Liability fears drive psychology journal to retract climate study

The journal Frontiers retracted a study of conspiracy accusations among climate change deniers even though their “investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.”

0.17% of climate papers since1991 reject the reality of industrial climate disruption.

0.17% of climate papers since1991 reject the reality of industrial climate disruption.

In August 2012, a psychology study titled “NASA Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science” was published. Using results from surveys published at various climate blogs (by way of disclosure, S&R was one of the blogs that hosted the survey)*, the paper found that there was a correlation between belief that climate disruption (aka climate change) was a hoax and belief in other widely disproved conspiracy theories. Climate disruption deniers responded by attacking the paper, the authors, the process of peer-review, and generally demonstrating that many of them did, in fact, consider climate disruption a hoax. The “NASA” paper’s results have since been replicated in the U.S. using a wider sample from data gathered by a reputable polling firm.

The lead author of the “NASA” paper, Stephen Lewandowsky, and several others realized that this response provided an opportunity, and in March 2013 they published a follow-on study of public responses titled “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.” In this paper, Lewandowsky and his co-authors extensively quoted examples from individuals making public accusations of conspiracy against climate scientists. Given the fact that the quotes could be tied back to identifiable individuals’ public comments, a number of people identified in the paper claimed that they’d been libeled and/or defamed by the authors and the journal Frontiers.

After a year-long investigation that found no identifiable ethical or academic issues with the study, Frontiers asked the authors to retract the study anyway because of what the journal called an “insufficiently clear” legal landscape with respect to libel and defamation. According to Lewandowsky’s website, the specific concern was that United Kingdom libel law in force at the time of publication was too permissive and Frontiers feared it could lose everything if they were sued in the UK. “Recursive Fury” was formally retracted last week.

The University of Western Australia (UWA), where Lewandowsky was a professor at the time “Recursive Fury was published, received a significant number of allegations of academic and ethical misconduct. According to documents obtained from UWA under Australia’s Freedom of Information law, UWA investigate the allegations and concluded that “no breach of the Australian Code for Responsible Research occurred in the research leading to the article known as ‘Recursive Fury’.” In addition, the FOIed documents show that the journal Frontiers “established a team consisting of senior academics, not Frontiers personnel, to evaluate the complaints made to Frontiers (emphasis added)” and yet failed to find any ethical or academic reason to retract the study.

This finding came in spite of the fact that the study was originally published with some mistakes that required the authors of “Recursive Fury” to issue corrections to the study. For example, some individuals were misquoted or had other people’s opinions misattributed to them. Had the study been academically flawed or generated using unethical methods, retraction would have been totally appropriate. But since multiple investigations turned up no ethical or academic deficiencies in the study, Frontiers has had to take an embarrassing “worst of all paths” approach to the study – retracting it in a way that opens Frontiers to criticism from all quarters, not just from critics of “Recursive Fury.”

While the intimidation tactics of the study’s critics resulted in the retraction of “Recursive Fury,” it is by no means certain that specific allegations of libel and/or defamation would have been successful in any hypothetical lawsuit. All the statements quoted and analyzed in “Recursive Fury” were made publicly on various websites frequented by deniers of industrial climate disruption. As such, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that a sufficiently skilled lawyer could have successfully argued that the claimant (the person alleging libel and/or defamation) was essentially saying that he was defamed by having his own publicly-spoken words quoted back at him. Unfortunately, given the number of libel and defamation claims, Frontiers apparently concluded that even winning the hypothetical lawsuits could ruin them.

And that’s what makes this situation so problematic. This retraction represents a type of SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation. In essence, a SLAPP is a lawsuit brought by an individual or organization with deep pockets against a critic. By filing the lawsuit, the individual or organization makes one critic an example for all others, and the example is even more spectacular if the critic suffers financial and personal ruin as a result of the lawsuit. In this case, however, the sheer number of hypothetical lawsuits would have replicated the effect of a single, financially powerful opponent. And as no lawsuits were actually filed, the costs to critics of Frontiers and “Recursive Fury” was remarkably low.

The SLAPP-like nature of this entire episode sets a very dangerous precedent. It tells anyone who dislikes or disbelieves the results of a scientific study that publishers may be intimidated via legal-sounding threats into retracting studies. While this tactic is unlikely to be successful against major publishers, smaller scientific publishers may well be intimidated if there are a large number of complaints (each of which might need to be defended against individually) or if the complaints are made by individuals or organizations with significant financial backing. While there is no evidence at this point that there was deliberate collusion among Frontiers’ critics, the fact that an informal group of critics was able to force the retraction of an ethically and academically sound study will embolden others to turn this into a legal tactic against research they disagree with.

