Historia versus Economía

Un académico contra el imperialismo económico

ConsensoEconomía neoclásicaEducaciónEpistemologíaIntegridad

The mysterious triangle: Lacour-Green-Broockman

Although I taught History in the Political Science degree of my former university, I do not have a great appreciation for political scientists. As historian compromised with an old fashioned code of ethics, I look them too close to political parties, too ambitious and receiving a lot of funds from institutions precisely for stating what politicians want to hear. In the same way, since my field of expertise is the History of Education and Social Sciences, I’m not capable of understanding what makes different a political scientist from an economist or sociologist. Political scientists who are quants devoted to experimental research are some kind of economist doing sociology using the techniques of the psychology. As the classical character Ian Malcom resums here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PLvdmifDSk), they take the techniques and legacy of other disciplines and use them in their own benefit without being bounded by the tradition of the discipline.

On another hand, I had direct public confrontations with the Spanish Political Scientists that confirmed my biases. Here, in Spain, they work together as an old boys’ club or invisible college receiving a lot of funds from political institutions in order to legitimize the two big Spanish Parties and the majority of them do not have any interest in following the rules of the academic debate. They are not scholars but politicians, because they have been promoted at the beginning of their careers by scholars-politicians. Therefore, my last paper published by History of the Human Science is a total attack on how they have used the Modernization Theory in Spain to build up the official consensus towards our political system.

I know that all my laments are not more than envies of a scholar from a minorized discipline, but there is a part of truth. A truth that political scientists fear and explains their reaction to the Lacour-Green case. At first, I thought that the protection offered to Donald P. Green by his colleagues was a cynical exhibition of double standard, but the story is a bit darker. It is a collective reaction to defend the reputations of the discipline because they know that it is at stake. They know that the public will figure out what is behind this affaire and conservative politicians might cut their funds to their liberal agenda (Note: I’m not a conservative, I’m an unemployed scholar independent from political parties’ agenda, two facts not correlated).

Thus, the political scientists have started a narrative to defend their rank of science and have explained the fraud as a sign of their fortress, because, as science works and they are scientists, they can catch the dishonest colleagues. A narrative that necessarily has to make of Donald P. Green a hero, as we can read in the article of The New Republic: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121872/michael-lacours-gay-rights-canvassing-hoax. The problem is that there are a few lies in this story, a lot of incoherence and, worse, a very small triangle formed by the three main characters, the villain Michael J. Lacour, the opportunist boss, Donald P. Green, and the detective who discovered the fraud and former disciple of the opportunist boss, David Broockman. A very close triangle of three scholars who shared academic careers and who might have not be driven by, at least, the pursuing of the truth.

First of all, the most important lie of the story: we are not talking about one paper, we are talking about one dissertation for Ph.D (http://static1.squarespace.com/static/53b226f6e4b04c885d525058/t/54dbe43ce4b0b1158bbbd802/1423696956491/LaCour_CV.pdf). A dissertation that has a committee: Lynn Vavreck (Chair), John Zaller, Don Green, Jeff Lewis, David O. Sears (Psychology) & Tim Groeling (Communications). A dissertation that was published previously as an article with the firm of one of the members of the committee: Don Green. To sum up: a conflict of interests that per se invalidates the committee. This is not a common small fraud, this issue is bigger and involves a lot of people and a way of working and self promotion in North American universities that does not fit well with the scholar’s ethics.

Likewise, the role of Donald. P. Green in the article is the question that he and his colleagues are trying to cover with the complicit of the scholar community, because it compromises their previous behaviours and double standards. A stupid line of defence that is allowing a growing criticism from right sectors (http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/05/tales-of-two-social-scientists), although the real problem is that the conservatives are right in this affaire. May be, at the beginning, Donald P. Green could control the storytelling in front of the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/how-a-gay-marriage-study-went-wrong) but The New York Times is doing a more serious coverage.  The damages control will not endure much more time. As historian, I have no doubt: historical and journalistic methods work and, in the end, we will carry out with the most accurate version possible of the truth.

