Recursive Fury: Misunderstanding The Ethics of Criticism

By Neuroskeptic | April 29, 2014 5:18 am

One month ago, a paper was retracted from Frontiers in Psychology. It was called “Recursive fury: conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation”, from Australian psychologists Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues.

Most retractions are valuable corrections to the literature, taking flawed science or plagiarised work out of circulation. I have myself been responsible for getting two papers retracted and I think science is a better place because they’re gone.

But the Frontiers retraction was… not such a good thing. In fact I think it sets a very dangerous precedent.

climate_bannedThe retracted paper is still available in numerous places, e.g. here. As a point of principle I’ll send a copy to anyone on request, because I don’t believe it should have been retracted.

A paper should be retracted if new information comes to light concerning either scientific or ethical flaws. The scientific qualities of the Lewandowsky et al paper are not even in question; ethically, it has been queried but, I believe, it passes every applicable test.

The article might well be considered distasteful, but this is a matter of opinion, not ethics, as I will explain.


The story of Recursive Fury (RF) began with a previous paper from the same authors, Lewandowsky et al (2012). This first paper reported an online survey study and the results showed that, amongst survey respondents, belief in the idea that climate change is a myth, was correlated with belief in diverse conspiracy theories (‘conspiracist ideation’).

After the publication of Lewandowsky et al (2012), a number of blog posts appeared rejecting the conclusions of that paper. In RF, the authors argue that many of these blog posts themselves displayed the kind of conspiracist ideation that the original paper had investigated. For example, they say:

Initial attention of the blogosphere also focused on the method reported by Lewandowsky et al (2012), which stated:“Links were posted on 8 blogs (with a pro-science stance but with a diverse audience); a further 5 ‘skeptic’ (or ‘skeptic’-leaning) blogs were approached but none posted the link.”

Speculation immediately focused on the identity of the 5 ‘skeptic’ bloggers. Within short order, 25 ‘skeptical’ bloggers had come publicly forward to state that they had not been approached by the researchers. Of those… five were by individuals who [in fact had been] invited to post links to the study… Two of these bloggers had engaged in correspondence with the research assistant for further clarification.

This apparent failure to locate the ‘skeptic’ bloggers led to allegations of research misconduct by Lewandowsky et al (2012) in blog posts and comments. Those suspicions were sometimes asserted with considerable confidence; “Lew made up the ‘five skeptical blogs’ bit. That much we know”…

And the rest of the article continues in the same vein.

Why was it retracted? According to the original Frontiers retraction notice of 27th March

Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical, and legal aspects of [RF]. 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…

However, in a later statement, Frontiers contradicted this. On the 4th of April, they said that (emphasis mine)

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. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics…

One of Frontiers‘ founding principles is that of authors’ rights. We take this opportunity to reassure our editors, authors and supporters that Frontiers will continue to publish – and stand by – valid research. But we also must uphold the rights and privacy of the subjects included in a study or paper.

This second statement is the focus of the rest of this post. It seems to me to involve a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific ethics. My comments also apply to Frontiers’ third statement which was very similar.

Frontier’s second statement would make perfect sense if RF had been a conventional psychology paper reporting on the results of an experiment or survey – like, say, Lewandowsky et al (2012). In that kind of a paper, it would be deeply unethical for the researchers to publish any details that allowed the subjects who’d taken part to be identified.

In a conventional psychology study the researchers have an express duty of confidentiality and of privacy vis a vis the participants, or subjects. This duty stems from the fact that the subjects have entered into an explicit contract of trust with researchers.

They have granted the researchers access to personal information (e.g. about their opinions, or other personal matters), information that they might otherwise keep private. Volunteers do this because they trust the researchers to use the data only for research purposes and to publish it in a nonidentifiable way. Clearly, the researchers have an absolute duty to honour this trust. Every code of ethics for psychological research spells this out.

This is the ethical frame of reference that most research psychologists operate in. But to apply this frame of reference to Recursive Fury is blinkered. RF just wasn’t that kind of study.

