New Journal Statement re “Recursive Fury”

To bring you up to date, a controversial paper by Lewandowsky et al was based on public reactions to an earlier study of theirs. In this paper, specific instances of paranoid reactions to observations of paranoid cognition among climate science deniers were highlighted. The paper was withdrawn pending review for quite a few months, and then eventually retracted.

The journal has belatedly issued an explanation of the retraction that does not make them look quite so stupid, at least at first glance.


Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics. Frontiers informed the authors of the conclusions of our investigation and worked with the authors in good faith, providing them with the opportunity of submitting a new paper for peer review that would address the issues identified and that could be published simultaneously with the retraction notice.

They did not retract their earlier position, though, that there were no “academic or ethical” issues with the study:

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 new statement emphasizes that there are three aspects which they studied:

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.

Clearly the words are carefully chosen here. There is no effort to withdraw the statement that there were no “academic or ethical” issues; the issue clearly is by elimination purely a legal defense.

This is difficult to credit, as the statements in question were made publicly. I think there are ethical issues with pathologizing public communications in a psychological journal, but making similar claims in the press is presumably protected speech. If someone publicly says that climate science is a front for a sinister communist conspiracy, I am not only in my rights for saying that is crazy talk – I am ethically obligated to say so. The grey line is whether it is okay to say so in a peer reviewed journal. And I think this is just up to the traditions of the discipline. Certainly there are corners of academia where this sort of thing is an everyday occurrence.

I expect that the law doesn’t distinguish between academic speech and speech. As far as the law is concerned, a peer reviewed journal is subject to the same laws as any other publication, and accusations of paranoid ideation are perfectly within bounds; after all such things do exist and have historically caused great damage. Identifying and appropriately responding is important – the law can’t preserve democracy under conditions where pathological thought processes can’t be called out. For instance:

Data fudging and secrecy aside, by 1998, Earth had stopped warming and begun cooling, despite record levels of CO2 …. This divergence between AGW theory and reality grew so enormous that by October 12, 2009, Kevin Trenberth, in a fit of frustration, e-mailed his colleagues: “Where the heck is global warming?” “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” The reason he gave for their inability to account for cooling was that “[T]he data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.” In other words, the findings indicating cooling were wrong, but the climate models, predicting warming, were correct. This, arguably, is the key revelation of ClimateGate. It makes self-evident that blind faith and bankrupt logic are now masquerading as rational science. No matter how much techno-babble is used to make today’s climate models sound impressive, they have all proved wrong. The hockey team scientists admit they have no clue why this is so, though other scientists do (see “Climate Corrections” [92]).

These problems would have been publicized years ago if the AGW theorists didn’t have powerful allies: policy makers in virtually every professional scientific body, editors of virtually every major scientific journal, and reporters and editors at virtually all mainstream media outlets. Few provided unbiased, impartial forums where alternate views and evidence were aired and debated. Instead, most took official positions, invariably with an air of authority, and spared no effort to ensure that voices against the artificial consensus were quashed by editorial fiat and a persistent campaign of vilification, intimidation, and ridicule. Twenty-first Century science has borrowed a page from the medieval Church in using fear and persecution to silence skeptics. The oppressed have become the oppressors. Given that most professional scientific bodies and peer-reviewed journals have been active accomplices in this scandal, one wonders how many other “scientific consensuses” have been similarly engineered.

Err, no. (Link goes to the paper referenced in the cherry-picked quotes from the stolen email by Dr Trenberth.)

I think I am on solid ground saying that is crazy. Let Jo Nova sue me.

The question is only whether it is okay to say something like that in a psychology journal in general or this journal in particular. That hardly seems like a legal question, so the journal’s position is incoherent.

UPDATE: And it turns out to be even worse than that. The “statement” asserts that

The authors agreed and subsequently proposed a new paper that was substantially similar to the original paper and, crucially, did not deal adequately with the issues raised by Frontiers.

But Elaine McKewon, one of the paper’s reviewers has come forward with a very different version of this:

The paper names and quotes several blogs and individuals. Shortly after publication, Frontiers received complaints from climate deniers who claimed they had been libelled in the paper and threatened to sue the journal unless the paper was retracted.

