Science Journal Set To Retract Paper Linking Climate Change Scepticism To Conspiracy Theorists After Sceptics Shout Libel


A psychology journal is said to be preparing to retract a scientific paper that found a link between conspiratorial thinking and the rejection of global warming science after climate sceptics claimed the paper was defamatory.

DeSmogBlog has learned the paper’s four authors, led by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, the chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, have signed gagging orders preventing them from discussing the nature of the complaints about their work, carried out when Lewandowsky was a professor at the University of Western Australia.

News of an alleged pending retraction, by the Switzerland-based journal Frontiers in Psychology, has leaked onto climate sceptic blogs but the journal is yet to make a formal announcement.

But DeSmogBlog can reveal that Freedom of Information documents obtained last June but revealed here for the first time show that climate sceptics complained that the work was defamatory.

The FOI covers complaints sent to Perth-based UWA and also to Frontiers related to the disputed paper Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.

Lewandowsky’s research has been subjected to a litany of complaints and Freedom of Information requests, mainly from climate science “sceptics”.

Retractions of academic research in peer-reviewed publications are rare events.

Speaking to DeSmogBlog, Lewandowsky said because the reports had come from sources which relied on information “not in the public domain” he did not wish to comment. But he added: 

I can confidently say that the University of Western Australia has not upheld any complaints against me from any party on any matter whatsoever. Beyond that, I cannot go into specifics.

DeSmogBlog has contacted the journal for clarification but understands from other sources that at this stage, a retraction is imminent. The uncertainty around the Recursive Fury paper is the latest twist in a scientific saga which stretches back to mid-2010.

Four year saga 

As reported on DeSmogBlog, in May 2012 research by Lewandowsky and his team at the University of Western Australia was published in the journal Psychological Science.

The research reported that rejection of the science of human-caused climate change was linked to the acceptance of conspiracy theories such as NASA faking the moon landing.

Lewandowsky’s research team analysed answers to surveys posted on climate blogs during 2010. While five “sceptical” blogs were approached to host the survey, none accepted the invitation.

The publication prompted climate sceptics to launch a flood of commentary and issue complaints to the journal and to UWA.

The university received several Freedom of Information requests asking for correspondence relating to the research. Several sceptics called for for investigations to be carried out and complained that researchers did not have proper “ethics” approvals for the study.

FOI documents previously released show the complaints about ethics approvals were “baseless” and that Lewandowsky had carefully followed ethics guidelines.

After the research was published, a large number of “sceptic” bloggers and commentators came up with their own conspiracy theories relating to the way the research had been carried out.

Some suggested Lewandowsky had “faked” a claim that he had approached skeptic blogs, when FOI documents show the approaches to sceptics. There were claims that “warmists” had “scammed” the surveys providing answers that would make sceptics look bad.

Others claimed that the results of the survey had been “pre-ordained”. Lewandowsky and co-author Klaus Oberauer explained how even when outlier data was removed, the central finding of the paper held.

Canada-based mining industry veteran and Climate Audit blogger Steven McIntyre, also complained to Psychological Science, questioning whether the research had been carried out with adequate ethics approval. McIntyre encouraged people to complain to UWA and posted on a blog site the email addresses of the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Robyn Owens.

UWA investigated and told Psychological Science the “research … was conducted in compliance with all applicable ethical guidelines”, and that complaints on these grounds were baseless.

More evidence

The flurry of conspiratorial responses on climate blogs appeared to be further evidence of the link Lewandowsky had found between “conspiracist ideation” and the rejection of climate science. To see of this was the case, Lewandowsky led another study analysing the online response to his Psychological Science study.

The researchers looked at 69 responses posted on 10 skeptic blogs, including Climate Audit run by Steve McIntyre, Marc Morano’s Climate Depot and blogs managed by Anthony Watts and Australian Joanne Nova.

This “Recursive Fury” research was submitted to the journal Frontiers in Psychology in early 2013 and was published online in March 18 of that year. The authors wrote:

Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking.

As well as identifying the blogs, the research also identified comments by individuals that were categorised as exhibiting certain styles of thought, such as “nefarious intent” and “unreflexive counterfactual thinking”.

But after several complaints from climate sceptics the journal had removed the paper by the end of the month. The journal said at the time: “Given the nature of some of these complaints, Frontiers has provisionally removed the link to the article while these issues are investigated.”

The research was viewed more than 30,000 times before the paper was removed from the publisher’s website.

Seperately, Lewandowsky led another study, published in the journal PLOS ONE in October 2013, which also found a link between acceptance of conspiracy theories and the rejection of the science of human-caused climate change. 

This study used a different method to gather the data – a survey of 1000 Americans – but, as I wrote on The Guardian, the study found near identical results.

Some complainants had suggested that because Lewandowsky had been “hostile” towards them in blog posts, this constituted a conflict of interest.

The FOI documents also show that by early May, UWA had at that stage already looked at many aspects of the complaints and dismissed them. 

An email from Frontiers to UWA on May 2013 states: “Many thanks for your message and the letter informing us of UWA‘s decision that no breach of the Australian Code for Responsible Research occured in the research leading to the article known as ‘Recursive Fury’, and the recommendations concerning conflicts of interest.”

Gagging orders hide libel threats

While DeSmogBlog understands the authors of the paper have signed confidentiality agreements preventing them from discussing the nature of the complaints, FOI documents and pre-existing blog posts show how the journal was facing accusations that the paper was defamatory.

One blogger, Geoff Chambers, wrote to Frontiers asking that the paper be withdrawn because it was defamatory towards him.

In FOI documents another climate sceptic blogger forwards a complaint they had made to the Frontiers journal. The complaint said: “I have sought legal advice which has confirmed that, as long as a reasonable number of blog readers are aware of my true identity and professional reputation (which is the case), I could potentially have a defamation action against the authors and publishers of this paper for an outright lie that was told about me.”

Later in the letter, the blogger added: “I hope that you will see that this was a clear case of quote falsification, academic misconduct and defamation and that the paper will now be permanently withdrawn.”

In two complaints, Steve McIntyre wrote that the paper had identified him as exhibiting “six aspects of conspiracist ideation”, a characterisation which he disagreed with, and that the authors had not been given ethics approval for the recursive study.

At one point, McIntyre complains that blog posts written by Lewandowsky were “stimuli” and that he was an unwitting participant in an experiment.

Writing on the Watts Up With That blog, McIntyre said earlier today:

The Lewandowsky article made a variety of defamatory and untrue allegations against me with malice. I accordingly sent a strongly worded and detailed letter to the journal formally requesting that they withdraw the allegations and retract the article. I didn’t “instigate a libel lawsuit” or get “a lawyer involved” but the letter was a formal one. It was my hope that the journal would recognize the many defects of the Lewandowsky article and behave responsibly, as they eventually did.

DeSmogBlog has asked Frontiers for clarification on the status of the study.

In McIntyre’s complaint letters (seen as item numbers 95 and 99 on the FOI document release), the Canadian blogger uses quotes hacked from a private forum of the Skeptical Science, founded University of Queensland academic John Cook and co-author on the Recursive study.

McIntyre cites the quotes in an attempt to demonstrate “malice” against him, even though none of those quotes were written by any of the authors of the paper.

The University of Western Australia’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Robyn Owens said she had no comment to make at this stage. 

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