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March 26th 2014 print

Michael Kile

The ‘Fine’ Paper That Had To Be Pulled

The University of Western Australia's Stephan Lewandowsky, scourge of climate sceptics, likened "deniers" to moon-landing conspiracy buffs. Now that his, er, research has been withdrawn, the catastropharian chorus reckons he's the real victim

hogarthIICarmen Lawrence’s speech last Friday to University of Western Australia Convocation alumni in defence of the Academy was impressive – except for one word and a revealing sentence. Winthrop Professor Lawrence, director of the Centre for the Study of Social Change in UWA’s School of Psychology, spoke on “An avalanche of change: Will universities as we know them survive the onslaught?”

Universities, argued Lawrence, have developed a blind spot over the past three decades or so. By embracing managerialism and its tick-box performance reviews, the academy was becoming a soulless bureaucracy. It was churning out fewer graduates capable of asking the “big questions” — and too many anxious conformists.

“Universities should be crucial players in the issues of the day”, not merely “technical fixers”. The obsession with technology, speed and efficiency was eroding the university’s traditional roles: valuing knowledge for its own sake and providing civilising institutions that encouraged imagination, tolerance, self-governance, and so on. Broader scholarship was being undermined by a focus on specialist research, she continued,often sidelining teaching quality. There were some “very unfortunate practices in the new Church of Measurement” too. Lawrence was especially concerned about the mis-measurement of science, which was producing “serious distortions in research”.

Paradoxically, given the context, Carmen Lawrence then made an aside that probably puzzled many – and worried more than a few:

Stephan Lewandowsky just emailed to advise he is [still] being pursued by climate deniers in an extravagant way.”

Unknown to her audience, on the day Lawrence presented at the UWA Club, a controversial paper by her colleague, Professor Lewandowsky, was retracted from the online journal Frontiers. Lewandowsky emailed, presumably, to discuss the latest development in this extraordinary saga.

Frontiers posted this statement at 10:35AMPDT on Friday, March 21:

Retraction of the Original Research Article: “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation” by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer and Michael Marriott Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00073

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.

Perhaps one of the “legal factors” causing the alleged limitations on academic freedom was Stephen McIntyre’s letter of April 4, 2013,  to Frontiers and UWA.

“As itemized above, in Fury, Lewandowsky, Oberauer, Cook and Gignac presented numerous material falsehoods, either with an intent to deceive or in reckless disregard of the truth, all in violation of UWA policies on academic misconduct. These are by no means the only material falsehoods in Fury. I formally request that the University of Western Australia, Frontiers in Psychology and Psychological Science investigate these allegations.”

Lewandowsky simultaneously re-posted the paper – now described as “inconvenient science” and titled Recursive Fury goes recurrent — at his (virtually inactive) blog, Shaping Tomorrow’s World, and also at the UWA cognitive science laboratory site. A disclosure statement appears at the top of the title page at the latter site. It includes this sentence:

The article is now hosted on a website of the University of Western Australia, which has come to a different assessment of the risk posed by this article and reaffirms its commitment to academic freedom.

Lewandowsky also posted a statement  at STW where, incidentally, Professor Lawrence is one of the site’s four principals.  (His 40-minute video, In Whose Hands the Future, is here.) He claimed the original paper, based on a survey of visitors to climate blogs, “established a small, but significant, association between the endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of several scientific propositions, including the fact that the earth is warming from greenhouse gases.”

… the article is fine but Frontiers does not want to take the legal risk that its restoration on the website might entail.

The authors were involved in drafting the retraction statement and sanction its content: We understand the journal’s position even though we do not agree with it.

Given its popularity, and given that approximately 29,300 viewers did not complain about our work, it would be a shame to deprive the public of access to this article.

As the work was in Australia, Lewandowsky had discussed it with UWA’s General Counsel, Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris, LLB, MACS, CT. Heitman (apparently) authorised release of this statement:

“I’m entirely comfortable with you publishing the paper on the UWA web site. You and the University can easily be sued for any sorts of hurt feelings or confected outrage, and I’d be quite comfortable processing such a phony legal action as an insurance matter.”

For the record, according to Convocation minutes  in September, UWA asked STW to remove the university logo from its website late last year.

The University’s Acting Director of Public Affairs, Ms Janine MacDonald advised that since the [Shaping Tomorrow’s World] website was not a UWA website, nor was the University an associated affiliation, she would be contacting those who were responsible for the website to advise them that the UWA logo and references of affiliation with UWA should be removed from the website.

