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Dirty Sexy Science

Whew! We are not yet three weeks in and the LaCour case has all but run its course. As new information, at times shocking, at others infuriating, at still others utterly fascinating, has surfaced almost daily, the complete picture of the scope of Lacour’s fraud has become clearer and clearer, and we now have what we need t oconclude with a great degree of certainty that LaCour committed research fraud, lying about methods, fabricating results, and maintaining the charade for years. Only the conclusions of the internal investigations by the political science departments at UCLA and Princeton are left to officially seal his fate. Once that is done, this will surely go down in history as one of the strangest and most impressive academic cons in history.

With the verdict all but certain, all that is left for us to do now is to draw our conclusions. Of course, this is no small task, as much is at stake for the many different people and institutions implicated in all of this: LaCour’s co-author and his academic adviser, his department, the hiring process in Princeton’s political science department, political science as a discipline, the peer review process, replication standards, science journalism, and social science in general. There will surely be many reckonings, and since most of them will be within academia, filled as it is with opinionated people, there will be no shortage of conclusions drawn in the coming months. Here is mine.


First, for those of you who have not been keeping track, the weekend saw two new developments in the case. Late Friday night LaCour released his 23 page, rambling response to the charges against the research presented in his Science paper1. Recall that the major charges were these: (1) he made up his funding sources, (2) the survey company he claimed to use had no record of ever working with him, (3) the baseline data in his paper (that is, the initial opinions of his survey respondents) was actually taken from another survey, and (4) the follow-up survey data was entirely fabricated. In his response he admits to (1), and presents three arguments against (3) and (4): first, he provides screen shots purportedly showing when he loaded his survey into Qualtrics, a commonly used survey software package; second, he argues that the comparison of his results with the previous survey was flawed; and third, he claims that his results have been replicated by another researcher. He does not addresses (2), though in a New York Times interview he claims that he actually used a different, unnamed survey company. The rest of his 23 pages are devoted to impugning the honor and ethics of his critics.

By now it is all but universally agreed that his response missed its mark entirely. His evidence that the survey was real was most likely fabricated, and the statistical arguments he uses to show that the comparison of his baseline data with that of another survey may actually provide further evidence that the two datasets are identical. What’s more, the researcher whom LaCour claims has replicated his results has said that he merely ran an extension of that work that did not involve a replication. Unless he miraculously produces clear evidence that he actually ran his survey and that his data is original, his goose is cooked.

The second development is contained in a series of tweets from a University of Michigan graduate student who collaborated with LaCour on a pilot version of the project that ultimately resulted in the Science paper:

So, about the Umich Qualtrics link in the LaCour report. That’s to my accuont. I’ve taken down the survey. ML and I were collaborating in April/May 2013. We really sent out mail offering an iPad UCLA IRB approved it. We got some real data! 38 whole responses! So clearly that wasn’t going to work. ML came up with the idea for the uSamp panel. But once he allegedly got it running for wave 1 he stopped returning my calls and emails and kicked me off the project. Now we know why! His timeline misrepresents the pilot.

In other words, as soon as he realized he wasn’t going to be able to get the number of responses he needed, he dropped his collaborator so that he could make up the responses himself without anyone looking.


So, now that we can be fairly certain where this is going to end up, let us consider where it began. Up until a few weeks ago, Michael LaCour was considered a rising star in political science. His name well-known among academics, field workers, and activists, even the general public, all because he published a paper on gay marriage, one of the hottest topics in American and, as the recent referendum in Ireland shows, global politics. However, this wasn’t his only high profile research project. He was working and giving academic talks on new research he had supposedly conducted on abortion and persuasion, building on his work on gay marriage, and in the other paper in which he is now accused of fabricating data he presents studies on media bias, another frequently discussed topic in American politics. It is abundantly clear, then, that his research choices were guided at least as much by how hot the topics were outside of academic political science as they were by theoretical and empirical questions within the discipline.

And how well this strategy was working for him! Until his con was revealed, he was a few weeks from completing a PhD at a prestigious university while working under a well-known political scientist and consultant, he had published with one of the most well-respected senior political scientists in the world, and he had a tenure-track position at Princeton waiting for him later this summer. At a time when most social science PhD’s struggle to find work in the field, LaCour’s career was being fast-tracked. The sky was the limit.

What makes his level of career achievement even more impressive is that, aside from the now-retracted Science paper, LaCour’s curriculum vitae was pretty unimpressive, at least in terms of published research. The other projects on which he was the primary researcher — the aforementioned abortion and media bias studies — were either under review or had not yet been submitted for publication. His only other publication was on research methods, and did not present original empirical research. It is not clear that he was working on any other significant research projects (of the two papers he listed as under review, one was also on methods, not original research).