No-one entered into a relationship of trust with the authors. No-one had a right to privacy: no private information was involved. No subjects volunteered to participate in an experiment: there was no experiment. In fact, RF includes no mention of the term ‘subjects’ except in reference to other papers.

What the authors did was to take already published statements and interpret them. This makes all the difference. Once someone has published something, no-one needs any further permission in order to read it, quote it, criticize it and interpret it – within the law. Publication is consent for lawful discussion – this is an axiom of public debate, not just in science but elsewhere.

The appropriate ethical frame of reference to apply to RF, then, is not the discourse of privacy but the rules of public discourse. Frontiers’ attempt to invoke the ‘rights and privacy of psychology subjects’ is simply not appropriate.

Rather, the standard by which RF should be judged is, broadly speaking, the same standard that we apply to book reviews, peer reviews, and works of literary criticism – because this is the genre it falls into, the genre of public debate and discussion.


An article of the genre of RF would be unethical, had the authors, let’s say, used made-up quotes in order to make people look bad. Or, let’s say, gone beyond analyzing people’s published works and criticized their private lives; or hacked someone’s personal emails and published them without consent.

But no-one has even suggested that they did anything of the kind. No-one, in fact, has ever pointed to an applicable set of ethical guidelines that the authors of RF contravened.

Given all of this, Frontiers statement that RS “categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics” is beside the point. When the ‘behavior’ in question is someone’s published work, there is nothing wrong with doing that per se. Otherwise, every book review (say) in which an author is described as being “obsessed” (say) would be unethical – even if it were accurate. The intellectual landscape would be an arid place if this kind of political correctness took hold.

I don’t think RF does psychopathologize, anyway. The paper is about ‘conspiracist ideation’ which is not a recognized psychopathological term.  At no point did Lewandowsky et al use terms like ‘mental illness’, ‘disorder’, ‘obsession’, ‘delusion’, ‘(in)sanity’ etc. The absolute closest they came to this is when they note that, according to one study, ‘paranoid ideation’ is one of the traits correlated with conspiracy beliefs.

So the ethics of RF are sound. This isn’t to say that it’s a nice paper. The paper’s tone is rather contemptuous, and I can see why it is not to everyone’s taste. It’s un-PC. I am also not saying that RF is a good paper, scientifically speaking. That’s not for me to judge.

Frontiers in Psychology would have been well within their rights to decline to publish RF in the first place, had they felt that it wasn’t suitable for their journal on the grounds of tone. But they did publish it. That was a judgment of taste.

Yet the paper is no better or worse now than it was when it was first submitted. It was tasteful enough for Frontiers in Psychology then. Why did they change their minds?

Comment Policy: Comments that do not relate to my arguments in this post will be deleted. There are plenty of other venues for general discussions of climate change and Lewandowsky et al’s papers.

ResearchBlogging.orgLewandowsky S, Cook J, Oberauer K, & Marriott M (2013). Recursive fury: conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation. Frontiers in Psychology, 4 PMID: 23508808

  • BarryWoods

    One or more of the authors were during the ‘research’ period, directly interacting with people named in the paper, and being rude and abusive about them !! and on his blog – Watching the Deniers has frequently said he is at ‘war’ with the deniers/sceptics)

    When – Frontiers were told about that, they pulled the paper half an hour later.

    (and we find, via FOI that the ‘ethics approval, and amendment, of an amendment of another paper published 2 yrs previoulsy (evaluating statistical trends) stated that the research would – observe – no direct participation of any sort..

    • Neuroskeptic

      What the authors may or may not have been doing ‘on the side’ in the process of writing the paper is irrelevant to the ethics of the paper. The paper is what it is.

      It may possibly reflect on the author’s character and you no doubt think it does, but even you must surely admit that it does not make the paper unethical.

      And if you are right that this is why Frontiers pulled it, they were wrong to do so. All my points stand.

      • Paul Matthews

        Again you show your ignorance. Interfering and goading ‘on the side’ is unethical

        • Neuroskeptic

          Even supposing that it were unethical to do that, it doesn’t make the paper unethical, it makes the author(s) who engaged in the ‘interfering and goading’ unethical individuals.

          • Cain Abel

            Your “fine” analysis is comical and typical of the warmist field.