The second lie (or if you prefer the amazing relation of events) is how the fraud was discovered. According to the heroes (http://web.stanford.edu/~dbroock/broockman_kalla_aronow_lg_irregularities.pdf), they needed only four days to realize that there was a fraud and write a technical report. Even more, David Broockman, the leader here, did this inquiry justly after receiving his Ph. D. (clever guy, better shooting a colleague after passing the committee evaluation) and determined that Lacour was guilty and Green innocent. However, it is really relevant that Broockman and Green had a previous publication together (https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=en&user=Ifl1VQEAAAAJ&citation_for_view=Ifl1VQEAAAAJ:LkGwnXOMwfcC). It is also important that Broockman only needed three days to contact Peter Aronow and convince him to collaborate in the debunking of Lacour and destruction of his career, especially if we take into the account that Aronow, Lacour and Green also had published together (https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=en&user=I6w3HcsAAAAJ&citation_for_view=I6w3HcsAAAAJ:ye4kPcJQO24C). Mhm… political scientists are a very small group of people with a strong determination and efficiency.

Why did they do this? Obviously, to cover Green’s back and this is not an interpretation but Broockman’s words to The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://m.chronicle.com/article/We-Need-to-Take-a-Look-at/230313/):

Q. Donald Green is a well-known and well-respected researcher. How did it feel to approach him and say that you thought his study was invalid?

A. One piece of context is that Josh and I wouldn’t be studying political science if it were not for Don Green. He was our undergraduate adviser at Yale. We trust his integrity more than anything else in this discipline.

Also, I knew the paper had appeared with only Michael’s name on it before Don’s name appeared on it. Mike had done this as his project, and had only later decided to invite Don to help him with the data analysis. That is not at all a strange thing. The essence of graduate school is some version of working with faculty in a way where you’re both contributing something to research projects.

But because I knew that the issues in the data set were collected by LaCour — and that Don was not involved at that time — I knew that if our concerns were true, it would not have looked like Don was involved in any malicious activities. I felt very comfortable going to Don and raising my concerns.

Well, why Broockman and his team jumped Lacour and exposed him publicity without a chance to reply or defence is clear: it was done to protect Green wile throwing Lacour under the bus. The independent and honest scholars who catch the fraudsters and the poor and naive Professor fooled by the fraudster have discussed previously the version of the events, because they knew that it would be covered by the press. What happens here? According the interview:

Q. This study made a big splash when it was published, in December. The upshot of the study seemed hopeful. One way to read it was to say that empathy, even among strangers, can override people’s deeply held political beliefs. What was your first reaction when you read this study?

A. I was probably one of the most enthusiastic boosters of the study, for a few reasons. I myself am gay. I also have spent a lot of time going door to door for causes that I care about. And we know vanishingly little about how that kind of work should be done, if it works, or how long it lasts.

The study provided incredibly clear answers to those questions. Methodologically, it indicated a way of doing research that made those questions all of a sudden much more answerable. Since I became aware of the results, I had basically changed my own research agenda to try to do some of this work.

Q. Had you talked to Michael LaCour about the design of his study as he was working on it?

A. I don’t believe I spoke with him at that time. I spoke with others who were thinking about the design. But I was aware that this study was going on from the beginning, and supported it enthusiastically until last Friday.

Q. When did you first have doubts that the findings were genuine?

A. The nature of the work that we do as quantitative researchers is that you allow the data to tell you what you think the truth should be. You don’t take your views and then apply those to the data; you let the data inform your views. I don’t think it really crossed many people’s minds that there might be some issues with the data or the procedures.

I think it was early 2015 that I started working with my colleague Josh Kalla on trying to do a set of follow-up studies — finally acting on the enthusiasm I had for their design. We started reviewing aspects of the data just to form our own expectations about what it might take to do a new study. When we looked at those statistics in this study, they just surpassed our most optimistic prior expectations. So that provided some hint. But I just shook it off because it just didn’t seem like even a proper thought to have, that the data would not be accurate.

It is true that Broockman was an enthusiast of this research of his previous boss. In his TW account, he wrote the sixth of April of 2014 (https://twitter.com/dbroockman/status/451571256458883072): This experiment by @UCLaCour and Green is no doubt the most important paper written this year. So important. http://conference.mpsanet.org/papers/archive.aspx/2011/135227 …

(Note: is it not a bit dishonest promote your own research by social media previous to send it to a top journal using the Professor’s connections and before the same Professor would be member of your Ph. D. committee? Ah, no, it is the new way of doing research of the North American universities and their rockstars. The path to Princeton. We are so sloppy in the old Continent…)

Anyway, Broockman, who has a close relation to Donald Green, who promoted the paper one year ago, did not talk about how to do the experiment with Lacour. A bit strange: why not talk with him about this in more than one year? On another hand, we have the thread of Political Science Rumors of December of 2014: http://www.poliscirumors.com/topic/huge-hoax. Some people expressed there their doubts about a possible hoax and some people say that an uploaded data analysis of the article has been deleted. Yeah, they are rumours, but it does not sound really well.