In disciplines built around empirical research, as political science is, departments looking to hire junior faculty are primarily concerned with whether graduate student or post doctoral candidates can demonstrate the existence of a productive research program. That is, candidates must be able to show that their existing research projects are capable of producing a large amount of original research for at least the next several years, if not for an entire career. Precisely what this means will differ from discipline to discipline, but it will usually mean a certain number of publications (in cognitive psychology the magicnumber is about 5 in the pipeline, that is either published or in press). While I do not know political science’s magic number, it is unlikely that many graduate students with one research publication, one methods publication, and one research paper in press are hired by political departments at schools like Princeton. LaCour simply did not have a CV that suggested a long-term productive research program.

Why, then, had a prestigious school like Princeton hired him? Only those on the hiring committee can say for sure, but it certainly seems that the nature of the topics used (note that his research was on persuasion; the gay marriage issue was a methodological choice!) in his work played a role. That is, though again we cannot be sure, it appears that the fact that he was studying such attention-grabbing topics as gay marriage, abortion, and media bias got him hired at Princeton.

And here we have perhaps find the true lesson of the LaCour case. Within the social and behavioral sciences, attention-grabbing topics and findings like LaCour’s are generally referred to as “sexy,” and while sexy research is certainly not new to the social and behavioral sciences, over the last several years it seems that more and more researchers in certain disciplines — political science, social psychology, cognitive and social neuroscience, to name a few — have focused their efforts on sexy research. It is not difficult to see why: as more and more people consume science journalism and science books, sexy research has increasingly led to fame and prestige for researchers who would otherwise have toiled in relative obscurity for their entire careers. And increasingly, that fame and prestige leads to better academic appointments, book deals, and a fair amount of money.

And it’s not just individual researchers who are increasingly focused on the sexiness of their research. Academic departments seem to be increasingly interested in relatively famous researchers as well, even if, as in LaCour’s case, those researchers have done very little actual research. Every time a researcher’s name is mentioned in the press, his or her institution is as well: from July forward, every mention of LaCour’s widely popular gay marriage study would have referred to him as “Princeton political scientist Michael Lacour” or some variant thereof. In other words, famous researchers make for famous departments, so that everyone in a department benefits from one member’s fame.

So far, sexiness seems like a good thing for social science — it gets attention, which means grants, which means more research — but there is one big downside: in the language of another social science, it creates perverse incentives for researchers. In order to build and maintain fame, a researcher has to continually produce sexy results. This creates problems for scientists because, as we well know, most research projects are a bust. That is, out of the many, many studies that a researcher will run, most will not yield publishable results. This is particularly true when researchers step out on the sorts of theoretical and methodological limbs that sexiness generally requires. If you want to make a splash, you have to produce something new, something either coolly counterintuitive or shamelessly prejudice-confirming, and as science generally works by the slow accumulation of evidence, sufficiently new counterintuitive or prejudice-confirming results will require diverging significantly from existing research.

How then might a researcher maintain a steady stream of sexy research when the vast majority of his or her projects fail to produce publishable results? LaCour shows us the most extreme possibility: make it all up. For most, however, the methods will be more mundane, though likely more damaging to science in the long run: pick potentially sexy research topics and run as many studies as you can until something comes out. If one were to pick a researcher whose work has consistently been reported in the popular press for years and visit his or her lab, one would undoubtedly find a myriad of potentially sexy research projects underway. One would likely see that as each version of a project fails, new, slightly different versions are run, with the process continuing until the desired results are achieved. As we discussed in a previous post, such a practice can easily produce many false results which, since all of the failed results are not mentioned, easily make their way into the scientific literature.

This is not how science is supposed to work. Instead of designing studies based on the sexiness of the topics and potential outcomes, scientists are supposed to use existing models and empirical knowledge to develop clear hypotheses, and then test those hypotheses carefully, covering as many alternative explanations as possible over multiple conditions or even multiple studies. While such a process will produce good science, it will not produce sexy results very often. Sure, some times sexiness will result, and if you follow science reporting at all you will occasionally find a new name, or names only mentioned a few times, because their projects, arrived at the right way, produced results that are really interesting to both researchers and lay people, but a career of sexy findings is highly unlikely this way.