After taking the paper down from its website, Frontiers began its investigation and arranged a conference call so that the journal’s manager, legal counsel, editors and reviewers could discuss how to proceed.

the lawyer raised concerns about two sentences in the paper that had been the subject of threats of litigation. By the end of the 20-minute conference call, we had all agreed that, if the authors made minor modifications to these sentences, the content would remain intact and the paper could be re-published without fear of successful legal action.

Before the call ended, three academics, including me, argued that scientific journals must not be held to ransom every time someone threatens litigation. In response to our concerns, we were assured by the journal’s representatives that the legal matter would be considered settled once the two sentences had been amended as agreed.

The Journal is obviously in desperate and mendacious spin control.


  1. The social sciences have instituted clear guidelines for conducting research. Professor Lewandowsky did not adhere to them.

    I happen to also disagree with his methodology, analysis and conclusions. But from the Journal's point of view that is irrelevant--journals often post papers with problems in those areas.

    If you can find the identity of someone who has been labeled as something less than good in a paper written by a psychologist, the paper has violated the guidelines for conducting ethical research.

    It's really pretty simple.

  2. It's even worse than that. The authors apply a definition of "conspiracist ideation" while being careful about judging the validity of the subjects' beliefs:

    You could have conspiracist ideation about the Iran-Contra scandal, for example. Furthermore, try searching the paper for "paranoi": it seems to come up only in citations.

  3. Arg, meant to blockquote the paper:

    We derived six criteria from the existing literature to permit classi cation of hypotheses pertaining to LOG12 as potentially conspiracist (see Table 3). Our criteria were exclusively psychological and hence did not hinge on the validity of the various hypotheses. This approach follows philosophical precedents that have examined the
    epistemology of conspiratorial theorizing irrespective of its truth value (e.g., Keeley, 1999; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). The approach also avoids the need to discuss or rebut the substance of any of the hypotheses.

  4. This is from the Australian National Guidelines. If I have time I will follow up with guidelines from Lewandowsky's university.

    Procedures to be followed by researchers
    2.1 An overriding obligation for the researcher is at all times to respect the
    dignity and personal privacy of the individual.
    2.2 The researcher must give a written proposal for the research to an HREC, with
    any information necessary for members of that HREC to meet their
    responsibilities under these guidelines. Guidance on the information to be
    included in the written proposal is set out in paragraph 2.4.
    2.3 When research may involve a breach of an IPP or IPPs, the proposal for that
    research to be submitted to an HREC must contain a reference to that IPP or
    IPPs, and must also state reasons for believing that the public interest in the
    research outweighs, to a substantial degree, the public interest in adhering to
    that IPP(s). In that proposal, the researcher must provide the HREC with
    necessary information to enable the HREC to weigh the public interest
    considerations in accordance with section 3.2 of these guidelines.

    Principle 1
    Manner and purpose of collection of personal information
    1. Personal information shall not be collected by a collector for inclusion in a
    record or in a generally available publication unless:
    (a) the information is collected for a purpose that is a lawful purpose
    directly related to a function or activity of the collector; and
    (b) the collection of information is necessary for or directly related to
    that purpose.

    Lewandowsky did none of this. He tacked Recursive Fury onto an existing research proposal with different scope and methodology. He has never explained, either in proposal, paper or discussion afterwards, why he needed to disclose the identities of those he classified as having psychopathological tendencies.

    He did the same in LOG12, his previous paper. He scammed the university, lied to the ethical officer to avoid having an ethics committee review and proceeded to call skeptics and lukewarmers mentally ill.

    Following in the grand tradition of Anderegg, Prall et al and Peter Gleick, rules don't matter when the cause is just.

    Mosher was right. We should have named our book 'Noble Cause Corruption.'

  5. I am pretty sure that this is not exactly what happened.

    This is not to say there is nothing in RF that is above criticism, nor that there isn't a whiff of what you call "noble cause corruption" among some of the defenders of the consensus. But good lord, look who's calling the kettle black.

    Specifically, one of Stephan's points is that there is a very severe asymmetry being proposed, wherein the anonymous vicious person who seems remarkably like McIntyre can say whatever the hell he pleases and the publishing academic is not allowed to defend himself in any way.

    As for Gleick, I enjoyed and admired his stunt, which was purely extramural and has no bearing on his science. The criticism of Prall is just bizarre; he collected and reported publicly available data, and people encouraged him to publish it in a journal.

