Journal’s Mealy-Mouthed Retraction of Lewandowsky Paper

We’ve been awaiting the decision on Stephan Lewandowsky et al.’s paper Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation (Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer and Michael Marriott), published, and as of recently unpublished, in Frontiers in Psychology.

The journal decided that “investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study” and yet withdrew it anyway!

On what grounds? They “did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article”. In short, they don’t have the resources to fight this out in case one of the aggrieved parties decides to lawyer up, even though they found no academic or ethical issues!

The text is still available here. Stephan’s statement regarding the retraction is here.

I am a huge fan and admirer of Lewandowsky, and of Cook as well. Let me emphasize that while I have doubts about many efforts in the social sciences, I find that Lewandowsky’s generally stand head and shoulders above the run of the mill. We’ve also hung out together on a couple of occasions and I hope to have the pleasure and privilege again.

However, I admit that cringed when I saw this publication in a journal. My take on it is that it was an article well worth writing and well worth reading, but rather more of a stunt than an academic contribution to get it published in a journal. The observations in Recursive Fury, of course, are sound. Anyone who’s paid any mind to the nature of climate science denial will not even find it surprising.

But there really are issues with drawing this sort of “recursion” into the literature that make it an odd foray into meta-science. We need some way to re-examine what our journals are for in the new era of free and instant publishing, but we don’t need to further muddy the waters. “Recursive Fury” would have served us better as a blog post or a piece of journalism rather than as a peer reviewed piece. The issues are not with the validity of the paper but with its suitability as a part of the literature. Of course, the social sciences may have looser standards than I’m used to.

Let me emphasize that I agree that nothing in Recursive Fury is incorrect or unethical. I just think it implicitly raises thorny issues as to the nature of the whole peer review ecosystem. Were I a journal editor I would not pass it on for review and suggest informal publication instead.

On the other hand, within the rules, the piece WAS peer reviewed and further, was INVESTIGATED turning up NO ISSUES. Is there any precedent to retracting a publication under threat of barratry? Apparently there is. Still, it seems to me that the retraction is far worse than the publication, and does far more damage to the peer-review system. We need something else.

There’s discussion of the retraction at the first link above, as well as at Retraction Watch.


  1. It is unethical for a social researcher to allow the name of research respondents or research subjects to be revealed as a result of the research. I showed you the section of the Guidelines when Recursive Fury was published.

    You may agree with the results. I do not. But even if they are 100% accurate you do not go around naming the people you spoke to.

    Lewandowsky committed so many other violations of research conduct that it is tiresome to list them. He discussed the research while people could still enter the survey. He discussed the objectives... He asked different questions of different people. He did not publish the different data he collected from them.

    The list goes on. If he is right on any of his conclusions, he is right for the same reason a stopped clock is accurate twice daily. But his paper is an embarrassment.

  2. Again, I think the Recursive article would have been better as an informal article or perhaps a political science article rather than as a paper in the psych lit. But the ethical reviews of both the journal and the university found no ethical issues.

    People making public statements are not in the same ethical stance as people who are subjects of an experiment. This complaint, echoed in the naysayer segment, conflates these conditions.

    As for being the stopped clock, that's absurd. Stephan wins prizes and prestigious appointments for a reason. He's one of the best social scientists out there, and not just in my own opinion.

    I don't want another Tom Fuller flame war, please. Further replies to Tom will be boreholed.

  3. I find it odd that some people are saying (read the comments on the retraction notice, linked to above) that it is unfair to name and label people on the basis of their voluntary and unsolicited public comments, whereas some of the objectors themselves have named and labelled people on the basis of some illegally obtained private comments in the ClimateGate and Skeptical Science Forum hacks. Double standards much?

    I have said before I was not a big fan of the "Moon Landings" paper--especially the deliberately provocative and rather silly title*-- and I tend to agree with Michael that the "Recursive Fury" paper, amusing and instructive though it was, would have been better as a magazine article rather than a formal scholarly publication. Nevertheless, the decision of the journal to retract it, purely because of vague threats of legal action, is truly craven. Let's hope that this doesn't set a precedent, but you could hardly blame the dismissives for being emboldened by this. I fear that this could become a pattern that will make the job harder for the editors of journals, especially the editors of new journals that lack institutional backers with deep pockets.

    *NASA faked the moon landing|Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science"

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  5. Your friends behave strangely at times, Dr. Tobis:

    "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 ghostwritten by Lewandowsky himself and signed by DVCR Owens within minutes of receipt from Lewandowsky." Climate Audit.

    [ McIntyre's flavor of bitterness and selective outrage is best discussed elsewhere. -mt ]

  6. Micheal,

    You write that , "the observations in Recursive Fury, of course, are sound," and you also refer to the paper as "a stunt". Those two statements, while not necessarily mutually exclusive, are a bit confusing side by side. I have not read the now-retracted paper -- does it appear elsewhere, and are the data archived and all that good stuff? I'd like to form my own judgment if possible, recognizing it might not be.

  7. Thanks, Andy, and I just finished slogging through whatever that was. Next to "understatement" in the dictionary should be what I felt was the most important sentence in those 50-plus pages: "One might therefore question the generality of our results." Question! Results? What an embarrassment to UAW, and no surprise at all that Frontier's legal advisors recommended a polite retraction. An extraordinary, pseudo-intellectual attempt by Lewandowsky et al to tar those with whom they disagree. Michael, I'm at a loss, having now read the thing, about which observations you believe to be "sound", and I don't mean that sarcastically at all -- I trust the sincerity of your statement, but I can't find anything remotely sound as pertains to climate science denial (so-called). "If you don't believe what I believe, you must therefore be a conspiracy theorist?" Seriously? Scientific debate has come to this? Or (blessedly in my opinion) it hasn't yet. Well done, Frontiers.

  8. And the penny finally drops. So much for the "no academic or ethical issues" they were hoping would put the story to bed. As often happens, the stonewall only garnered further curiosity.

  9. 2nd attempt to post -- please ignore if 1st went through.

    Frontier has backed away from its "no academic or ethical issues" stance. New retraction:

    Ball's in UWA's court?

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