Confirmation Bias Hurts Social Science
The debunking of an implausible study shows the need for viewpoint diversity in the academy.
Robert P. George, The Wall Street Journal
March 5, 2019
Humility can be hard to come by in professional research, which is why it’s worth noting the retraction last month of a major study on the social effects of attitudes toward sexuality. The journal Social Science & Medicine withdrew a 2014 analysis purporting to show that widespread traditional beliefs about sexual morality—or “structural stigma”—gravely imperil the health of people who don’t identify as straight, whom the study classified as “sexual minorities.” Lead author Mark Hatzenbuehler, a professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, is a renowned expert on stigma and health. The study has been widely reported and frequently cited.
It was yanked because its key claim—that stigma reduces life expectancy for sexual minorities in the United States by an average of 12 years—came to naught. It was entirely the result of a coding error to which Mr. Hatzenbuehler himself, to his credit, owned up. The admission came after the same journal published an article online in November 2016, in which sociologist Mark Regnerus showed that there was no feasible way to replicate Mr. Hatzenbuehler’s key result. Ten different attempts yielded no effect whatever of stigma on life expectancy.
Yet, oddly, Mr. Hatzenbuehler’s original article remained in print, unretracted, for well over two years. In fact, it has been cited in published research over 100 times since November 2016. In contrast, the Regnerus correction has been cited a mere five times. As Jonathan Swift observed, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
How did all the researchers in this field except Mr. Regnerus fail to question how the critical attitudes of others could be worse for your health than, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for decades (something that has been shown to shorten life by an average of 10 years)? Why was the error not caught in the original vetting process? And why, once the error was discovered, was the study not retracted immediately?
Read more in the Wall Street Journal.