Ten Thousand Haven Monahans

June 03, 2015

Multiple Pages
Ten Thousand Haven Monahans

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx

The latest liberal hoax exposed is a happy face mirror image of the U. of Virginia rape fraud: a massively publicized paper in Science, the most prominent American peer-reviewed academic journal, about how to market gay marriage to minority voters that turned out to be a complete swindle, another exercise in catfishing made-up people into electronic existence.

And yet the most interesting point about this ignominious affair is that even if the paper had been utterly legitimate, it still wouldn’t have been “science” in the sense that most people understand the word: as a search for relatively permanent truths. Instead, it would have just been marketing research.

And that illustrates out a long-term trend. In our Age of Gladwell, leftist social scientists are increasingly giving up on looking for truths about human beings, which could get them in trouble if they found them, and reconfiguring themselves as handmaidens of the marketing industry.

On December 11, 2014, the New York Times trumpeted a study of over 10,000 voters in black and Hispanic districts of Los Angeles that would be published the next day in Science:

“Gay political canvassers can soften the opinions of voters opposed to same-sex marriage by having a brief face-to-face discussion about the issue, researchers reported Thursday.”

This was welcome news to progressives because the November 2008 election in California had been a frustrating mixed bag for them. Large numbers of black church ladies showed up at the polls to vote for Barack Obama, but in California black women voted 75-25 against gay marriage on Proposition 8.

Eventually the media settled on a narrative to explain why gay marriage was voted down in liberal California the same day Obama beat McCain there 61-37: outside agitators from Mormon Utah control the media in Los Angeles.

“There’s nothing anomalous about liberal social scientists grudgingly data validating old conservative insights deep in their papers.”

But that was a little too implausible even for 21st century America. Sure, Caitlyn Jenner was a woman while she fathered six children. Who doesn’t know that? But Mormons running the media … really?

So, the announcement that two academics had proved, using Science, that blacks and Hispanics could be made to see the light on gay marriage just by having a gay – but not a straight — canvasser explain it to them was much celebrated. Jesse Singal notes in New York magazine:

“It rerouted countless researchers’ agendas, inspired activists to change their approach to voter outreach, generated shifts in grant funding, and launched follow-up experiments.”

The authors were eminent Columbia political scientist Donald P. Green and UCLA grad student Michael LaCour, who was soon rewarded for his beloved breakthrough with a job offer from high-paying Princeton.

But a gay Berkeley grad student named David Broockman had been trying since 2013 to extend to LaCour’s miraculous finding about how to bully voters into supporting gay marriage. Yet, Broockman couldn’t quite figure out how LaCour had executed the study.

Multiple details in the paper made no sense. Broockman began quietly discussing his suspicions with professors about LaCour and Green, but quickly ran into academic omertà: don’t make the profession look bad by letting the public see its dirty laundry. A Stanford business school prof who was hiring Broockman told him:

“You don’t want to go public with this. Even if you have uncontroversial proof, you still shouldn’t do it. Because there’s just not much reward to someone doing this.” 

Similarly, back in 1999 I pointed out to the rising economics superstar Steven Levitt in our debate in Slate that his popular theory that abortion cut crime was contradicted by the actual homicide rates in between 1985 and 1997, which he had forgotten to check. Levitt replied that his complex statistical analysis proved that my simple reality check must somehow be wrong.

Levitt went on to launch the lucrative Freakonomics franchise in 2005.

Later that year, two junior economists discovered that Levitt had simply botched his computer code. But even this fiasco seems to have disappeared down the academic memory hole. It would be embarrassing to the guild to mention it.

The next year an extremely prestigious professor of notoriously strong passions invited me to speak at a conference he was organizing on Levitt’s Blunder. I suggested to a young academic who had done important research on the relationship – if any – between abortion and crime that he should speak too. He demurred, citing the prudent African proverb that when the elephants wrestle, the grass gets trampled.

Broockman says he got so little help that late last year he posted his suspicions anonymously on a job rumor website for crabby, unemployed political scientists. Even in that disreputable setting, Broockman’s doubts were soon deleted.

Eventually, however, Broockman and a couple of allies discovered that the marketing research firm that LaCour claimed to have hired had never heard of him. LaCour had even faked an email from a nonexistent executive named “Jason Peterson,” which, sadly, isn’t as memorable a name as Jackie Coakley’s “Haven Monahan.”