According to Lewandowsky’s website, no critic or group of critics of any of the Lewandowsky studies has published a response to any of the studies as of March 2014. Instead, critics of the studies have responded exclusively via blog posts, comments, angry letters to universities and publishers alleging fraud and bias, and by threatening lawsuits. On the other hand, there have been multiple additional examples of critics alleging that UWA and/or Frontiers failed to perform a proper investigation into “Recursive Fury.” And in the process, those critics are demonstrating yet again that the conclusions of all three studies are correct: there is correlation between being a conspiracy theorist and believing that climate disruption is a hoax or scam.

Other discussions of this story:

*UPDATE: I did a search through S&R’s posts and my personal email and was unable to find any evidence that S&R had actually hosted the original survey as I had originally disclosed. I apologize for the mistake.

20 replies »

  1. the lead author of the paper LOG 12 refused to supply me with some of his data, he said he had it, but can’t find it. (it now transpires that the dat never existed, his survey was not held where he claimed it was)

    When I asked the editor of Psychological Science whether he would assist in obtaining the data, so that I may submit a comment to the journal.

    he said no.

  2. the complaints were not about what was said on blogs by people named in the paper.

    but the ethics of the situation, where one of the independent researchers, brought in by Lewandowsky was publically attacking them by name on his own blog (Watching the Deniers) before, DURING and after the research period…..

    Not good? !

    from a, “let’s at least try to appear to be perceived as neutral and impartial perspective?”

    see the concerns raised here (bizarrely Frontiers have not removed this)


    comments under Professor Lewandowsky’s website are interesting..

    As are at Steve Mcintyre’s website, where it appears that (following FOI) that Prof Lewandowsky helped write his own ‘ethics clearance’ investigation statement.

    • Barry, you may not have complained about how “Recursive Fury” quoted people (and put them into various categories based on those quotes), but others certainly did.

      As for the issue of bias, I’m not sure that bias is inherently an ethical issue. Everyone has their own biases. In fact, that’s one of the points I took away from these three papers – that individuals who deny the reality of industrial climate disruption (my preferred term – feel free to substitute “climate change” if you like) have permitted their own biases to color their judgement.

      Instead, I view researcher bias as a source of research error. However, scientists are trained as a matter of course to suppress their own biases in favor of what the data says. As such, two things are required to demonstrate bias in research. First, the biases of the researcher must be identified. Second, it must be demonstrated that the researcher’s biases introduced error into the research. There’s no question that you and others have demonstrated that the researchers are biased, but to date no-one has demonstrated that the biases introduced error into the studies.

      And now that “Recursive Fury” has been retracted due to legal concerns, there won’t be an opportunity to demonstrate that. It’s not like a comment/response can be submitted on a study that isn’t even officially published, after all.

  3. Lewandowsky, Cook, Marriott were not exatctly ‘neutral’ researchers..

    the UWA logo also appeared on the Skeptical Science booklet – Skeptical Guide to the Skeptics Handbook.. (rebutall to Jo Nova’s book) in 2010

    Click to access ScientificGuideSkepticsA5.pdf

    Lewandowsky got John Cook to write it,(and to fly in) as Nova (author Skeptics Handbook)and sceptics Anthony Watts were doing a presentation in Perth in June 2010.
    Lew organised a counter event the same week here:

    Anne Young (SkS and Shaping tomorrows world contributor) wrote up the Nova/Watts event here:

    and Lew/Cook had three people handing out copies of Cook rebuttal to Jo’s book at Watts/Nova meeting.

    (only fair 😉 !! LOL, as Jo had handed out copies of her the Skeptics Handbook) at a meeting Lewandowsky was speaking at the previous year – Dec 09)

    but, clearly, Lewandowsky (or Cook) are not neutral researchers, independent of the debate, witnessing form a far. both very publically active players on one side of the CC debate. And Lewandowsky (and Cook) do not like Jo much, he has a slide that year September, discussing results/data of LOG 12(years before publication), basically describing Jo as a hyper emotional irrational conspiracy theorist

    Click to access msi-seminar_10-09-23_lewandowsky_presentation.pdf

    • Barry wrote “Lewandowsky, Cook, Marriott were not exatctly ‘neutral’ researchers..”

      So what? As I pointed out previously, no-one is without bias, no-one is perfectly neutral. The question is whether or not someone’s lack of neutrality is sufficient to bias the results of their research.