As for “hurt feelings or confected outrage”, they are probably being trumped by that recursive fury now erupting at Hot Whopper, Bristol University – Lewandowsky’s new alma mater — and elsewhere. But the Frontiers site is getting some flak too. If, for example, its investigation really “did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects” of the retracted paper, why is the “legal context insufficiently clear” here? As Paul Matthews, associate professor and reader in mathematics at the University of Nottingham, noted in a comment at the Frontiers site:

While the retraction of this paper is to be welcomed, the claim that the “investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study” is absurd and quite worrying. I would like to request full details of the investigation you say you have conducted.

The paper named a number of individuals and labelled them as conspiracy theorists, in the main text of the paper and in the supplementary information. In fact, most of those so labelled were merely pointing out errors in the previous paper. Such labelling is derogatory and insulting, and very clearly contrary to the ethical standards of your field, for example the principles specified at UWA, which emphasise key principles of “Respect for human beings”, “Justice” and “Beneficence”. Your statement that there were no ethical issues but there were legal ones is quite ridiculous – you seem to be suggesting that it is ethical to libel people in a scientific paper.  (See more here)  

It would be a shame to deprive the public of access to the back story. For those who came in late, on  March 18 last year, Lewandowsky et al published the above paper.  Some thought it was a spoof, perhaps a quirky homage to Alan Sokal.

Not so. The researchers merely took the critical responses – now dubbed “recursive fury” — to their initial “moon-landing” paper (LOG12) as a valid data-set and thrust it into what they might werll have dubbed their Conspiracist Ideation Analyser (CIA), which duly churned out a predictable conclusion.

“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… although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.”

After another surge of recursive fury – more data for the CIA — Frontiers posted a statement:

“This article has been the subject of complaints. Given the nature of some of these complaints, Frontiers has provisionally removed the link to it while they are investigated, which is being done as swiftly as possible and which Frontiers management considers the most responsible course of action. The article has not been retracted or withdrawn.”

Meanwhile, the world waits patiently for the appearance of some “alternative scholarly interpretations.”

Rather than explore whether there might be valid reasons for questioning the “scientific consensus”, the authors (and their fans) prefer to assert that anyone who does so is delusional – in an earlier era they would have been persecuted for bourgeois-thought crime – while concocting their own conspiracy theory: that political and vested interests are deliberately undermining public concern about climate-change by pumping out mischievous “doubt”.

As for the earlier LOG-12 paper, NASA faked the moon landing, therefore (climate) science is a Hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science, it apparently “provides empirical confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.” The authors claim, for example, “those who subscribed to one or more conspiracy theories [such as Princess Diana's death was not an accident; the Apollo moon landings never happened; etc], or who strongly supported a free-market economy, were more likely to reject the findings from climate science, as well as other sciences” (author’s emphasis).

One problem with this paper – at least according to Climate Audit principal, Steve McIntyre – was the quality of its “denialist” data-set.

The authors claim their raw online survey data came from “more than 1,000 visitors to blogs dedicated to discussions of climate science”. But how could they be sure whether it was from genuine – and not just pretend  climate sceptics, aka doubt-manufacturing denialists? And was there a risk of scamming contamination? For McIntyre,

“Lewandowsky’s results are bogus because of his reliance on fake and fraudulent data, not because of replication issues in his factor analysis. Nor do I believe that there should be any “doubt” on this point. In my opinion, the evidence is clear-cut: Lewandowsky used fake responses from respondents at stridently anti-skeptic blogs who fraudulently passed themselves off as skeptics to the seemingly credulous Lewandowsky.”

McIntyre has another concern — UWA’s ethics “investigations” into Hoax (and also Fury) – described in detail here.

Most remarkably, the widely-cited key conclusions of the “investigation” – “We have considered the issues raised by Mr McIntyre in his letter to the Editor of Psychological Science dated 12 October and found them to be baseless. The research reported in the above paper was conducted in compliance with all applicable ethical guidelines” – were not written by an investigator or university official but ghost-written by Lewandowsky himself and signed by DVCR Owens within minutes of receipt from Lewandowsky.

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.

As for STW, it has never encouraged debate.  Indeed, there appear to be instances where legitimate comments were deleted by moderators; while others – often containing pejorative words such as “conspiracy”, “denier” and “denialist” – somehow escaped scrutiny, despite STW’s comments policy.

The post below, for example, was deleted because it purportedly contained “extensive quote”, yet is surely relevant.

GrantBat 00:55 AM on 20 September, 2012:

“From Mr McIntyre’s post that you refuse to link to, a psychologist writes:

I am a professional psychologist. Psychology has contributed a great deal to the practical application of statistics and is justifiably proud of this fact. It is extremely unfortunate (I am tempering my words) to see my discipline made into a laughing stock by “green” activists. The more so, because the authors of this paper with their professional hats on are very well aware of all these points and chose to ignore them because of their somewhat warped perception of the greater good.

