Recently, the OpenAccess journal Frontiers retracted a paper written by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, and Michael Marriot Hubble called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.” The paper discussed conspiracist ideation as implicated in the rejection of scientific work …

A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scientic propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as
university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere’s response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.

Professor of Psychology Stephan Lewandowsky.

Professor of Psychology Stephan Lewandowsky.

Since the retraction it has become clear to me that the journal Frontiers has acted inappropriately. One could argue that the journal has been unethical or possibly libelous and left itself open to very legitimate civil action, but I’m not a lawyer. More importantly for the academic community, Frontiers has demonstrated itself to be dangerous. Academics who publish with this journal in any area where there exists, or could emerge, a community of science denialists or other anti-academic activists risk having their hard work ruined (by retraction) and, astonishingly, risk being accused by the journal itself of unethical behavior that they did not commit. For these reasons, I urge members of the academic community to pressure Frontiers to change their policies and issue appropriate apologies or other remediation. Academics considering submitting material to Frontiers should consider not doing so.

Here are the details.

As stated, “Recursive Fury” paper was retracted by the journal in association with this statement:

In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.

According to the authors, this statement was the outcome of negotiations between them and Frontiers and was part of a legal agreement. The authors tell us that they did not agree with the decision, and were disappointed with it. The Australian Psychological Society and other organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists shared their disappointment with Frontiers’ decision with the authors. Other than that, the authors have had very little to say publicly until now (See: Revisiting a Retraction by Stephan Lewandowsky). In fact, Lewandowsky has continued to serve as a volunteer co-editor for an upcoming issue of the journal, and continues peer reviewing work for them. Furthermore, Lewandowsky and as far as I can tell the other authors have not supported any particular action regarding this screw-up by Frontiers, opting, rather, to let things play out for a period of time.

Then, Frontiers got weird.

The journal released a second, longer, and very different statement about the retraction. When I read the statement I felt it accused the authors of at least two counts of unethical conduct, and the statement indicated that this is why the paper was retracted. So, at this point, Frontiers clearly had lied once or twice (depending on which, if any, of the contradictory statements is true). Also, the assertions made in the second retraction were clearly wrong. As far as I can tell the authors used correct and proper methods for obtaining their data, reporting the data, and reporting the results. Yet, the journal makes an almost explicit statement that the authors acted unethically.

Since the second retraction incorrectly, in my view, accused four well established academics of unethical behavior, the journal had become dangerous. The second retraction statement notes,

Frontiers came to the conclusion that it could not continue to carry the paper, which does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics.

The source data for this paper was information fully available in public view on the Internet. The data was collected using widely available search engines such as Google. From the methods section:

An on-going web search in real time was conducted by two of the authors (J.C. and M.M.) during the period August-October 2012. This daily search used Google Alerts to detect newly published material matching the search term “Stephan Lewandowsky.” If new blog posts were discovered that featured links to other relevant blog posts not yet recorded, these were also included in the analysis. To ensure that the collection of hypotheses pertaining to LOG12 was exhaustive, Google was searched for links to the originating blog posts (i.e., rst instances of a recursive theory), thereby detecting any further references to the original hypothesis any derivatives

The search for data was later narrowed to focus on a subset of highly active internet sites, but still, all public (even if removed, as per the usual methods of finding blog posts and comments using “wayback machine” like technologies).

I’m not sure if an analogy is really needed here, but this is a bit like a peer reviewed paper that studies statements made by Winston Churchill in public contexts during World War II. Except the conspiracy-ideationalizing anti-science internet trolls aren’t Winston Churchill.

The bottom line regarding Frontiers: If you publish there, and some people don’t like the work you did, they may manipulate Frontiers into throwing you under the bus. If you are an editor there or on the board, you may find yourself unwittingly part of an academic scandal that leaves you liable in part, or simply associated with, extremely questionable behavior. Rather than enhancing careers at the same time it enhances knowledge, this particular journal has become radioactive. My suggestion: Run away.

In order to fully document and underscore the problem, Stephan Lewandowsky has posted a full description of what transpired between the authors and the journal. It is posted HERE.

A few bullet points taken from the text and modified slightly (to be bullet points):

  • In the second statement, the journal seemed to state that the paper was retracted because it “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.”

  • In the contractually-agreed retraction statement, signed by legal representatives of both parties, that Frontiers “…did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.”