In sum, then, this is the lesson I take away from LaCour: the increasing focus on sexiness in social science has come back to bite it in the ass in a very visible way, but the effects are actually deeper and mostly invisible. Granted, LaCour has shown himself to be habitually professionally dishonest, admitting to lying about awards, grants, and methods both on his CV and in his published work, so it is likely that he would have committed fraud even if political science were not as enamored with sexy research as it appears to be. However, if sexiness were not given the weight it is within his discipline, he would at the very least have had to fabricate much more research to achieve anything like the level of success he has actually achieved with one fake study, and surely with all of that extra lying he would have been caught more easily, and perhaps before he did so much damage to other researchers, his department, and his discipline.

More importantly to me, however, is the fact that LaCour is just the most extreme example of what researchers will do in the name of sexiness. The level of deception achieved by LaCour is staggering, not only in its length and scope, but in the time and effort that was required to build and maintain it. Most researchers who choose to focus their efforts on sexiness choose the much simpler, much less dangerous, and much less obviously unethical path of throwing everything at the research wall and seeing what sticks.

This is, I should say again, not just a problem in political science. Psychology is rife with researchers who care only about press releases, and I have no doubt that there are plenty departments like Princeton’s that have hired people based more on the sexiness of their research than its quality or future potential. This is a problem that can easily infect any discipline in which research is relatively inexpensive (relative to, say, building a super collider that is) and grant money relatively easy to come by.

And before we condemn the researchers, it must be said that we are all complicit: we are the ones who click on the links to articles about sexy research, and we are the ones who buy the books scientists write about their sexy research. Perhaps ironically, but entirely predictably, the increase in attention and consumption of science produced by the internet has in this way been harmful to the science. In a sense, Michael LaCour is of our own creation. And we are not just the cause, we are the ones who suffer as well, as more and more bad research replaces good. Science moves more slowly, and we know less about ourselves as a result.


1 It is important to make this clear, as there is now good evidence that LaCour fabricated the data in another paper as well.

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107 thoughts on “Dirty Sexy Science

  1. This post page-loads funny for me – anyone else? Missing sidebar, social media icons compressed/columned, etc.

    “note that his research was on persuasion”

    With the way he almost pulled this off and parlayed it into gain, I’m starting to think LaCour DOES know something novel about persuasion.

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      • Like many others, I too will say Great Job Chis! These have been excellent, and very informative.

        My main thought comes back to Science magazine itself. What is the current editor doing to help prevent this from happening? It seems that the magazine has become a gateway to academic treasures, and if so, what steps are they performing to help prevent fraud, and also to preserve or rebuild the perception of integrity that they currently have/had? I have no idea if you can answer that question, but it is one that I feel should be asked.

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        • Science, like most journals, relies heavily on the entire system to prevent frauds of this sort. Their primary focus in peer review is on the quality of the reported research — its methods, its data, the analyses, etc. If the peer review system has to shift its focus to fraud detection, it will become even slower and more burdensome, which is not a good thing for science.

          That’s not to say that, if there is evidence of fraud that is readily apparent to reviewers, that shouldn’t be a real issue. It’s just that, most of the time, when a paper gets to the peer review process it has already been vetted at multiple levels by multiple people in the field, so that the real concern of the peer reviewers should be on the methods and results.

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  2. I can understand what motivated the guy (NOT excuse it!). A PhD is a hell of a long road and academic jobs are few and far between. A publication in Science can mean the difference between having job security with decent pay and summers off, versus living hand to mouth, possibly requiring public assistance, as an adjunct with no benefits.

    But it amazes me the degree of effort required to pull off such a charade. Part of what was sexy about the experiment was the idea and the design. Even without such dramatic results, it might have gotten noticed. Had he actually run the experiment, he could have found out!

    Anyhow, it’s extremely worrisome to wonder just how many experiments have falsified data. And how many policy decisions have been based on them.

    Sorry, not saying much of interest, just smh.

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    • But it amazes me the degree of effort required to pull off such a charade. Part of what was sexy about the experiment was the idea and the design. Even without such dramatic results, it might have gotten noticed.

      This is probably true: even if he’d used recycling (one of his control conditions) and gotten these results, it would have made ripples, though perhaps those ripples wouldn’t have been quite so big (like, no This American Life episode, but still get mentioned on NPR).

      Also, one of the things his response hints at is that they initially submitted the paper to a major political science journal, and it was rejected. They then did some extra work (or fabricated some extra work) and submitted it to Science.

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  3. The difference between achievement and accolade stuns.

    But I really like the phrase, “dirty sexy science,” science is sexy; most particularly the legitimate, well researched kind.