But do not raise your questions, science works, quant approach works and even works better with experiments. We can replicate them, it is a science, we are not wasting huge amounts of public money, we are not collecting data with the principal aim to feed with public funds companies that hire us as experts. We are doing this in the name of the science, in the name of the progress. Universities have not converted in factories of prefabricated knowledge run by executives who want to increase the production and the benefits. Nothing is wrong here, these triangles are so common in all disciplines.

Nevertheless, the smoking gun was not found thanks to a quant analysis. According to Broockman:

Q. It sounds as if your own confirmation bias was at work, so it probably took a pretty overwhelming realization to overcome that.

A. These things were kind of in the back of my head, but I kind of put them to rest. On Friday, I finally decided to contact that firm [which had supposedly recruited subjects for the study] and say: Here’s what we’re trying to do, and do you think you would be able to do that? But what they in fact said was: This request is very strange because we don’t do that kind of work, and the person you’re asking for does not exist here.

Q. Is that the moment when you realized, Oh my God, something is very wrong here?

A. Yes. And I think on some level what it took was that combined with the uneasiness we had had in January. And those two things were necessary for us to say, “Holy crap, we need to take a look at the data.”

Thus, it was very easy to find the fraud. Especially if we think that Michael Lacour affirms the reception of 235.00 dollars in grants to conduct this research (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53b226f6e4b04c885d525058/t/53e19e4ae4b07387b0d9b0b0/1407295050731/LaCour_CV.pdf). No, this is not a problem of the peer review. It’s bigger and touches directly a glamorous way of doing research that desires universities driven by market forces. The same market forces that drives the MTV and their pop stars. Please, leave the academia and go to the medias for not coming back.


Carles Sirera Miralles (València, 1981) is a Spanish historian and adjunct professor in the University of Valencia. His principal lines of research focused on the problems of the democratization in Europe, especially during the end of Nineteenth Century and the beginnings of the Twentieth Century. As social historian, he has wrote about the sports and sociability and his thesis, Un título para las clases medias, is one of the most completed and relevant studies on the subject of the secondary school in Spain. His intellectual influences are the Alltagsgeschichte school, Norbert Elias, Fritz K. Ringer and all historians who, although the limitations of our discipline, think that is possible reach some kind of valid, useful and interesting knowledge.

2 thoughts on “The mysterious triangle: Lacour-Green-Broockman

  • OK so are you saying that Green knew about the fraud and used his other student to throw LaCour under the bus? Or was he an unwitting victim? Because you didn’t answer the question, nor do I have the patience to read this article again to find any clues as to the answer. But yet that is an important question if your conspiracy theories are to be believed. (And yes I am inclined to agree that UCLA PoliSci is controlled by big money stakeholders.) Wow if this comment is published I’ll eat my hat! Not because you’re a censor but because usually you guys lack the technical prowess to make this stuff work. (Blame the censor for technical glitches, and blame censorship on technical glitches lol.) Here goes nothing…..


    Well, my first suspicion was that the time line of DB made not sense and I was right. Secondly, the important point is that the scholars are trying to cover the inconvenient truth: research is simply a business in this area. A way to earn money and reputation by all means possible.
    Lacour is not innocent. He wanted the big prize and did an obvious and stupid fraud. Why and how Green and Vavreck were fooled by him is the real question to answer, because a teenager might have seen that a survey to more than 10.000 people paying 100 dollars to each one was… uhr… impossible. Even more, an answer rate above 96%.
    I have not a clear idea of the role of DB here, aside he has attempted to cover Green’s back. May he has been used by Green… anyway, I yet do not read the answers of Lacour. (I have a lot of job applying for positions just now, a very hard task without connections… Green, can you help me?). But, to sum up: it is not serious and this people are really well payed for being the milestone of the rigour.
    Note: yeah, I’m a disaster manegening this, but I try to do my best (well, really the people who designed wordpress did their best)

Comments are closed.