          • hnarf

            And this is nothing short of a perfect textbook example of the kind of angry, ad-hominem laden conspiracist hot air the paper was criticising.
            The irony is strong with this one.

          • Cain Abel

            The paper is “the kind of angry, ad-hominem laden conspiracist hot air the paper was criticising.”

            The irony is on you.


          • hnarf

            I think it was Nietzsche who said something to the effect that one of the greatest ways to damage a cause or movement is to attempt to defend it, but do it so blatantly horrible that the whole thing seems worse off merely by association. Al Gore should be sending you flowers.

      • BarryWoods

        they were ‘conflicted’. The Fury paper, was about criticisms of both Lewandowsky’s AND John Cook’s conduct regarding the NASA Moon hoax paper..
        Psychology research would be tainted by just the hint of a conflict of interest or antagonism towards a ‘research subject’
        Cook describes people named in the paper as his direct competition,co-author Marriott was before during and after the ‘research period, publicly attacking named people as deniers, part of a ‘deniual machine’ Disinformers, and as writing ‘Verified Bullshit’ even labelling them publicaly as – Dunning Kruger.
        Co-author Marriott (Watching the Deniers blogger) has a long history of very antagonistic behaviour to Jo Nova and her husband David Evans in Austrlia, and no relevant qualifications at all to undertake the ‘research’. His affiliation for the paper seems to be a vanity creation – Climate Realities Research – of which no records can be found.
        One of the perception around this paper, was that they were settling a few scores with their opponents, which must be incredibly damaging ethically for the field of psychology.
        co founder of Frontiers Prof Markram said this:

        • BarryWoods

          (Frontiers – cofounder)
          Prof Henry Markram: My own personal opinion:

          The authors of the retracted paper and their followers are doing the climate change crisis a tragic disservice by attacking people personally and saying that it is ethically ok to identify them in a disqualified the study.
          The planet is headed for a cliff and the scientific evidence for climate change is way past a debate, in my opinion. Why even debate this with contrarians? If scientists think there is a debate, then why not scientific study.
          They made a monumental mistake, refused to fix it and that rightfully debate this scientifically?
          Why help the ostriches of society (always are) keep their heads in the sand? Why not focus even more on the science of climate change? Why not develop potential scenarios so that society can get prepared? Is that not what scientists do? Does anyone really believe that a public lynching will help advance anything? Who comes off as the biggest nutter?

          Activism that abuses science as a weapon is just not helpful at a time of crisis.”
          Henry Markram (from the comments of)

        • Neuroskeptic

          If that’s a conflict of interest, than anyone who’s ever disagreed with anyone else has a conflict of interest. No journal requires authors to declare who they disagree with and who they have a history of controversy with. That would be impossible. Journals rightly leave that for readers to judge. Any reader of Recursive Fury could have inferred that there was a history of bad blood on both sides.

          You may judge that the authors of this paper are biased to the point of being untrustworthy, that’s your right as a reader, but it is not an ethical point.

          • Cain Abel

            Of course it is an ethical point.

            How can you be so stupid?

          • Neuroskeptic

            If trolling people on the internet is unethical, you’re pretty evil.

          • Cain Abel

            Sorry, you are the troll here.

      • Cain Abel

        Your silly statement defies common sense.

  • freecell0sd

    I have concerns that this sort of research can be used as a tool of power and authority to discredit individuals in unreasonable ways. It’s not surprising that global warming denial/sceptecism is associated with a greater tendency to hold other unreasonable conspiratorial views – but it would not be surprising if it were also associated with a tendency to be rightly sceptical of inaccurate claims from those with authority (Iraq’s WMDs, the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation, the altering of police documents post-Hillsborough, etc). I fear it would be quite easy for researchers with a desire to discredit particular ideological groups to design these sorts of studies in a way which would be very likely to give them the results that they wanted. Not all groups have equal access to research funding or journals, so while equally poor research could serve to bolster the views of climate change sceptics/deniers I expect that it would be less likely to ever be done and published.

    Oh-oh – I think that was another conspiracy theory!