  • In the second statement the journal said that it had received no (presumably legal) threats.

  • There exist public statements of individuals who explicitly stated that they had threatened the journal or had launched defamation complaints (see Lewandowsky’s post for links). Also, this claim contradicts the contractually-agreed retraction statement, which ascribed the retraction to an “insufficiently clear” legal context.

  • This legal context involved English libel laws in force prior to 2014. Those laws were sufficiently notorious for their chilling effect on inconvenient speech for President Obama to sign a law that makes U.K. libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S.

  • Frontiers revealed the existence of a new paper that we submitted in January 2014 and that according to their latest statement “did not deal adequately with the issues raised by Frontiers.”

In his post, Lewandowsky provides a detailed summary of events behind the scenes. Read his post to get these details. The crux of it is this: Frontiers had told the authors that there were no ethical issues with the paper, but a few changes might be made to reduce legal risks. Further back and forth happened, and during this time the legal liability context changed because of changes in English libel law. A second “replacement” article was produced, apparently going beyond and above what was necessary, but for some reason Frontiers chose not to use it. (They give a reason but the reason seems weak given what we know about the article and about what Frontiers was asking for.)

Lewandowsky sums up as follows:

Throughout the entire period, from March 2013 until February 2014, the only concern voiced by Frontiers related to the presumed defamation risk under English libel laws. While the University of Western Australia offered to host the retracted paper at uwa.edu.au/recursivefury because it did not share those legal concerns, Frontiers rejected an anonymized replacement paper on the basis that non-identifiable parties might feel defamed.

No other cause was ever offered or discussed by Frontiers to justify the retraction of Recursive Fury. We are not aware of a single mention of the claim that our study “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” by Frontiers throughout the past year, although we are aware of their repeated explicit statements, in private and public, that the study was ethically sound.

This brings into focus several possibilities for the reconciliation of Frontier’s contradictory statements concerning the retraction:

First, one could generously propose that the phrase “did not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects” is simply a synonym for “defamation risk” and that the updated statement therefore supports the contractually-agreed statement. This is possible but it puts a considerable strain on the meaning of “synonym.”

Second, one could take the most recent statement by Frontiers at face value. This has two uncomfortable implications: It would imply that the true reason for the retraction was withheld from the authors for a year. It would also imply that the journal entered into a contractual agreement about the retraction statement that misrepresented its actual position.

Third, perhaps the journal only thought of this new angle now and in its haste did not consider that it violates their contractually-agreed position.

Or there are other possibilities that we have not been able to identify.

I just noticed that Frontiers has struck up some sort of arrangement to work with the internationally known and usually (but not always) venerated Nature Publishing Group. I wonder if this means that Nature Publishing Group has lowered its ethical standards, or if Frontiers will be made to make amends to these authors and the rest of the academic community.

Comments

  1. #1 FergalR
    April 7, 2014

    Finally a couple of warmist projections come true – the journal was bullied and threatened with legal action – by Lewandowsky and his supporters.

    Well played, sir!

    I’ll let you in on a little sleuthing tip to help you work out what went on: don’t trust a word Lewandowsky says – he’s a flake.

  2. #2 daedalus2u
    April 7, 2014

    my guess is that they got bribed by the fossil fuel interests that are funding climate change denial. Or by their agents.

    Or maybe there were death threats.

  3. #3 G
    April 7, 2014

    Supreme irony: If the Journal publicly accused the authors of unethical conduct, the authors might have a libel claim against the Journal.

    The problem here is, how can one conduct any research on internet content that demonstrates sociopathic attitudes or other signs of diagnosable conditions, while maintaining anonymity of the subjects whose writing provides the source data. As soon as you specify the search engine and the search string, anyone else can duplicate the procedure and find the subjects.

    There really is no way out of that, unless one doesn’t describe one’s methods, which would be an equivalent form of restraint as that which was rejected in a previous instance dealing with genetic sequences of dangerous pathogens. Libel doesn’t even hold a candle to the risk of terrorist genetic engineering of plagues: if the threat of bioterrorism doesn’t justify restraint, clearly the threat of libel does not either.

