Retraction Watch informs us that Lewandowsky et al’s unusual paper “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation” , which was published in Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, has been quietly removed (without formally being retracted) from the journal’s website.
I’m sorry to report this as I consider two of the authors to be friends. But there’s no point to pretending this isn’t happening.
The discussion at Reaction Watch is interesting and explains some substantive grounds for complaint. The usual denialist foaming is absent; the complaints on their face are not easily dismissed.
The first time the paper was removed was in response to complaints by Jeff Condon. It was taken down and modified to address his concerns. However, another individual (who goes by the handle Foxgoose) had also taken issue with the paper as it had misrepresented him.
When the paper was reposted, it was reposted in two versions. One, a web version; the other a .pdf file. These two versions were not the same. The .pdf file had been modified to address Foxgoose’s concerns. The web version had not been. This meant there were two different versions of the paper on the journal’s website. Combined with the original version of the paper, that makes three different versions of this paper.
There have been three different versions of the paper published. There is no public record of them or of the changes made between them. Two of them were available from the same page at the same time.
I don’t think this is the way to go.
it’s unethical for psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose people they meet casually. it’s defamatory for them to publish “professional” diagnoses of the mental status of named persons without their consent. it’s against all privacy laws for a professiional to suggest any particular individual suffers from any condition the professional is a specialist of. etc etc
there’s a reason why psychology journals aren’t chock-full of articles having as topic the telediagnosis of past referees, previous editors, and responses to old articles.
This may be one of a tiny handful of cases in which a journal might be justified in erasing, rather than withdrawing, an article. The circumstances here are almost unique.
The lead author is a psychologist. He reports that he has recorded and analyzed the responses of a number of people to a particular event. On the basis of that analysis, he draws certain professional conclusions about the psychological and cognitive status of his subjects. He writes up his data, analysis, and conclusions and submits them for publication. Whether he did so well or badly, this is simply the paradigm of academic psychology. Forget climate politics. Forget “provocative” titles. Don’t even worry about whether this is good science or not. Measure it only against the professional obligations implied by the paradigm.
First, the senior author has an extraordinary conflict of interest. The behavior under study is precisely public criticism of the author’s professional competence. Psychology in particular has a deep concern with the distortions caused by even relatively trivial conflicts of interest.
Second, it is probably safe to assume that Prof. Lewandowsky did not write his Psych. Sci. paper simply to create the experimental conditions for the Frontiers paper. Still, negative reactions to the Psych. Sci. paper were entirely predictable. This was not a “natural” event. On the contrary, the experimental set-up (the contents and release of the then-unpublished Psych. Sci. paper) was completely under the author’s control. Thus Prof. Lewandowsky created, controlled, conducted, analyzed, and published a psychological experiment without any disclosures to, or consent from, the subjects.
Third, regardless of whether consent was required for the experiment, the authors published individually identifiable information about, and analysis of, the mental health and cognitive status of their subjects. This is not simply bloggish, lay opinion. This is, mind you, published as objectively determined, scientifically verified, analysis by professional psychologists for publication in a professional journal — concerning named individuals who were not willing subjects and did not consent to participation in a study, or to the release of personal mental status information.
Fourth, some of the information then turned out to be wrong.
Perhaps, despite appearances, this is all ethically acceptable in psychology. But, if not, Frontiers has a hard choice. They really shouldn’t proceed to publication. It’s an ethical minefield. But retraction or withdrawal, with detailed explanations, would look like an attempt to cast blame on the authors or others — and might make things worse. Having gotten this far into the process, duck and cover may be the best, and perhaps even the most ethical, choice among rotten alternatives.
Not much appears in defense of the article as yet at Retraction Watch. I hope something does but I have to say the conversation so far is not reassuring.
The attacks on Marcott et al have been ludicrous and laughable. The attention given them by the media have been overwrought and easily dismissed. This is a very different story and it probably isn’t going away. This all said, “everybody knows”. It is obvious that ideation at denial sites is in fact paranoid. The question is whether and how to report it in an academic journal. And why.
Lewandowsky et al, like Marcott et al, knew they were marching into the bullseye.
Marcott made his point about lack of robustness in the “uptick” in a somewhat unclear way, and the press release confused the research with the context. These are avoidable and unnecessary mistakes given the reasonable expectation of the Full McIntyre treatment. But in the end, the critique is vapid and the result stands unscathed. The whole episode just makes the denier world seem every bit as ridiculous as it ought to look.
Stephan’s papers are a very different matter. It takes the ridiculous aspect of the denier world and exposes that ridiculousness itself in an academic context. To those of us familiar with the debate it is simply a realistic exposition of what is actually happening. If the academic literature is intended as an exploration of truth, saying something that is true seems more than defensible. I think it’s important that the main point – that the ideation of climate denialism is fundamentally paranoid – is in the public discourse. It is past time that it was. And withdrawn or not, this paper will have achieved that. Indeed the deniers are somewhat trapped by this tar pit.
On the other hand, law, journalism and academic publishing are bound by a duty of objectivity and neutrality. This makes for a very sluggish process of social decision-making under controversy. The rules of objectivity chafe when confronted with urgency, and indeed they are often abused, but they exist for a reason.
It remains to be seen whether the paper is seen as transgressive, and whether any such transgression is seen as worth the costs. The thing that we can be sure of is that we haven’t heard the last of this.