Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Faking It

This news report covers another instance of an individual faking data in a widely-publicized study designed to advance a particular narrative. The lead author on the study, Columbia University Political Scientist Donald Green, has done the honorable thing upon finding that his co-author faked his data, and retracted the study. A full report can be found at Retraction Watch.

The upshot is that the individual who allegedly faked the data, Michael LaCour, has allegedly been hired as "an Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Politics at Princeton University."

The anthropologist Jonathan Marks makes some apposite remarks:
Incompetence is not a defense, and the end does not justify the means. . . . After all, once you have established that your colleague's work is not reliable, it really doesn't matter why. If some scientists don't do good research, it is difficult to maintain that they should nevertheless still be employed and receiving grants, much less that you want to continue collaborating with them!

The problem with the "incompetence defense," then, is that it implicitly raises a question about the rest of their work and about your own judgment in standing by incompetent work. To say someone is a sloppy researcher whose work is riddled with mistakes is not a compliment, and it immediately raises the questions of why you are associated with such a person, how competent the rest of their research has been, and why they should remain at work. I can think of no other profession in which that would be tolerated.

(Jonathan Marks, Why I am Not a Scientist (Berkeley: University of Californian Press, 2009), 189.)
Kudos to Professor Green for doing the right thing and to UC Berkeley graduate students, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, and Yale professor, Peter Aronow, for bringing this fraudulence to light. As Marks notes: "it is not in anyone's interests to find fraud, and they will go to odd lengths to avoid it." (ibid.)

[Update: Apparently Michael LaCour made up information on his CV including funding sources, and awards. Here, is an interview with Donald Green about the whole affair. Green's comments about the role of faith in scholarship are worth quoting:
On the one hand, there’s obviously the potential for abuse in that sort of situation. On the other hand, in any professional settings, if we didn’t have certain baseline assumptions that our colleagues are acting honestly, or not making stuff, everything would grind to a halt. There’s no way to not have some degree of trust baked into the research process, right?

I agree. I think that one wants to be skeptical and build in checks, but without some degree of trust one would have to build in so many checks and so much redundancy into the system that nothing would be feasible except at very high cost. So there’s a cost of ratcheting up the level of mistrust.
Scholarship rests on a certain amount of faith in the trustworthiness of your colleagues.]