    Also – conspiracies are a normal part of life. Almost all of us are parts of groups who will choose to surreptitiously promote our own interests over others in rather underhand ways (even if in very minor ways). The recent trend towards viewing ‘conspiracy theories’ as innately looney seems a grand way to encourage further misguided trust. The Illuminati may not be behind it all, but people do often behave pretty poorly, and when those with real power and authority behave poorly and try to cover it up, it is often thanks to a small group of campaigning outsiders that the truth is eventually revealed. Societies can already be pretty hostile towards those who cause trouble, ask awkward questions, whistleblow, etc. This sort of research could serve to medicalise and further isolate these people (we have recently seen attempts to discredit NHS whistleblowers with claims of mental health problems).

    In their 2012 paper Lewandowsky et al. wrote “Rejection of science must be distinguished from true scepticism, which may prompt therevision of a scienti c claim on the basis of evidence and reasoned theorizing” – yet their questionnaire included no attempt to identify ‘true scepticism’. Also, they seem to casually ascribe beliefs to climate deniers which I have seen many reject: “climate deniers believe that temperature records have been illegitimately adjusted to exaggerate warming”.

    Of course, none of that is to say that the views of climate change sceptics/deniers are reasonable or worthy – I have some sympathy for the conspiratorial view that climate change scepticism/denial has been drummed up by those with a financial and ideological commitment to laissez fair economic systems.

    Given the exaggerated level of respect that many people have for claims which appear within peer reviewed science journals I think that there should be real caution in publishing work which is best understood as a political attack upon a group holding minority views – and I think that is how these papers are best understood. I may emotionally dislike what seems to be a cowardly reason for retraction, I also don’t think that it should have been published in the form it was in the first place.

    • Neuroskeptic

      As you correctly point out, what determines the worth of a paper like this is its intellectual content and political context – not the ‘rights and privacy’ of ‘research subjects’ as Frontiers maintain. If they had refused to publish it, on the grounds you just outlined, they would at least have integrity.

  • BarryWoods

    ref the 5 ‘sceptic’ bloggers.. Lewandowsky had gained ethics clearance to withhold his name from his request to participate in the survey(but not to the other blogs) but nobody knew that at the time of the press release.

    Thus, when people looked for emails from ‘Lewandowsky’ in good faith, when the paper got media attention, they were NOT aware of this deception, and found no emails from ‘Lewandowsky’. So dozens of sceptics went searching old inboxes for emails from Lewandowsky from 2 years ago, to see if they had been ‘contacted’ (ie checking spam folders,, etc) Lew seemed to delight in this waste of time.

    He should have simple told the people ‘he’ claimed to have contacted, (in fact a guy called Hanich’ had sent out requests) what was going on in the media about the paper, this would have been the professional thing to do.

    Lewandowsky, could have unwound this deception (and should have done already), but he choose to mock people for their inability to find a 2 yr old unsolicted survey, from somebody else (not an author of the paper), giving them scant clues..

    He could/should have sent, the emails were sent on this date, by my assistant Hanich.

    But Lewandowsky continued to mock… and turned it into a ‘conspiracy theory’

    Roger Pielke junior eventually found an email discussion with a Hanich, after somebody googled a survey ID, and found that JunkScience had published the survey and the email from Hanich, thus Pielke and others started searching for ‘Hanich’ and the emails turned up. Oddly though, JunkScience was NOT one of the sceptical blogs listed in the paper itself, three other bloggers had never replied to ‘Hanich’ thus quite honestly said I’ve never heard of Lewandowsky, also being unaware of the deception..

    they were mocked by Lewandowsky as well, on his blog and giving interviews.

    He claimed to have contacted them, but three people, had not even replied to his assistant (not an author of the paper) so he had no idea if they had ever seen it, so ‘contacted is unfair..

  • Richard Tol

    I think you are quite wrong. Recursive Fury does declare people insane. The authors may have, by design or incompetence, avoided the technical terms for insanity, but does not stop the unsuspecting reader draw the intended conclusion.

    I use the word “intended” intentionally, by the way.

    • Neuroskeptic

      No, it does not declare people insane. It declares them conspiracists.

