Last month I advised supporters of federal gun research to give the public concrete reasons to believe the work would be unaffected by politics. Here’s an example of how not to do that. Fox News reported a few weeks ago that University of Alabama researcher Adam Lankford, author of a media-sensation study on the connection between mass shootings and gun ownership across countries, refuses to share his data and the details of his methodology with skeptics.
I’d be the last person to assume that a news story has all its facts straight, but the details in this Fox News article, if accurate, are disturbing. Academics are expected to be as transparent as possible with their data and methods, but when skeptics wondered how Lankford was able to tally the number of mass shootings in countries where the records are sparse and are not kept in a language that he understands, Lankford offered only the vaguest responses.
Worse yet, Lankford’s editor apparently does not agree that the lack of transparency is a problem. The editor instead fell back on the old standby that the study has been peer reviewed — as if that removes all doubt about its validity. (See Slate’s Daniel Engber on why peer review deserves much less esteem than it receives from the media. Short answer: Peer reviewers are rarely thorough, and they tend to build echo chambers for like-minded researchers.)
So why doesn’t Lankford just release the data? “I am open-minded about sharing data with other scholars for collaborative purposes, and consider those opportunities on a case-by-case basis,” he told Fox News. In other words, he’ll share data only with people unlikely to criticize him.
I wish this were an isolated case. Unfortunately, many academics are eager to set up rules to shield their work from scrutiny. After medical journals proposed requiring data sharing as a condition of publication, a group calling itself “The International Consortium of Investigators for Fairness in Trial Data Sharing” condemned the plan earlier this month. One of the consortium’s arguments against data sharing is that researchers need to be protected from “analyses aimed at unfairly discrediting or undermining the original publication.” I suppose the researchers themselves get to decide what “unfairly” means.
Social science is facing a major challenge — I’d call it a crisis — in that some of it has become politicized to the point where Americans feel like they cannot trust anything that comes out of a university. I don’t blame them. It certainly doesn’t help when researchers try to duck public scrutiny.