Peer review is claimed to be the gold standard for scientific papers. Yet in the establishment climate science world, “peer review” operates differently. Professor Stephan Lewandowsky’s now-retracted paper Recursive Fury, about conspiracy-mindedness of “deniers”, raises a few issues about peer reviewing.
The background is that in 2012 Lewandowsky, Winthrop professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia, wrote a paper on climate “denialism” with the provocative title “NASA Faked the Moon Landing-Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science”. This caused an outcry on climate sceptic blogs, where it was alleged, among other things, that the survey was based on only 10 anonymous internet responses. Lewandowsky, now at Bristol University, surveyed and analysed the outcry and created last year a new paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation”.
I won’t go into this paper’s merits, except to note that its host journal, Frontiers, has retracted the paper, saying,
As a result of its investigation, which was carried out in respect of academic, ethical and legal factors, 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. 
Lewandowsky is undeniably a heavy hitter in his psychology patch. He’s been publishing scores of papers for nearly 30 years (20 in the past three years alone) since gaining his Ph.D. He has taught at UWA for nearly 20 years and was awarded the UK Royal Society’s Wolfson Research Merit Award last year.
So who peer reviewed his Recursive Fury paper? It was an ambitious paper, and when published,it got 30,000 online views and more than 9000 downloads, a record for the journal. The editors would hardly have selected as a peer reviewer a mere post-graduate Sydney student in journalism, would they?
Step forward Elaine McKewon, student at the sub-august Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, one of the three reviewers. (Check the output of its star researcher Wendy Bacon here).
McKewon’s academic lustre shines with a BA (Hons) in Geography, UWA, and a Grad Dip in Journalism at UTS.
Her studies for a PhD involve, a la Wendy Bacon, “examining coverage of climate science in Australian newspapers during 1996-2010.” The primary aim, she says, “is to explain how the scientific consensus on climate change was reconstructed as a ‘scientific debate’ in the Australian news media.” In other words, how and why have evil sceptics been casting doubt on the certain, absolutely settled case for catastrophic human-caused global warming that will occur in the late 21st century. Or in her own words, “I am developing an interdisciplinary model of the social production of scientific ignorance — the process whereby a coalition of agents from different social fields constructs a false scientific controversy at the public level in order to undermine authoritative scientific knowledge.”
Here also speaks McKewon, terrifying the horses at a journalism education conference in Perth:
“The latest report of the (IPCC) in 2007 raises the prospect of unthinkable scenarios over the coming century: millions of people without adequate water supply, devastating droughts and bushfires, mass starvation, catastrophic floods, more frequent extreme weather events, rising sea levels, millions of people displaced in an environmental refugee crisis and one-third of the world’s species committed to extinction…”
I’m not surprised that the Australian Psychological Society (which adores Lewandowsky’s papers) has put out a special bulletin on how to educate kiddies about climate change without traumatizing them permanently.
Lewandowsky is a fan of McKewon’s work. In a 40-minute video he did last month at Bristol University, he quotes (at 28:04) from his Recursive Fury conclusion about “a possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science”. He adds that this “is a finding that aligns well with previous research”. His graphic then pops up alongside, reading “Other research aligns with our basic thinking, e.g. McKewon 2012.”
McKewon published two studies in 2012. Lewandowsky is probably referring to both of them: “The use of neoliberal think tank [i.e. Institute of Public Affairs] fantasy themes to delegitimise scientific knowledge of climate change in Australian newspapers” and “Conspiracy theories vs climate science in regional newspaper coverage of Ian Plimer’s book, Heaven and Earth”.
In the Recursive Fury paper, Lewandowsky cites McKewon’s two papers no less than five times. I imagine McKewon would have noticed the citations she was getting, but not let that affect her objectivity as peer reviewer. As it happened, she seems to have missed, as reviewer, the ethics issues identified by Frontiers’ journal management.
McKewon’s own account is: “Satisfied that the paper was a solid work of scholarship that could advance our understanding of science denial and improve the effectiveness of science communication, I recommended publication. Two other independent reviewers agreed.”
UPDATE: The Recursive Fury paper was edited by Viren Swami, University of Westminster. Strangely, he is also one of the two peer reviewers of the paper, along with McKewon. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on April 2, that McKewon was one of “three independent reviewers”.
Dr Swami’s Ph.D was on body-size ideals across cultures. His papers include :
>Female physical attractiveness in Britain and Malaysia: A cross-cultural study
>Female physical attractiveness in Britain and Japan: A cross‐cultural study
>The missing arms of Vénus de Milo: reflections on the science of attractiveness
>A critical test of the waist-to-hip ratio hypothesis of women’s physical attractiveness in Britain and Greece
>Unattractive, promiscuous and heavy drinkers: Perceptions of women with tattoos.
The peer-review guidelines of the Frontier family of journals, including Frontiers of Psychology, advise that it is mandatory for review editors who endorse publication of a manuscript to have their identities listed on the published article. On the Recursive Fury article still on the UWA website, I can’t find any reviewer names. There may be some routine explanation for that, but it’s odd.
