story of Michael LaCour and his apparently fraudulent research on persuasion, canvassing and LGBT rights. LaCour claimed that a conversation with a gay canvasser could have a dramatic effect on a subject’s opinions on gay rights. But he likely faked the data that showed how drastic the effect was. We even awarded him the 2015 Stephen Colbert Memorial Award in Distinction of Truthiness.

The LaCour story is not just one about research gone wrong, it also serves as a reminder that the scientific community has a robust system of checks and balances. Indeed, LaCour was caught because someone — in this case, grad students David Broockman and Joshua Kalla — tried to verify the data.

The next chapter in the saga unfolded this week. Broockman and Kalla didn’t rest after uncovering the fraud, they released their own research, which further examined the original question: whether personal interactions can have an effect on political opinion. Broockman and Kalla found that minds can be changed. But unlike LaCour, their research shows that for canvassers to make an impact, they need to engage in a longer conversation, build empathy and connect their story with that of the people they are talking to.

On this week’s episode, we convene an all-star panel of FiveThirtyEight’s writers — Carl Bialik, Christie Aschwanden and Maggie Koerth-Baker — to react to the latest research, and reflect on the lessons of LaCour vs. Broockman.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Usually we include a few excerpts from the conversation as well, but I’d encourage you to read Maggie and Christie’s piece published this week instead.


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What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

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