  4. #4 jane
    April 7, 2014

    Though [I feel the need to start by saying that] I 100% accept mainstream climate science, I don’t see how discussion of any contentious political issue can be improved by publication of papers about the inferior and defective “ideation” of those on one side of it, using medicalized language purporting to evaluate the psychological status of specific, named writers. How could they not feel threatened by that? When psychology mixes with politics, common folks on the wrong side can be and have been hurt. It reflects the highly-resented “shut up and listen to the Experts” attitude; the folks written about are certainly not being invited to submit their assessment of the “ideation” of their critics to journals. Moreover, when you say that disagreements are caused by the intrinsic mental inferiority of the other side you remove any reason whatsoever they might have to accept compromise; even if they submitted altogether on this one issue, wouldn’t you still consider them inferior to you, their basic mental characteristics not having changed, and so seek to keep them in their limited place?

    We have a really bad habit in this country, when for reasons actually based in value judgements we reject the most popular or apparently appropriate conclusions derived from a set of facts, of rejecting the facts themselves. And it’s not limited to the anti-science crowd by any means; you can see advocates of conventional medicine, cornucopian economics, and many other things display the same attitude. The values issues involved here are that almost everyone in America, not just the Koch brothers, benefits from fossil fuel consumption; that the working and middle classes, already pinched by America’s declining economy and collapsing empire, would suffer much more from serious cuts to consumption than the one-percenters would; that for most Americans, a climate-changing level of consumption is effectively or explicitly mandatory, and many have been trained to believe that it is the only thing that gives their lives meaning and saves their children from squalor and early death. Say that they should be forced to cut back by regulations or carbon taxes, and they envision themselves helplessly crushed between forces over which they have no control: the gas and heating and grocery bills that are already higher than they can afford, the job they can’t get to without a car, the roof they can’t keep over their heads without the job, the DCS that might take their kids away if they are found not to be able to maintain “modern” utilities. They are afraid and desperately clinging to what they have, but their values also don’t permit them to say openly, “Let the great-grandkids starve, just keep the party going while I’m alive” – so what they do is deny the existence of the facts that tell us that ugly choice has to be made one way or another.

    They’re like people who are diagnosed with a serious cancer, have to choose between accepting early death or accepting horrific treatment and possible death anyway, and respond by sticking their fingers in their ears and leaving the doctor’s office saying “I’m sure he’s wrong, I don’t have cancer at all.” That’s what we’re doing at a societal level. I don’t know how you fix that fast enough to make a political difference, if it’s even possible – but I do know that telling that cancer patient how stupid and crazy he is is probably not the right way to go. He needs emotional support – and more practical support so that he knows the choice to act wouldn’t mean financial ruin for his family. In a society where people have been thrown under the bus one socioeconomic stratum at a time for the past fifteen years or more, do working-class folks have any rational reason to believe that great efforts will be made in future to let their lifestyles down easily? If not, what can be done about that?

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    April 7, 2014

    ” I don’t see how discussion of any contentious political issue can be improved by publication of papers about the inferior and defective “ideation” of those on one side of it, using medicalized language purporting to evaluate the psychological status of specific, named writers. ”

    Tough cookies on that one, Jane. These are psychologists who study science deniers and climate science in particular. It is their field of study.

    G: “Supreme irony: If the Journal publicly accused the authors of unethical conduct, the authors might have a libel claim against the Journal.” Absolutely, I would think so.

    Right now these authors have on their record a paper retracted for ethical reasons. They really have no choice but to take legal action, in my opinion.

    daedalus2u: I have to tell you that I’ve not seen any evidence of anything like that.

    But then again, they wouldn’t leave any evidence, would they!?!?

  6. #6 G
    April 8, 2014

    Jane @ 3: (apologies for the length of this comment but (I’m frequently guilty of that and) I’d like to address each of your main points:

    In fact, we can solve the climate crisis without putting working people in an untenable position: all that’s needed is to convert the world’s coal-fired electricity generating plants to anything other than coal. Nuclear fission and renewables are clean, and even natural gas is better than coal.

    Converting from coal to anything else, will reduce CO2 emissions by 1/3. That’s enough to put a lid on the emergency and buy us time for additional solutions. We could have done it in the USA for the cost of three years of the Iraq war. For the cost of the rest of the Iraq war we probably could have done it for Europe, China, and/or India.