      If someone can demonstrate bias in either the original “NASA” study or the larger replication of it in PLOSone in a way that passes peer-review muster, then fine. That’s part of how science works.

      The issue is that science has been bypassed with “Recursive Fury” and how Frontiers felt they had to retract it due to legalistic intimidation. (I’m hesitant to say legal intimidation, since that implies actual lawsuits involved rather than threats of lawsuits).

      I keep coming back to the excellent novel QB VII by Leon Uris. If you haven’t read it, it’s about a doctor in the UK who sues a journalist for libel for writing that the doctor was a Nazi war criminal. Over the course of the novel, the journalist proceeds to prove that the doctor actually did the things that he claimed, yet the doctor wins the libel case because, in the UK, truth of a charge is not necessarily a defense against libel. Of course, the jury awards the doctor just a half-penny in damages, so the victory is hardly complete.

      This is similar to the situation that Frontiers faced with the “Recursive Fury” study. UK libel law before 1/1/2014 was so permissive that literally anything that made one person think less of another person could be grounds for libel, and the UK has long been a destination for “libel tourism.” Even if Frontiers was able to prove that every claim made in “Recursive Fury” was true, they could still lose every case. And if they won every case, the volume of hypothetical lawsuits could have resulted legal bills that would drive them out of business. So they had to cut their losses.

      Frankly, I’m surprised that the “senior academics” they retained for their investigation didn’t find some ethical or academic misconduct in the paper, whether there was cause or not. It would have been much easier for Frontiers to retract the study for cause – at least then they’d have only been attacked by Lewadowsky’s allies. As it is, they’re being attacked by nearly everyone.

      Lewandowsky’s critics are attacking Frontiers for NOT retracting the study for cause. Lewandowsky’s allies are attacking Frontiers for retracting the study. And previously neutral parties are attacking Frontiers for allowing themselves to be intimidated into retracting an ethically and academically sound study.

      • In the first year of my degree I learnt about how to conduct surveys. One point is to positively allow for bias at every stage. The original “Hoax” paper did not. There was no allowance for bias in the questions, in access to the survey, and where the survey was placed. The original “Hoax” paper did not. It alleged “conspiracist orientation” in the people it attacked, when the vast majority of all respondents pretty much rejected any form of conspiracy theory. It was small differences in the support for conspiracy theories of pro and anti climate people that lead to the correlations. But these differences were largely accounted for by scam responses. It was a case of smearing all people due to the weird views of a small minority. I think I was the first to point to two key scam responses, as well as pointing out the small minority who actually believed in the conspiracy theories.
        The “Recursive Fury” paper did not take into account the obvious indignation of anyone who is smeared with views they do not hold.

        Brian you say
        “Frankly, I’m surprised that the “senior academics” they retained for their investigation didn’t find some ethical or academic misconduct in the paper, whether there was cause or not.”
        Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit has been looking at the investigations by Lewandowsky’s University into the complaints made against the “Hoax” paper. The title is “Lewandowsky Ghost-wrote Conclusions of UWA Ethics Investigation into “Hoax””. McIntyre’s last paragraph is
        “Today’s note pertains only to the ethics approval of Hoax. The circumstances surrounding the ethics application for Fury are much worse and will be discussed separately.”
        Before making assumptions it is wise to first look at the evidence. It is quite alright to make hypotheses, but they need to be confronted with the evidence.

        • manicbeancounter – If you’ve found scam responses and/or clear methodological errors in the original “NASA” study, why haven’t you submitted a comment/response to the publishing journal for peer-review?

          Actually, perhaps a better question is this – if the original “NASA” study was so obviously wrong, then why did the followup study using much higher quality data gathered by an experienced online pollster produce the same results? It’s unlikely that both studies are affected by the same data problems, although if the same methodology was used in both, it’s hypothetically possible that the conclusions of both are wrong.

          But if that’s the case, then that just make it that much more important to publish a peer-reviewed response that deconstructs the hypothetical methodological error(s). Yet no-one has. It’s been nearly two years since the original “NASA” study was published and six months since the replication study was published. That’s plenty of time for Lewandowsky’s critics to have pulled together several responses, submitted them for peer-review, and had them published (at least with respect to the “NASA” paper – six months might be a little short for some journals to have pushed a response to publication).

          There is something to be said for your point about indignation. However, it’s potentially telling that someone’s default indignant response is to allege a conspiracy. I’m not a psychologist so I claim no professional expertise on this, but my unscientific observations of friends and co-workers over the years seems to indicate that people’s fundamental personalities are revealed when stress (such as indignation) lower their emotional self-control.

