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 The paper was withdrawn pending review for quite a few months, and then eventually retracted.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” ).
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.