      If you are saying that conspiracists are insane, that is your interpretation, but it is simply not there in the text.

      The only synonym of “insane” that appears in the paper is “madness” which does appear several times… in the title of one of the blogs reviewed.

      • Richard Tol

        Well, you can use whatever dictionary you like. Fact is, people were insulted and felt libeled. If you think that an academic paper can freely do that, the problem is yours.

        • Neuroskeptic

          Yes, a paper can insult people and make them feel libeled. This should never be the goal of a paper. But it is inevitable that, in a world where people disagree with each other, some people will feel offended by what other people say. This happens all the time. That is public debate.

          If a paper actually libels someone (not just makes them feel that way), then that of course is wrong, and illegal.

          • Richard Tol

            I’m glad we agree.

            In my opinion, Recursive Fury is libelous. It should never have been written, submitted, reviewed or published. Authors, editors, and reviewers should be deeply ashamed — as should those who come the paper’s defense.

          • Neuroskeptic

            OK, that’s your opinion. My opinion is different to yours. But outside of your mind and my mind, in the real world, there is a system for deciding what is libellous i.e. the courts.

            Since no-one has yet succesfully sued Lewandowsky for libel over RF, or even tried to do so, it does not appear to be libellous.

          • Richard Tol

            Well, you cannot sue a retracted paper.

            The versions published elsewhere (or at least the ones I looked at) omit the offensive appendix.

            Without the appendix, the paper is neither libelous nor reproducible.

  • Paul Matthews

    This is a ridiculous argument. Just because Lewy et al didn’t use the word subject doesnt mean they weren’t. You should look up ethical guidelines for psychological research. You will see that ‘subjects’ are defined broadly, and that subjects have to be treated with respect.

    A team of expert professional psychology journal editors have spent a long time looking at this and cone to a conclusion. But an anonymous blogger thinks he knows better.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Another team of experts cleared the paper for publication originally, so let’s not appeal to their authority here.

      Yes, I do think I know better, and I have set out my reasons.

      Do you have any evidence to back up your claim that in ethical guidelines for psychology, ‘subjects’ is interpreted broadly enough to cover writers whose published work is analyzed?

      • Paul Matthews

        The people who concluded that the paper was not sound include Costanza Zucca and Fred Fenter, who wrote the second Frontiers statement, and Henry Markram who wrote the third. Former editor Brian Little was also involved.

        Who are the expert people who you claim cleared the paper?

        • Neuroskeptic

          Who do you think? I mean everyone at Frontiers who published it in the first place! Including the editor-in-chief, the editorial team, oh and the peer reviewers… and yes I know Frontiers has a somewhat unusual editorial system but the journal editor still bears final responsibility for publishing all papers.

          Incidentally this is why FiP are in the wrong even if we grant that the paper is unethical. Frontiers say that the problems with the paper were only ‘noticed’ after publication – well, if that is the case, someone should resign for not noticing the grave ethical errors in the first place. The fact that the ‘subjects’ were identifiable was clear all along, no-one ever believed otherwise.

          • Paul Matthews

            If you were a professional scientist you would know that editors-in-chief and editorial teams don’t look at papers before they are published.

          • Neuroskeptic

            Have you never had a paper rejected that didn’t even make it to peer review? Who do you think decides on what to send to peer review and what to send back? The receptionist? The cleaner?

            Or… ‘the editorial team’?

          • Paul Matthews

            Scientific papers are usually handled by one editor. In this case (you could look it up) a certain Virem Swami, who by an amazing coincidence was also one of the two referees, the other being a journalism student.

          • Paul Matthews
        • Richard

          …but Costanza Zucca, Fred Fenter and Henry Markram aren’t psychologists either…

          I think Greg Laden’s post on the retraction statement is a good summary: “The process of accepting, reviewing, etc .this paper went on for a long time and involved the publisher and the authors. During this time, Frontiers determined that the paper was publishable. Now, it has determined that it is not. So, what is Frontiers changing in their review policy or overall mission statement to reflect a change from “this paper is fine” to “this paper is scary” to “this paper is not acceptable because of methods”? Furthermore, will there be a review of other previously published papers to see if any of them should be retracted given this change in policy?”