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  4. If one were to pick a researcher whose work has consistently been reported in the popular press for years and visit his or her lab, one would undoubtedly find a myriad of potentially sexy research projects underway. One would likely see that as each version of a project fails, new, slightly different versions are run, with the process continuing until the desired results are achieved.

    This seems to call for a change in what is expected of scientists seeking publication. Say, a requirement to produce upon demand or publish all related results of a research program, successful or otherwise. And make related do a lot of work, so research can’t be structured such that every run is it’s own program (perhaps lump it by grant, or some such?).

    Honestly I think we should be publishing, somehow, all failed results anyway, to minimize duplication of effort failure.

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    • I think is right about the necessity of publishing failed results (which of course are often as interesting!). Maybe journals should aim for a certain percentage of published studies to be failed results? Or append replication attempts to initial studies, at least online?

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    • There is actually a solution to this that is already in practice primarily in pharmacy research: pre-registration. If you want to publish a study, you have to pre-register it with a research database. This registration entails indicating your hypothesis, your methods, the predictions your hypothesis and methods yield, and perhaps things like the results of power analyses and required sample size. This makes it much more difficult to just run study after study until you get publishable results.

      Apparently political science is taking steps towards implementing a system like this, and there is already a pre-registration database. In the Science paper, LaCour and Green say that their study was pre-registered, but unsurprisingly, it wasn’t. So LaCour contacted the organization that hosts the database and told them that his study is not in their database, and then gave them a fabricated PDF receipt that was supposed to indicate he’d registered the study. The problem for LaCour was that their system didn’t produce anything like what he gave them (seriously, did he think they would not know their own system?!).

      Anyway, I think this is probably better than publishing null results generally, because it helps prevent gaming the system with multiple versions of the same study until non-null results are obtained, without clogging up the system of peer review and publication with a bunch of uninteresting null results.

      However, when it comes to replication or competing, well-established models, there should be a better system for the publication of null results. I think this may actually become more common, but less as a result of cases like this than because scientists are beginning to recognize the importance of null results in a lot of ongoing debates between competing models.

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        • I knew about it in pharmacy, where the practice of running multiple studies can be extremely damaging, but until I read about LaCour’s almost comically bad attempt at post-registering his study in the pre-registration system, I didn’t know it was used in political science.

          Given that LaCour keeps producing laughably bad forged documents, I’m starting to think that we’re all in a movie about a bumbling con artist.

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  5. I’ve enjoyed all of your essays on this topic… they remind me of my graduate student days flirting with HPS as a discipline. This episode with the passage of time will be the nucleus of some not yet born PhD candidate’s dissertation in HPS.

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  6. Semi OT perhaps but maybe not: How much do you think the LaCour affair is going to damage the reputation of science?

    http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid

    The above article seems like it is going to be the social media story of the day.

    The article covers a tweet by an artist named Zahira Kelly that allegedly implies all scientific inquiry is invalid because much of science is done by white dudes. Now I agree that science has an unsavory past in many ways but I don’t see how this can lead someone to dismissing the entirety of science.

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        • Its not that the complaint was dismissed, its that it even took off. To paraphrase Jaybird, “Its not the destination, its the ride there.” Very stifling of free speech.

          Things like Kangaroo courts tend to scare the shit out of people, and when these things start happening to people who are basically on the side of the SJW’s, such as Kipnis, people really start to take notice.

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      • Oh my goodness, the last time I heard that name, I was listening to NIN’s “Broken” on my yellow sports walkman.

        Which, I suppose, doesn’t tell you anything because I could have been doing that a week ago.

        But Broken was newly released, at the time.

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        • You’re welcome. ;)

          Seriously, I think a lot of people would find her interesting if they gave her a chance. That’s not to say they’d agree with her in the least, but at the very least she might make them say, “You know, there are some interesting questions we’re not asking.”

          Unfortunately, it appears that the person Saul mentions just read it and said, “Oh, she’s absolutely right, it is sexed, and racialized!”

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          • We didn’t have Poe’s law at the time but I remember thinking something to the effect of “this… this can’t…”

            The whole question of the degree to which our unexamined biases color our thinking is a very, very important question. I don’t think that she asked her questions in a way that resulted in others being inspired to examine their unexamined biases, though.

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            • I dunno. I mean, I did, even if I think E=MC2 as a sexed equation makes no sense as a critique of either the equation or physics more generally. And I suspect a lot of people did, just not the right people (I mean, most of the people who read Irigaray, at least the ones who weren’t hate reading her because of Sokal, were feminists and anti-colonialists and such already).