    Iraq was arguably a mistake based on a combination of intelligence errors. (Saddam Hussein sought to convince Iran that he had WMD to deter another war with Iran, Bush Administration staff evaluated the raw intel without proper training and they believed it, whereas experienced CIA analysts were doubtful; the rest is history). But if the US was faced with another 9/11 or other major emergency tomorrow, we would somehow find the money, just as we found the money to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    In point of fact, converting from coal to nuclear & renewables would provide enormous opportunities for private investment, and it would create an enormous number of new jobs: solid middle class jobs. The ripple effect through the economy would be more invigorating than the Apollo program was in the 1960s.

    The point of this is, dealing with the climate crisis will not harm the already distressed working class (of which I’m a member, BTW). In fact it will be good for us: all of us.

    The problem is that entrenched fossil fuel interests view any attempt to mitigate climate impact, as a threat to their primary assets: the oil and coal and natural gas they have in the ground. If someone came along and told you that they were going to make your life savings worth a small fraction of what it is today (you’d think it was 2008 again;-) you’d do everything you could to stop them. So it’s no surprise that the fossil fuel industry is fighting like hell to protect its assets.

    Toward that end, they enlist various media personalities and others to promote their views and interests. But simply promoting protection of assets is boring and attracts little support: so they team up their message with other messages such as involving cultural identity issues, to put some “red meat” in it and make it “exciting.” The fact that you and others are afraid that climate mitigation will harm you economically, is the direct result of that effort.

    Getting taken in by a con artist is nothing to be ashamed of: just look at the kinds of people who Bernie Madoff conned, they were wealthy and well-educated. Fossil fuel industry sponsored “messaging” is propaganda: it’s a con. But once you recognize you’ve been taken by a con artist, the answer isn’t to defend the con artist: it’s to get mad as hell and not take it any more.

    Re. psychologists using internet searches: When someone publishes on the internet, they expose themselves to all manner of criticism and analysis. If they publish an intention to commit a crime, they shouldn’t be surprised if their stuff is analyzed by a police agency and used as evidence to arrest them. If they publish material that shows every sign of psychiatric illness, they shouldn’t be surprised if their stuff is analyzed by psychologists and psychiatrists.

    Certainly there are substantial privacy issues for things that people truly believe they are saying in private, that get harvested by Google, Facebook, or other Big Data surveillance engines. But that is not what’s being alleged here. There doesn’t seem to be any issue that what the psychologists who wrote this paper were using, was material found on the open internet in forums intended for open public viewing. That makes it fair game, in the same manner as charging that a network news sportscaster has a bias in favor of a particular team based on a review of his/her broadcasts.

    And once one agrees that it’s legitimate to analyze and criticize material found on the open internet, one must necessarily agree that it’s also legitimate for academic researchers to publish their analyses and critiques as well. That’s what’s at stake in the present controversy over the retracted journal article.

  7. #7 jane
    April 8, 2014

    G: “The fact that you and others are afraid that climate mitigation will harm you economically, is the direct result of that effort. Getting taken in by a con artist is nothing to be ashamed of…”

    Sorry, it’s not that simple. There’s probably no way to continue consuming energy at our present rate without changing the climate – and many argue that as oil and eventually other fossil fuel extraction rates are destined to decline, we physically can’t keep consuming at the present rate forever even if we don’t give a damn about the climate. Nuclear fission and renewables are “clean” if you don’t count all the carbon that is burned in producing the necessary infrastructure – or the little oopsies like Chernobyl and Fukushima – but the cost of creating a whole new infrastructure on the scale of our present energy use is so huge that it now appears very unlikely that our increasingly limited resources will be used for that purpose. (Likewise, gasoline-powered vehicles are a major contributor to climate change; certainly you can run a car on non-carbon-derived electricity, but the amount of infrastructure that would have to be built to support the present number of vehicles and miles driven is greater than we can afford over a short term.)

    I fully support societal efforts to reduce climate change even if I personally suffer for it – I have philosophical values that favor it, and no kids – but my intimation that I might suffer is not because I’m stoopid or a sucker. Let me give you an example: My house is heated with natural gas. By a combination of tactics (replacing inefficient windows, caulking, not heating some rooms, reducing the temperature to as low as 66/58 when my husband, who’s inclined to have respiratory infections all winter, is healthy), I have managed to cut the heating bills to half of the previous owner’s costs. But I still am burning more carbon than I “ought” to be, or than I suspect I’ll be able to afford to burn twenty years from now.

