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.”
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:
- The Guardian
- DeSmog Blog (source of the FOIed documents mentioned above)
- Union of Concerned Scientists
- ClimateCrocks, including 40 minute video by Lewandowsky on this subject
- Retraction Watch
*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.