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                • The science wars happened for the same reason New Atheism happened: science’s supporters don’t think it is a symbol system, and lash out at anyone who says otherwise or who naively attempts to promote something that is.

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                  • Well, I mean, Irigaray was staggeringly idiotic, a living caricature of of an active mind. There are good sociological critiques to make of science, but they can be better made withing the boundaries of science, including cognitive science and linguistics, wherein the real useful aspects of post-whatever-ism can be found.

                    Which is to say, yes, the way we structure our thought carries along a lot of bias. But when you try to find gender in math — well you are basically practicing the occult at that point. It’s just nonsense dressed up in emotionally appealing symbols. Blah!

                    And I blame the whole post-colonial “mood” for Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS policies — and that shit has a body count to match most shitty colonial endeavors.

                    If you put your principles of social justice at odds with science, you are going to kill people.

                    #####

                    On the other hand, watching smug, white college professors grouse is rather pleasing. It’s hard to be sympathetic to those guys.

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                    • “Idiot” is too strong. She’s a smart woman who raises interesting questions, but is sloppy.

                      I reread the essay last night, and remember now that Sokal made up the E=MC2, which is pretty ironic. I feel bad for repeating it. Sokal, to me, is sort of like Rand or Dawkins in that I have trouble taking seriously anyone who takes him seriously, as his critique is as sloppy and ignorant as he claims its object is.

                      Of course, in the essay Irigaray makes up a Nietzsche quote, so…

                      The essay would be much more interesting if Irigaray knew more about science (and if she didn’t misquote Nietzsche, which is one of my pet peeves).

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                    • I have a friend who is a sociologist, and one of the smartest people I know. She once gave me her take on the whole pomo thing as having originated as a useful critique of how we know what we know, or perhaps why we think we know what we think we know. People then got so excited by this that they took the idea and ran with it far past the point where it was useful or interesting, much less valid.

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                      • There were a lot of things going on in “postmodernism.” On the one hand, there was a lot of really interesting philosophical stuff going on by a lot of really interesting thinkers, which took place firmly within a philosophical tradition that had diverged in a visible way from the Anglo-American tradition around the turn of the last century. This fact made it difficult for many English speakers to grasp what was going on, which in some cases (see, e.g., John Searle) led to unwarranted derision.

                        Then, in the 70s and 80s, especially the 80s, those philosophical ideas bled into some other fields primarily in the U.S., most notably anthropology and English. The problem was, the people who were reading Deleuze and Derrida in American English departments hadn’t read Aristotle or Duns Scotus or Fichte, much less Husserl or Brentano or Bergson, so they were removing the works from their contexts and then applying them, without a full grasp of them, to their own fields. The results were predictably bad for the most part. There was some interesting stuff in the heady days of theory, but for every interesting work there a dozen graduate students writing nonsense that combined some terms from Lacan with some terms from Derrida and some quotes from Jane Austen into a tossed word salad.

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                        • Honestly, whenever I hear the term ‘postmodern’ or any of it’s variants, I have know idea what it means. How can something be after ‘modern?’

                          Now I realize it can be a name for an era; but it’s like this confused way of talking about the near past; or so it seems to me.

                          Now feel free to tell me why that’s wrong; I’d welcome the information. But thinking long term, unless we change the meaning of ‘modern,’ this will, eventually, in no way be the modern age, should we be so lucky. Unless we’re talking about changing the meaning of modern, or the current age, to the century after the industrial age.

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                                • Is that any good? It seems rather obvious — but because we deal with individual perspective and have to break complex problems into smaller problems, rarely have just the right information for the questions we’re asking, forget that there are multiple answers because we live in a multiverse, it’s probably good to remind folks that things are interconnected and no person will ever understand, and it’s likely that humans are incapable of observing and measuring many of the interconnections, and so must infer them, and often we don’t know what we know, so can’t infer and fill the space until we settle on some lexicon, be it math or language or image our sound, to fill the conceptual space so that we can discuss how individual academic specialities benefit from interacting with other specialities.

                                  We miss the forest for the trees; too often see the flower but not the bee that stings.

                                  *I worked really, really hard to write this sentence.

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                          • Well it might help if you release that the word ‘modern’ was not exactly a temporal term as much as a fashion one (in the larger sense of fashion). That is to say something was ‘modern’ was to say that it was some combination of ‘au courant’ and precedent breaking. In this it shared the same time and space as a near contemporaneous word the ‘novel’. The error, if error it was, was the broadly shared assumption among ‘modernes’ that society had entered a new state of being that would be marked by permanent progress towards final answers culminating in such things as Classical Mechanics (late 19th century) and Logical Positivism (c. 1920s).