    What to do? Just keep turning down the thermostat? While the “granny will diieeee if the heat goes below 70″ crowd exaggerates the need for heat, letting it get really cold could affect my husband’s health. I’m no happier with that than he is. Install geothermal? Can’t possibly afford it. Most American housing is inadequately efficient (row houses would be better) and even our modest bungalow has, historically considered, far more space than needed per person. Should we demolish this fundamentally unsustainable infrastructure and rebuild a significantly smaller house, e.g. 300 sq ft, that would be easier to heat? Even if we could afford that – which we can’t – it would be illegal under almost every building/zoning code in America. Of course there are always more things that can be done to make a house more efficient – though beyond some point that creates new problems that must be dealt with – but these too cost money. A large fraction of all working Americans, I heard recently, have less than $1000 in savings. People who are living paycheck to paycheck can’t pay to have a professional come in and do a major insulation project, and nobody has taught them how to do the little things. So to them, “carbon tax” means “turn down the heat and shiver”; it’s pretty much the only option they can afford.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    April 8, 2014

    Jane, the problem is that there are things we can do that are within the range of what we can afford (certainly, if we replace doing these things for fighting a couple of overseas wars) that would make an impact and that we are only barely doing.

  9. #9 jane
    April 8, 2014

    I absolutely agree with you on that. We’re misallocating resources on a gigantic scale.

  10. #10 Chris O'Neill
    April 19, 2014

    Nuclear fission and renewables are “clean” if you don’t count all the carbon that is burned in producing the necessary infrastructure

    I wonder why you mention this but not the fact that even if all the necessary infrastructure is produced using fossil carbon then there is still a huge reduction in carbon consumption?

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    April 19, 2014

    Chris, I actually agree with you on this; it is asking nuclear to dance backwards and in high heels.

    A coal plant also requires carbon to build the infrastructure, ship fuel to the plant, etc. etc.

    Of course we better make sure we are counting that in the cost of coal electric plants.

    One of the problems with nuclear, and I think a point jane is making, is that traditionally nuclear promises everything and gives very little; it needs to be properly accounted for just like anything else. Counting the cost of developing the infrastructure, including the C cost is fair, as is counting the health related risks of mining and storing fuel (before and after use) which are usually written off as “oh, everything is fine don’t worry the industry assures us” or “yeah, but COAL!!!!”

  12. #12 adelady
    city of wine and roses
    April 19, 2014

    There are all sorts of things that we will never, ever, do if we have to rely on individuals having to fund them from personal resources.

    But there are all sorts of things that individuals can’t do for themselves that ought to be done by governments and others. The US, Canada and Australia all have much the same standard of living as the European Union, but double or more than double the emissions. Bringing in yet another country, New Zealand now has a law that all new houses must have double glazing. Which has a few obvious effects that strike me first up – there are probably a dozen more. The extra expense might make some people choose a smaller house which has some effects on consumption. Regardless of the extra expense, people in new houses will have an advantage in terms of lower heating and cooling needs. It doesn’t immediately affect existing home owners, but providing a compulsory base level for this one aspect of house building means that costs will come down to some extent. The next step in such a scheme would, I hope, lead to requirements that all house extensions would have double glazing (and appropriate other insulation). Then we’d eventually get to the position that double glazing would be the routine supply rather than an expensive option for fussy customers.

    Standards for household appliances. European standards are much stricter than those in the USA, I’m not sure about how our standards here stack up against those. Regulating stand-by power consumption all on its own would have a big impact in the USA from what I’ve read lately. Here we’ve had the local power companies come around and instal, for free, nifty gadgets that allow turning off television/entertainment systems without having to find the powerpoint at the back of the cupboards but which are controlled by existing remotes. They also supplied similar power relays for computers to turn off all associated devices just by switching off the computer. (Though I found that it also disabled VOIP so that particular one had to be disconnected – we still have to remember to turn off the printer just as we did before.)

    My own view is also that any building closer to the equator than 40 degrees should be required to show cause why it should have any water heating system other than solar. That would make a huge difference in aggregate power consumption without depriving anyone of a hot shower. If the system in question is a large storage system, that would also allow unlimited use of hot water for laundry. (I never understood people rattling on about washing in cold water until I moved to this house which doesn’t have solar hot water.)

    There’s a great deal that can be done to reduce power requirements by a third or a half without any effect on standards of living at all. Transforming the power supply itself at the same time gives additional reductions in emissions.

    We have to acknowledge that we’re doing all this 30 years late, but that’s no reason not to do it at all.