She also says she is Reviewer for Australian Humanities Review and Journal of Applied Communication Research. I imagine a climate sceptic, submitting a piece on, say, “Failure of Academics to Notice the 17-Year Warming Hiatus” might get some trenchant questioning from McKewon as reviewer.
UPDATE II: Frontiers has changed the list of reviewers on three occasions. Blogger Steve McIntyre has found that the reviewers were originally said to be Elaine McKewon and Michael Wood. This was changed to McKewon and editor Viren Swami. Then the list of reviewers was changed to McKewon, Swami and Prathiba Natesan, Then Natesan was removed from the list of reviewers, returning the list to McKewon and Swami again.
Of McKewon’s other three papers, one also involves the rubbishing of Plimer’s book, and two are about prostitution in WA. She has also written a book on Kalgoorlie prostitution.
Her grants include $12,696 from the federal Department of Industry this year towards her Ph.D. rubbishing the alleged coalition of IPA, News Corp, fossil fuel barons etc for “undermining authoritative scientific knowledge”. (How kind of Industry Minister Ian McFarlane to pay the government’s enemies to crusade against it and its supporters). McKewon also scored an earlier $70,881 grant over three years for Ph.D. work, funded by a Rudd department.
“Peer review” has been a feature of IPCC science. Who could forget the Climategate email of East Anglia’s climate guru Phil Jones: “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin [Trenberth] and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”
I have not been aware of any controversy over credentials of peer reviewers themselves. So let’s take a closer look at Ms McKewon, “a top expert worldwide”, according to the Frontier journal group’s criteria.
She’s from New Orleans and has been in Australia a couple of decades. Her journalism to 2008 seems to be 200-plus news items for a New Orleans blog called BayouBuzz, these items being mostly rehashes of mainstream media reports – part of any journo’s stock-in-trade. The main exception is her climate reports, which are long, passionate pieces on planet-saving themes.
Her recent item titles speak for themselves:
- ‘The journal that gave in to climate deniers’ intimidation‘. — The Conversation, April 2, 2014 [Frontiers new explanation for pulling the Recursive Fury piece seems to render McKewon’s story obsolete].
- ‘The Big Oil-backed climate denier who hoodwinked Fairfax’. — Crikey, January 13, 2014. Opinion piece based on doctoral research.
- ‘Think tank a false climate prophet’. Opinion piece based on doctoral research‘. — SMH, 20 June, 2013
- ‘Think tank talking points deepen the divide over climate change’. The Conversation, February 16, 2012 Opinion piece based on doctoral research.
Her twitter account is alive with disparagement of “deniers”. Sceptics are equated with anti-vaccine campaigners; Melbourne sceptic John McLean is a “Big Oil-backed climate denier” (show us the Exxon cheques, John!). She’s enthusiastic about banning sceptic commentary from the media; “climate denial” is a “machine” or “industry” powered by the IPA; polar bears are starving; climate-change diseases are rife; and the Marshall Islands are drowning.
I mentioned peer-review standards in climate science are sometimes not as high as in proper science. The use of junior people as purported experts and authorities is also a feature of IPCC climate science. Here’s some examples, unearthed by investigator Donna Lamframboise for her 2011 book Delinquent Teenager:
- Richard Klein in 1992 turned 23, completed a Masters degree, and worked as a Greenpeace campaigner. Two years later, at the tender age of 25, he found himself serving as an IPCC lead author. He became a top-level coordinating lead author at age 28, six years before he completed his Ph.D. in 2003.
- Environmentalist Laurens Bouwer in 1999-2000 served as an IPCC lead author on an chapter devoted to insurance before earning his Masters in 2001. His insurance expertise? He’d been a trainee at Munich Re.
My scientist friends tell me that peer review generally has degraded, partly because of the upsurge in numbers of papers seeking publication. Since each paper needs a mimimum of three reviewers, the demands on serious-minded reviewers are so great that many now refuse to fritter their time on that task. Hence publishers are reduced to begging would-be authors to come up with names of five reviewers, any reviewers, academic stature be hanged. Publishers may even ask authors for a list of reviewers who should not be asked, hence the growth of groupthink in academia.
The unravelling of issues around Lewandowsky’s Recursive Fury paper has some distance to run – particularly in respect of UWA giving it a tick for ethical procedures.
I hope McKewon can find time for a follow-up on her April 2 piece in The Conversation, where she seems to have grabbed the bull by the tail:
“The journal’s management and editors were clearly intimidated by climate deniers who threatened to sue. So Frontiers bowed to their demands, retracted the paper, damaged its own reputation, and ultimately gave a free kick to aggressive climate deniers.
I would have expected a scientific journal to have more backbone, certainly when it comes to the crucially important issue of academic freedom.”
But as Frontiers now says, “Frontiers did not “cave in to threats”; in fact, Frontiers received no threats.”
Reporter Tony Thomas is still hoping for a Professorship in Journalism at UTS. He blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com
 Joanne Nova sums up the thrust of the Recursive Fury paper: “that sceptics who objected this previous paper were barking-mad conspiracy theorists with nefarious intent”
 On p3, 5, 29, and 36 (twice)
 see 8