Late last month, news broke that a popular study about public opinion on same-sex marriage was allegedly falsified. The study asserted that personal conversations with a gay canvasser led to a dramatic conversion in people's attitudes toward same-sex marriage. The research was published in the journal Science, cited during a This American Life podcast and featured in a variety of major publications.
This will be an unfortunate and shameful development should the allegations prove to be true. However, it should not undermine the notion that people's opinions can and do change as they engage in dialogue with others whose views and experiences are different from their own.
Social scientist Dan Yankelovich calls this shift in public opinion "the public's learning curve." The public's learning curve is different from superficial and temporary shifts in opinion that might occur in response to different forms of question wording or to passing events.
People's opinions can naturally evolve, as in the case of attitudes toward women's participation in the workforce, which shifted dramatically last century (Dan documents this shift in his book, Coming to Public Judgment). This evolution is also occurring with attitudes toward same-sex marriage - Gallup reports that support is at a record high.
Such shifts in opinion can be accelerated through dialogue and deliberation among people with diverse perspectives. We invoke these processes in our work, and we have also developed a special focus group methodology that enables us to observe and document these shifts qualitatively. James Fishkin has also provided experimental data showing shifts in public opinion as a result of deliberative discussions among diverse citizens.
Unfortunately, Americans are encountering fewer and fewer natural opportunities to engage with people whose views are different from their own. More reliable and trustworthy research is needed to better understand (and discuss!) what is on the line when such opportunities for dialogue among diverse citizens become more and more rare.