Broockman finally tracked down the source of LaCour’s data: he’d simply downloaded somebody else’s pre-existing dataset to be his Before data, then programmed some simple changes into the numbers to represent his miraculous After data.

It’s worth noting that even the hero of this story, Broockman, is not a disinterested scholar focused solely upon the advancement of human understanding. He was a frenemy of LaCour, and himself had co-authored with Green a 2013 study in which political advertising on Facebook had failed to move the needle.

Unkind suggestions have been anonymously aired that the revelations are being spun to make the lowly grad student LaCour the only fall guy, while negligent senior academics who now say they are shocked, shocked to find themselves having lent their credibility to a conman are allowed to skate. On the other hand, LaCour does appear to be a Fletch-like compulsive liar.

Moreover, the sizable publicity this hoax has received has much to do with the widespread resentment that LaCour was undermining The Cause by misleading gay marriage lobbies into wasting their money on an ineffective salesmanship tactic.

The scandal has led to many thumbsucker articles about the replication crisis in science and other weighty topics. But almost all of them are missing the point that even if this analysis had been honest, it still wouldn’t have been Science-with-a-capital-S as most people think of the word. Rather, it would have been lowly marketing research. This was never claimed to be a study of whether or not gay marriage was a good idea. Instead, it just purported to be research into how best to spin gay marriage to voters.

And that’s emblematic of a trend in which the social sciences, having repeatedly failed to demonstrate the truth of the political dogmas espoused by most leftist social scientists, are slowly repositioning themselves as an arm of the marketing industry.

It’s widely assumed by people on the left that the reason most social scientists vote like they do is because their findings support their leftist views, such as that race is only skin deep, that sex is just a social construct, and that social engineering works. Many people on the right, in contrast, suspect that social scientists come up with this data because they are leftist.

But the truth is far more ironic: leftist social scientists seldom produce numbers supporting their leftist prejudices. Consider Hillary advisor Raj Chetty’s massive ongoing study of your confidential tax data to determine the causes of income inequality by county. Chetty concocted various acceptable rationalizations, such as segregation and sprawl. But if you actually look at his numbers, it turns out the most important long-term reasons for what really keeps children poor is the race of their ancestors (black and Native American counties regress toward lower mean incomes) and social liberalism, such as having a single mother.

There’s nothing anomalous about liberal social scientists grudgingly data validating old conservative insights deep in their papers. That’s been going on for a half century since the federal Coleman Report of 1966. The 1964 Civil Rights Act allocated one million dollars to prove that the reason blacks did badly in school on average was because they didn’t get their fair share of funding. But sociologist James S. Coleman discovered, to his shock, that school performance had far more to do with the human capital the students brought from home.

Due to this endless history of empirical failures, leftist social scientists have pretty much given up using the tools of their trade to come up with evidence in support of Social Justice Warrior shibboleths. That’s almost inevitable: real science is replicable and thus has to be about enduring truths. But the anti-science conventional wisdom demonizes actual knowledge as “stereotypes.”

Hence, social scientists have been increasingly focused not on truth finding but on how better to manipulate the masses.

For instance, one of the most famous experiments of the 1990s claimed to demonstrate that showing college students words related to being old (e.g. “bingo”) “primed” them to walk down the hallway afterwards slightly slower.

It’s proven hard to replicate this study, which is another social science scandal. Yet perhaps the bigger question is … why did anybody care in the first place? Why is it important whether or not you can cajole college students to walk slower once?

In fact, everybody knows you can prime college students to do a lot of dumb things: it’s called “fashion.” In 1978, for instance, Elvis Costello primed me into wearing a skinny necktie.

But experimenting with current fashions isn’t discovering enduring truths, it’s just marketing research.

There’s nothing wrong with marketing research. It’s an honorable trade, one that I pursued for most of the 1980s and 1990s before becoming a full-time writer.

It’s not, however, a terribly prestigious one. If you call yourself a scientist, you are claiming the mantle of Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein. If you call yourself a marketing researcher, however, you’re just one of the nerds running the focus group of Itchy & Scratchy fans.

Academics can rationalize their selling out to the marketing biz by quoting Marx on changing the world.

But, hey, it pays the bills.

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