                            Post-moderns instead mocked this whole vision (one that had gone from Anglo-German to Anglo-American) by presenting a new one that can be seen as a merger of the three H’s: Husserl, Heidegger, and Heisenberg. Which then got taken up in a fundamentally playful style by the post-war French philosophers and even historians. (You can see the French Annales School and its emphasis on “la longue duree” as a rejection of the periodization that gave us the ‘modern’.)

                            How can something be ‘after modern’? Just stop thinking of ‘modern’ as an open system and instead think of it as a fixed era with determinable (within a range) start and stop dates and a certain mindset about the nature of progress.

                            Perhaps the prototypical image of modernity is ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and assuming that the future is ‘giants all the way up’ much as certain ancient world views had the universe as ‘turtles all the way down’.

                            And yeah I know this is a little facile muddled and throwing a lot of disparate stuff against the wall. But then that is the typical objection of all post-modernism. E.g. Foucault and Derrida in their separate but linked battles with Searle.

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                    • But when you try to find gender in math — well you are basically practicing the occult at that point.

                      You are precisely practicing the occult at that point. Recall that the Pythagoreans, who thought that numbers had mystical properties, considered odd numbers male (and thus lucky) but even numbers female (and thus unlucky).

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    • Question: For all this ‘panic’ that school admins seem to have with regard to student complaints & emotions (& customer satisfaction), I have to wonder, has anyone ACTUALLY looked at the enrollment numbers of schools that cater heavily to student feelings as opposed to those that only deal with the more egregious incidents? Are schools who treat students like adults who should have some emotional resilience actually hurt by it? Do their enrollments decrease? Does their reputation amongst other institutions & employers?

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      • Interesting questions. The issue is how do you determine which schools do what. I suspect that no one could devise a list diving schools into categories without involving our own political biases and assumptions. I think a lot of talking about the categories is going to devolve into swipes at the Seven Sisters. I imagine that public universities are more suspectible to the customer service problem because they are more tuition dependent. Many elite colleges and universities seem to largely avoid the luxury dorm problem.

        The interesting thing about the Vox article is that the guy teaches at a small public university in the Midwest which is not the type of place one normally associates with these stories.

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        • I’m just at a loss as to what these schools are so afraid of? Are kids really choosing schools based on how well the school caters to their emotional stability? Is that really entering into their calculus? Are they transferring to other schools after hurt feelings are not being taken seriously? This is something we should be able to get data on.

          Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, but this seems like a panic over anecdotal evidence instead of hard data.

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        • The biggest example of hurt feelings the prof had to deal with was from someone complaining he was “communistic” or some such word. That doesn’t sound like a complaint from a leftie.

          But i’ll second Oscar’s point about a lot of this being anecdata. Certainly some of it is weapons grade stupid. But its hard to see how big of a problem this actually is. These are college kids we’re talking about, they do tend towards the self-righteous and to lack perspective. On most of the same campuses as people talk about this crap there are all sorts of other things going on; drunken frat/sorority parties, hyper focus on football or other sports and generally immature behavior.

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      • Actually, I think it is too soon to tell on these issues. Most of it seems to have only cropped up in the last few years, but I do remember the seeds being sown when I was in school in the early nineties.

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        • The big issue is that there are a lot of colleges and universities in the U.S. and so far we have only really heard a handful of stories and essays. We still can’t tell how much this is a thing and how much this is an isolated issue. Most college classes at most universities will go without incident including ones with controversial opinions.

          I remember the whole PC wars of the early 1990s but what is interesting is that those were gone by the time I was in college from 1998-2002.

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      • Have the donation numbers changed?

        I imagine that there are a non-zero number of schools for which the endowment is more important than enrollment numbers (to the point where they worry about turning away n% of applicants rather than n+5% of them).

        The endowments, however, *DO* go up or down.

        That’s where I reckon the pain would be.

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    • it seems to me that Professor Schlosser is taking Artist Kelly out of context. And so are you.

      First, the tweet doesn’t say ‘all’ it says ‘most’. Second, the tweet is talking specifically about evolutionary psychology, which has a lot of bunk, but worse, has a lot a layperson misappropriation and misattribution.

