On my mom's top 10 list of life advice was the axiom that, "If something is too good to be true, it probably is."
When the producers of the radio program This American Life got taken in by storyteller Mike Daisey a few years ago about his bleak, later-discredited interviews with workers at an Apple manufacturing facility in China, they might have added, "And sometimes if something is too bad to be true, it often is."
But this time, it probably was too good to be true. The first segment of The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind, the April 24th episode of TAL, is called "Do Ask, Do Tell," and it covers what purported to be a remarkable study of a technique that actually seemed to change voters' minds about gay marriage.
In this study, gay canvassers targeted likely opponents of gay marriage. When a canvasser found such a person who was willing to engage with them, he or she very subtly and painstakingly engaged them in a dialog and, after establishing personal rapport, ultimately revealed his or her own gay orientation to the subject. What recordings of some of these dialogs seemed to show was that once they had conversed with an actual, likable flesh-and-blood gay person over this issue, respondents were more likely to reverse their opposition to gay marriage. And follow-up surveys seemed to show they maintained that reversal over time.
Almost as if to stave off the "too good to be true" suppositions, the TAL presentation stressed that this method of changing peoples' minds was ultimately unworkable. It would take way too much time, money and labor to ever be practical at any kind of meaningful scale.
And now comes the news that the senior author of the study the TAL segment was based on has formally requested Science, the journal that published the study's results, to retract it because one of his co-authors could not or would not produce the data to support the study's findings. This week, Science posted an editorial notifying their readers that the study had been called into question.
It should also be noted that, in this case, This American Life was in good company. As the NYT points out, it, along with other news outlets, published credulous stories about the discredited study as well.
You were right again, Mom.