          I’ve read McIntyre’s post, but without access to the FOIed documents he obtained (I didn’t see a link to them to review them myself), I’m not willing to give him much credence. I learned during Climategate that McIntyre is perfectly willing to quote mine statements to support his insinuations against those with whom he disagrees. He did so repeatedly against Mann, Briffa, and Phil Jones. As such, I don’t consider him to be a credible critic.

          Quoting Scholars and Rogues | Progressive Culture

      • Brian,
        You need to look at the evidence, but rely on the opinions of others. I studied economics, where many different perspectives were discussed in the peer-reviewed literature. Due to the pluralism, journals had the incentive to attain high standards of review and encourage dissention. Further, University departments could grow by becoming the focal point of new schools of thought, or areas of research. In climatology it was decided back in 1992 at Rio that global warming was a serious problem, and the thrust of research has gone into supporting that. Research funding has not been channelled into dissention. Lewandowsky’s offerings have been to enforce this monolithic culture. Whenever this has happened in the past, it has led to a dearth of novel ideas.
        If you had read Steve McIntyre’s latest, you will see how the ethical standards have been usurped. Search my blog with “Lewandowsky Part 3” and you will find out what the “Hoax” paper hid. Search “Lewandowsky pivot tables” to find out about pluralism in methods of statistical analysis.
        As for the follow up paper by the same authors, I would have been working on it tonight, but let myself get distracted.
        You have not read Steve McIntyre’s posting. I

        • Manicbeancounter, it appears that your comment might have been cut off.

          At this point, I think that you’re getting a bit far afield. What did or did not happen at Rio in 1992 has no bearing on the ethical or academic considerations of Lewandowsky’s papers. Similarly, the ethics or lack thereof of the “NASA” study doesn’t have much direct bearing on whether or not “Recursive Fury” was performed in an ethical and/or academically sound manner.

          I read enough of McIntyre’s post to recognize three things. First, that his post was rife with insinuations and innuendo, and it started with what a title that was not, in my opinion, supported by the content of the post. Second, that there was no way he was telling the whole story – getting the whole story would require reading the FOIed documents myself. And third, that some of what he was criticizing was entirely normal and acceptable in my experience both in my limited time in academia and my years working as an EE for private companies.

  4. Brian – perhaps you should read Climate audit again as Steve links to the individual that submitted the FOI requests, and who posted the FOI material on his website..

    “The Ethics Application for Hoax
    Simon Turnill originally discovered and reported the machinations of Lewandowsky’s ethics application for Lewandowsky’s Hoax (noted up at CA here).”

    Steve’s link:

    within that post there is a link to the application and the foi’d material, here:

    Click to access lewandowsky_ethics_committee1.pdf

  5. also, Nasa MOon hoax (LOG12) was only actually published last March. Impossible to submit a comment before that… and lack of co-operation from journal, UWA and authors in supplying raw data since makes submitting a comment v hard..

    • I don’t buy it, Barry. The timeline of the “NASA” study doesn’t support your contention.

      There was a tremendous amount of online discussion of LOG12 as of early September, 2012. From then until March 2013, when “NASA” was officially published, was more than enough time to write a credible response. Even considering that authors of such a response would want to tailor their response to match whatever fine-tuning had occurred since September 2012, a response could have been submitted by the end of April of 2013, 11 months ago.

      From what I understand, a year between submission and publication of a paper isn’t unheard of, but I don’t find it realistic that Psychological Science would have delayed a response 11 months if the response identified a significant issue with either the ethics or academics of the “NASA” study.

      I also don’t understand your logic. You’ve suggested that the ethical and/or academic problems with the “NASA” study were clear. If that’s the case, then the study itself plus the supplemental material available at Psychological Science should have been sufficient to prove those claims. If access to the raw data was required in order to demonstrate that the “NASA” study was ethically and/or academically flawed, then the problems aren’t as obvious as I thought you have been suggesting.

      Regardless, however, none of this discussion of the original study has any bearing on whether or not it’s appropriate for Frontiers to have pulled “Recursive Fury” as a result of legalistic intimidation. And as of this point, both you and manicbeancounter have avoided commenting directly about that.

      So allow me to ask you both directly – do you think it’s appropriate for a journal to retract a study due to legalistic intimidation rather than for demonstrated ethical and/or academic misconduct?