      The tweet is basically correct, or at least defensible, in saying that a lot of scare quote ‘science’ (the ‘scare quotes’ are key here) is merely used to back up one’s own preconceptions and biases. Science, without the scare quotes, should be used to attack one’s preconceptions and biases. That’s how we figured out heavier objects don’t fall faster than lighter objects because they are heavy, that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant irrespective of the speed of the observer, and that Jim Parsons is a one note actor

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    • It also seems to me that the article is much more about your usual wheelhouse subjects of the tenuous job security of adjuncts and the relatively bleak job market of academy minded Ph.D.s than what he says is ‘the real problem’ of ‘social justice’.

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  7. >>That is, though again we cannot be sure, it appears that the fact that he was studying such attention-grabbing topics as gay marriage, abortion, and media bias got him hired at Princeton.

    Just in terms of ROI, a Science paper all but guarantees a dozen easily publishable follow-up papers in lower-tier journals: replications, slight tweaks to the methodology, reviews, perspectives, etc. Even if LaCour made no future discoveries, it’s likely that he would have paid for himself at Princeton (in terms of publications and/or grants) on the back of this one paper. In an ideal world, this is the just reward for uncovering some low-hanging fruit that seriously advances the field. In the real world, it creates a shoot-the-moon mentality that may do more harm than good.

    Also, while this isn’t directed at Chris who’se been doing a great job of chronicling the LaCour fiasco, it’s important to keep in mind that the last big scientific misconduct case lead to a suicide ( http://www.nature.com/news/stem-cell-pioneer-blamed-media-bashing-in-suicide-note-1.15715 ). So UCLA should be as concerned about LaCour’s mental health as they are about his fraudulent behavior.

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    • “So UCLA should be as concerned about LaCour’s mental health as they are about his fraudulent behavior.”

      Why? He committed fraud. Are we concerned about a criminal’s mental health when he’s caught committing a crime? Not so much. We lock them up. If you can’t do the time, don’t commit the crime.

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      • I don’t think death is an appropriate punishment for scientific misconduct. The university (and to a lesser extent the scientific community) still has a responsibility to their students. If they know that their actions can lead to mental instability and self-harm, then they have a duty to take all necessary precautions.

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        • Death isn’t the punishment. The punishment is him being fired, enduring social / professional scorn, blackballed from his field and never able to get work in his chosen field, or such.

          Him choosing to end his life because he can’t cope with the consequences of his actions isn’t. I have little sympathy for someone who choose to do something wrong and then seeks “help” to deal with the crap they unleashed on themselves.

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    • UCLA should be as concerned about LaCour’s mental health

      What should they do, exactly? When someone is associated with high-profile fraud, in any field (for ex., Mark Madoff committed suicide, though he was never actually charged), the resulting backlash is likely to be very stressful (honestly, the strain of maintaining the fraud in the first place was probably psychologically stressful, even before the cracks started to show).

      I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but so long as UCLA is being honest/factual about the situation and not slandering/libeling LaCour, it appears to me the responsibility for LaCour’s mental health resides with LaCour and his family/friends. I don’t know what UCLA can do for him.

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      • I think UCLA should offer LaCour extensive mental-health services and emphasize their importance to himself and his family. We in the scientific community should put pressure on UCLA to do so and emphasize that it would be unacceptable for them to let LaCour fend for himself. This is the kind of situation where UCLA most likely wants to cut their ties as quickly and aggressively as possible and they need to be made aware that the PR consequences of doing so are worse than weathering the storm and providing LaCour with help.

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        • Interesting. I’m not against this, exactly, but I guess I would want to know more before I’d say they have any obligation to do so.

          If I committed high-profile fraud, my employer would probably want to cut ties with me ASAP, and I can’t say I blame them – but of course, a student’s relationship with their school is somewhat different than employer/employee.

          To the degree that LaCour’s mental stress appears to be largely self-inflicted, it seems *somewhat* untoward to ask someone else to foot the bill/take the initiative in attempting to help him with that; but again, we might do that if someone, for example, got themselves in deep with an addiction (on this front, I believe my employer would actually try to take this route – people with drink/drug problems supposedly will be offered help, before the company will consider termination).

          What if it turns out LaCour is not mentally ill, exactly – at least, not in any way that can be easily helped – but is instead some sort of megalomaniacal sociopath? Mightn’t he then use any continuing relationship with UCLA to his advantage? Is it better for them to just cut ties? “PR consequences” are nothing to be sneezed at, especially in any field that turns heavily on reputation, which it seems to me academia should.

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        • Yeah I don’t see why I, as a taxpayer, unless you’re telling me UCLA is 100% private, should have to foot the bill for his mental heath issues related to his criminal acts. In addition, since he had “help” with his fraud, this situation needs investigation and those who provided lax oversight etc deserve to be punished as well.