    And as for anything related to the stolen CRU emails, that belligerent nonsense has always been off topic at P3 by policy. It is probably too late for you to reconsider whom the injured parties in that event were, so let's just not discuss it, okay?

  6. I just posted this at Connolley's--it's too good to just post once:

    The reason libertarians oppose you is not because they consider themselves the heroes of an Ayn Rand book. It is because so many of you persist in acting like the cardboard cutout villains from the same turgid novels.

    Peter Gleick has done you more harm that Steve McIntyre ever will.

  7. "Specifically, one of Stephan's points is that there is a very severe asymmetry being proposed, wherein the anonymous vicious person who seems remarkably like McIntyre can say whatever the hell he pleases and the publishing academic is not allowed to defend himself in any way."

    One is tempted to weep for Mr. Lewandowsky until one realizes that not only can he respond at Frontiers, he can also repeat his response at his blog, where he posts frequently and might even be able to persuade people like Michael Tobis to republish his response, as well as Real Climate,Skeptical Science and mayhap one or two other venues. One is tempted to also wager that he could have responded to McIntyre's criticism at Climate Audit without fear of censorship.

    I do believe Mr. Lewandowsky had most of a year to respond to the various criticisms of his work. And yet his paper was pulled anyway. Perhaps... the paper... deserved to be pulled.

  8. Why is it that when we speak of Noble Cause Corruption some people are fixated on the Noble Cause part?

    In what universe was Heartland ever misunderstood? What about them needed to be revealed that they did not themselves yell from the rooftops?

    What did turning them into a victim accomplish?

    What did labeling yourself a fan of a thief and a forger do for your cause?

  9. That's not an unreasonable response, but in fact, as I understand it Stephan's legal counsel has been advising him to clam up on a very large fraction of this story, and he's run everything he has said about it past his attorney.

    On the days I regret not having had a more successful career as a scientist I console myself with the realization that McIntyre consequently lacks ammunition to make me a primary target. His (and others', including Tom's) adversarial attitude is costing the world far more than the ego boosts are worth.

  10. I don't believe that he forged the memo. I don't believe he has the talent or the inclination. Do you?

    Let's discuss that at great length, because the more we discuss it, the more we can discuss the motivations and structure of Heartland.

  11. I think it's perfectly plausible that Bast wrote it and in fact I think he did. It is utterly beyond my capacity to believe that Peter Gleick did.

    I think Gleick's version of events, that he used the information in the memo to gain access, is enormously more plausible than the version where he just decided to poke his nose in there without such information. Because if he did, you are arguing for tremendous spying talent as well as clumsiness - an inconsistent model.

    I think it's clear that Bast is a cynical bastard who is using the climate issue as an excuse to feather his own nest. The history with the tobacco industry certainly bears that out. I don't use "denialist" for a lot of people but the shoe certainly fits in this case. Peter did us the service of making this clear to a larger group with less direct involvement in climate, at considerable cost to himself. I am grateful.

    The whole business of extracting money from cranky old people for bogus causes is legal, as are many other unethical pursuits, but that doesn't mean we have to like it. Once the fate of the entire world is at stake for comfortable gigs for a few professional spin doctors, the ethical balance is pretty spectacularly tilted.

    As for "noble cause corruption", that cuts both ways. Do you not consider that your sympathy for the ludicrous claims of a sleazy propaganda-for-hire outfit with a dubious 501c3 might be driven by your habitual outrage at climate science, rather than the other way around?

  12. My outrage is not at climate science. My outrage is at the pseudo-political faction that has tried to misuse it.

    To be clear: My outrage is not directed at James Hansen, Kevin Trenberth, even Ben Santer (although I have criticized each in the past). My 'outrage' is directed at Peter Gleick, Stephan Lewandowsky and James Prall.

  13. Ah, yes

    The memory of Gleickgate
    Seems somehow sadly gay
    The glory that was Climategate
    Is of another day
    I've been terribly alone
    And forgotten in DC
    I have a feeling, I'm going to have to pay

    I left my Heartland in Ad Fiasco
    High on a billboard, Ted calls to me.
    To be where Fargo armored trucks
    Deliver piles of bucks!
    The funders' flight may chill the air
    I don't care!
    My love waits there in Ad Fiasco
    Above the dark and stormy sea
    When I come home to you, Ad Fiasco,
    Your golden sun will shine for me!

    Listen to Horatio's parody of "I left my Heart in San Francisco" ..or not

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