  6. the issue with Fury for me – is and was ethics.. not libel (I certainly can’t afford lawyers)

    Lewandowsky thought Fury did not need ethics approval for collating reactions to LOG12.. (see the FOI material..) he claimed to the ethics officer that he would be observing and collating responses to his ‘NASA’ paper
    Shub quotes the correspondence here:

    But Marriott co-author, ‘researcher’, was actively engaging with people named in the paper, concealing his role as a researcher, antagonistically challenging myself, Geoff Chamber, Foxgoose, Tlib1 (all named) and Ben Pile to answer his questions on Lewandowsky’s own blog, where Lew is also attacking critics of LOG12.

    where was the ethics risk assessment (there wasn’t one, as FOI shows us)
    this failed by several measures of risk assessment – see UWA checklist.

    Click to access risk-Assesment-Checklist.pdf

    not withstanding, Marriot attacking the very people named in the paper as sources of conspiracy ideation, for years on his own blog, called – Watching the Deniers – his ‘affiliation on the paper – Climate Realities Research, appear to be purely a vanity name, no records to be found (so far) about it.

    Marriott (watchingthedeniers) was not observing the reaction to LOG12 (neither is LEW ) as Lew described trying to get the OK for the research. They are active participants, and in Marriott’s case engaging with and concealing his identity from participants (who they later name)

    an example:

    “But – I’ve asked Ben, Barry and others to comment on the conspiracy theories outlined by Evans and Monckton”.– Watchingthedeniers

    Michael Marriott (watchingthedeniers) is all over Lewandowsky’s article requesting sceptics directly to answer his questions (many respond) and he does this with me a number of times!

    This is active concealment, and ‘stirring the pot’ to try and get responses for Fury,
    I and Geoff and TLIB1, Foxgoose, etc (named in the paper’s dataset) respond to a number of his ridiculous questions, but you will see he even repeats the Evans /Galileo movement smear about ‘Banksters’ in detail


    Ethics – not libel – and the report on UWA’s investigation of the ethics of this will be interesting, although it may take some time to get sight of it…


    Ref ‘NASA’ paper. I asked Professor Lewandowsky for his raw kwik survey data in July 2012, I asked again, after the paper was actually published. The Chief Editor of psychological suggested to me personally a comment should be submitted, I am still waiting for the data.

    I have asked the journal to assist (months ago), and UWA to assist, but still no data.

    • Barry – again, you’ve demonstrated quite thoroughly that at least one of the authors was firmly biased against the subjects of his research. That addresses point #1 I made previously. But you haven’t demonstrated that Marriott’s bias has biased “Recursive Fury’s” results.

      To do that you would need to analyze the study with and without comments that were supposedly provoked by Marriott’s defense of the “NASA” paper and show that there is a significant difference between the two analyses. You’d also need to be able to defend your reanalysis from charges of cherry-picking that might result if you aren’t very careful in defining objective criteria for rejecting “Marriott-provoked comments.” It wouldn’t be easy, but it should be possible.

      Or rather, it would have been possible. Now that “Recursive Fury” has been retracted, critics like yourself have lost the opportunity to demonstrate bias in a robust, objective, peer-reviewed fashion. Frankly, if I were a critic of the study (I’m not familiar enough with the methodology of social science research to be either a critic or a supporter), I’d be quite annoyed right now, especially if I’d been working on a response for submission to Frontiers.

      You still haven’t answered my question from above, so I’ll ask it again: do you think it’s appropriate for a journal to retract a study due to legalistic intimidation rather than for demonstrated ethical and/or academic misconduct?

  7. Brian – I think Frontiers have handled this very badly. They have said that is is for a number of factors. please Re-read my concerns, (not legal) but researchers with a conflict of interest and ethically conflicted, do you not think Frontiers consider this problematic. Answering your question NO journal should withdraw a paper, due to anysort of ‘intimidation! Without a much more detailed explanation, the current stance by Frontiers is unsatisfactory for everybody. and FYI, I did not call for it to be retarcted in my complaint,(I said it would not impact on paper) just for my name to be removed, because Marriot could be perceived as predjudiced against me (for a psychology paper, that would not look good)

    Have you seen this response from Frontiers

    “I received a not answer from the journal in regards to my message asking about the paper:

    Thank you for your message. Our decision on the retraction of this article was taken on the basis of a number of factors. This decision had nothing to do with caving in to pressure and was driven by our own analysis of various factors and advice received. Frontiers is not engaged in the climate science debate but is clearly engaged in favor of solid science, and that it is of regret that the weight of the different factors involved led us to the conclusion that we had to retract the article.

    Frontiers cannot comment further on this decision and we appreciate your understanding.”

    You write that Scholar & Rogues hosted the NASA Moon Hoax survey..
    Do you have a link to that?
    I can’t find it