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        • This is a weird kind of classism that holds that because LaCour was “almost one of us/you”, which is to say a bona-fide scholar that he deserves support in a way that the hundreds of students who washed out of academia at lower levels do not.

          Does UCLA owe counseling to every sophomore that flunked out? To every undergraduate whose dreams of advancing to a name grad school were dashed by that one D they got for plagiarizing “just ONE term paper”.

          Christ I dropped out of not just one but two top-five PhD programs. Mostly due to my own weaknesses but in the second case due to a lack of institutional support and what can only be considered a failure in the admittance process (I got admitted by one group of professors who passed me on to another that were neither equipped or interested in supporting my particular area of study). And I was pretty bummed about it at the time and still twenty years later. But I never expected nor do I think I should have expected UC Berkeley to pick up my psych bills.

          “Pour LaCour”. Well what about “Poor freshman whose mental illness resulted in an inability to cope with campus life and expectations”. Sorry kid, take your job at a call center and dream of what might have been.

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          • I can’t respond at length right now, but I think you and Damon are missing the fact that a student/university relationship is fundamentally very different from an employee/employer relationship. Just from a teaching standpoint, Chris outlined why LaCour’s department and adviser share a lot of the responsibility for allowing this to happen to begin with. But there is also a broader culture of treating students like members of an academic community, where the university and department serve as mentors for the student and shepherd their long-term academic career. LaCour has not yet been convicted of anything and continues to be a student at UCLA, so the university owes him their services[*]. In general, I would argue that if a university was aware of a serious pattern of students dropping out – for whatever reason – and then committing self-harm, they would still have a responsibility to protect such students to whatever extent it was feasible; but LaCour’s situation is even more cut-and-dry.

            [*] BTW, if the community spirit stuff all sounds like hippy communism, even a profit-motivated university still has a rational self-interest to maintain it: most of the quantitative people I went to grad school with gave up huge industry pay-checks in exchange for 60-hr weeks making peanuts in large part because they knew they were joining an academic community and not just becoming an employee.

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            • Unless he was living off loans, he was getting paid for his work. If he was getting paid for his work he’s either an employee or a contractor.

              I address the issues of his supervisors and mentors above.

              Regardless, if he’s fired or expelled, assuming mental health was covered either as employee or as student, he’d be neither after he’s fired and expelled, so he’s entitled to nothing more than packing his stuff up and leaving the campus.

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              • We’re starting to repeat ourselves. I’m not talking about UCLA’s legal liability, I’m talking their academic responsibility. Go talk to some grad students and ask if they see themselves as employees or contractors. Are they putting in a 9-5 workday for their boss, collecting their paycheck, living for the weekend, etc. etc. Academia doesn’t that work that way. Every PI has to do a substantial amount of “community service” if they want to get tenured. Every grant has to include a “broader impacts” section if the grant writer wants to get funded. Service to the students is ingrained in all aspects of academic work. UCLA is entirely within their rights to tell grad students “you’re just an employee, and as soon as it looks like you’re a liability, we’re cutting you loose” but I think that would be incredibly short-sighted.

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      • A agree with trizzlor. What’s more, while I don’t think anyone believes that the vast majority of the blame for this is LaCour’s, with much of the remaining blame going to Green, his adviser and his department are not blameless. He shouldn’t have been in a position to do this, and was only able to because there was absolutely no oversight of his research. Honestly, I can’t imagine how he was able to. I mean, as a graduate student conducting my own research, I had a great deal of freedom, but there were way too many eyes watching me for me to even dream of faking whole studies or making up data. Clearly UCLA is just giving students free rein, which means they’re failing them, and that includes LaCour. That he committed fraud within the context of that failure does not make it less of a failure.

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          • One of the things that struck me about this from the beginning is how all of his research was with people at other institutions. He has a publication with his adviser, but it’s the methodological one. What the hell was his adviser doing with him? Does she not do research anymore? If not, why the hell is she taking grad students? If so, why aren’t her grad students working on that stuff, at least early in their careers?

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  8. “Granted, LaCour has shown himself to be habitually professionally dishonest, admitting to lying about awards, grants, and methods both on his CV and in his published work..” And yet no one seemed to have caught that.

    He made it all up and someone finally got around to looking into it. Shesh.

    BURN THE WITCH!

    “it must be said that we are all complicit: we are the ones who click on the links to articles about sexy research, and we are the ones who buy the books scientists write about their sexy research.” Err no. That some researcher has crafted a “sexy” new study and made the news that I watched on TV or such doesn’t make me part of the problem.

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