My experience of academic life in Australia was that fellow psychologists had a commendably low threshold for detecting nonsense and a robust way of showing it. Where are they now?”

How did we get to this point? A key driver has been the discipline’s enthusiastic embrace of the alarmist orthodoxy, both nationally and internationally. The Australian Psychological Society’s Climate Change Reference Group and Public Interest Team became concerned about climate change – “this profoundly important environmental and social issue” — several years ago.

Determined to get a slice of the multi-billion dollar climate Magic Pudding, it released a position statement:

“to emphasise the urgency of climate change as a global problem with significant psychosocial and health implications; to advocate for government, businesses, and organisations to develop effective strategies to minimise climate change impacts; and to position psychologists as a professional group with expert knowledge, skills and resources that can help in climate change science, including mitigation and adaptation (my italics).

The statement, unsurprisingly, stressed how APS research could contribute to understanding “the psychological dimensions of global climate change”, including how psychologists can assist in limiting climate change” (author’s emphasis).

For some, this ambition has a sinister dimension, as blogger S Ender suggested here (Nov 20, 2009 6:05 PM):

The psychologising of the climate-change debate betrays two things about its proponents; firstly, an attitude towards sceptics that is deeply cynical, contemptuous and patronizing; secondly, a belief that subliminal psychological techniques (brainwashing, in all but name) [Lewandowsky et al's "de-biasing"] can and should be used to make sceptics change their minds – a belief that is perfectly Orwellian in its sinister implications.

In a mid-June post last year at Spiked Online, The Pathologising of Climate Scepticism, Ben Pile suggested Lewandowsky was attempting “to turn criticism into a psychological illness” solely to justify his sceptic-bashing.

“How was it that such shoddy, prejudiced, and partial research passed the seemingly objective tests of peer-review, and that such errors of category, method and analysis were nonetheless deemed worthy of publication by editors of scientific publications?”

If Lewandowsky’s work was representative of the quality of scientific research and the academy’s standards, what does it say about climate science and the quality of the so-called scientific consensus? As for Carmen Lawrence’s claim that “climate deniers” are pursuing Lewandowsky in “extravagant ways” – presumably in an attempt to dismiss legitimate enquiry by equating it with Holocaust denial – what does it say about the academy’s aspiration to be a “civilising institution”?

Coincidentally, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten — another keen flinger of “climate-change denier” rhetorician — chose the university to launch Labor’s WA Senate election campaign yesterday. Addressing a Science Meets Parliament event last week, Shorten said it must be immensely frustrating – as well as insulting – for scientists to see their work subjected to the “feelpinions” of “keyboard warriors”.

“A great deal of harm has been done by environmentalists using individual extreme weather events as proof of climate change in and of themselves. An argument that is far too easy for climate-change deniers to rebut by seizing on any unseasonably cold weather. All of which only serves as an unhelpful distraction from the real matter at hand – the future of our planet.”

At least two indefatigable keyboard warriors — Christopher Monckton and Joanne Nova  – will be pleased to learn they are distracting the political class from embarking on even more hubris down at the Climate Cargo Cult Club. Both have had a lot to say, too, about the proliferating “denier” meme: Monckton here  and Nova here. After reading Nova’s initial response to him, Dr Paul Bain – and Nature – issued a partial correction in mid-2012 “regretting the offence caused by the term denier”.

But as Nova wrote:

My concern, as always, is not about hurt feelings, but about the billions of dollars that are wasted on studies that were designed so badly they would never have produced an outcome that was useful from the start. I want that money spent on scientific investigations, and on topics that matter, not on better ways to target propaganda to achieve an outcome that no one can name evidence for.”

UWA’s Winthrop Hall Undercroft is dedicated to Socrates. Now there was a chap who knew the difference between aurum philosophicum and aurum vulgi, who could separate the wheat from the chaff, and genuine knowledge from rhetoric.

The inscription on Victor Wager’s 1932 al fresco statue states he “sought truth always by the path of open discussion and free enquiry. May his spirit preside here at all times.”

Despite being the inspiration for the university’s “seek wisdom” motto, the Greek philosopher is on the ropes again in the Academy. But his disciples are fighting back with his method, especially against promoters of hate-speech and the seductive hemlock of climate alarmism.

 

Michael Kile. March, 2014

Disclosure Statement: The author does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. He has no relevant affiliations, except as author of the Devil’s Dictionary of Climate Change. He is a graduate of the University of Western Australia and two other universities.