          • Neuroskeptic

            Exactly. If Frontiers in Psychology had rejected the paper outright that would be one thing

            They might have had good reasons to do so. Arguably it’s not really a psychology paper at all, and many would say it’s distasteful.

            But they published it – knowing that it made reference to named ‘subjects’ – so their pious statements that Frontiers always respects the rights of ‘subjects’ etc. look very odd.

      • Paul Matthews

        “Do you have any evidence to back up your claim that in ethical guidelines for psychology, ‘subjects’ is interpreted broadly enough to cover writers whose published work is analyzed?”

        Yes I do. This has been gone over dozens of times at several blogs. Are you too lazy to look anything up for yourself?

    • Marco

      Which “expert professional psychology journal editors” would that be?

  • Sage Vals

    Surely one could, using the same methodology, correlate (especially but not limited to) non-specialist ‘warmists’ to other political views too? Is that why the paper was suspect?

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  • geoff Chambers

    You say: “An article of the genre of RF would be unethical had the authors, let’s say, used made up quotes … But no-one has even suggested that they did anything of the kind”.

    Oh yes they did. The paper was revised twice due to two letters of complaint, by Jeff Condon and Foxgoose, accusing the paper of doing exactly that. Further letters of complaint from Steve McIntyre, Anthony Watts and myself pointed out more errors of the same kind, including quotes being misidentified or attributed to the wrong person. These letters have been published on the internet. I know of others, but I’m not sure if their authors have published them.
    Faced with the need to correct these errors and issue a fourth and maybe a fifth and sixth version, the editors naturally decided to pull the article. They came to some kind of legal agreement with the authors to keep schtum and save face all round. The authors then broke the agreement, leading to the present mess.

    You say “The scientific qualities of the Lewandowsky et al paper are not even in question…”
    And there we can agree. The scientific qualities of the paper are inexistant. The authors of the “discourse analysis” which forms the heart of the paper had no previous experience of this kind of work – none at all. It’s so full of silly elementary mistakes it’s not even worth discussing. If you want a list of some of them, see the my blog post “Lew’s Third Table”.

    If I were you, I’d withdraw this article in order to save yourself further embarrassment.

    • Thom Baguley

      I think you misunderstood what was written. Neuroskeptic made no judgement of the scientific quality of the paper (explicitly). The point is that the retraction was not made on scientific grounds. That is, in the context of the retraction, the quality of the paper has not been questioned.

      As a general point papers vary in scientific quality. Having no previous experience of a method does not preclude publication (else no one would ever publish new methods). You don’t retract papers because they aren’t very good. The remedy for a paper that isn’t very good is to write a better paper.

      Retractions should be made to remove major errors from the literature (e.g., incorrect proofs) or misconduct (e.g., plagiarism or data fabrication). Furthermore a retraction statement needs to be clear and consistent about the reasons for retraction.

      Even the perception that a paper is retracted because of libel threats is extremely damaging to science. It is much better to publish the odd bad paper than to create a publishing climate where retraction is a legitimate tool for removing disliked or distasteful work from the literature.

      I also think is is bad form to call for a blog post to be withdrawn – if Neuroskeptic is persuaded he is wrong he can update the post. This (I presume would be far more satisfying to his critics) and better for the debate.

      • Paul Matthews

        The paper was not withdrawn because of libel threats. The journal has made this very clear.

        ‘Frontiers did not “cave in to threats”; in fact, Frontiers received no threats.’

        Why does this conspiracy theory keep resurfacing?

        • Neuroskeptic

          Because the original retraction notice said: Academic issues, no. Ethical issues, no. Legal issues, er… maybe.

          • Thom Baguley

            That is the point. The poor handling of the retraction (by the publisher) has led to the perception that they may have caved into libel threats.

      • geoff Chambers

        I didn’t misunderstand what was written. I quoted what was written. The grounds on which the paper was retracted were left vague in Frontiers’ original statement in order to save face to authors and editors. THe fact that no ethical or academic issues were identified does not mean that there weren’t any. We complainants identified many in letters which were described by the editors as “cogent and well-argued”.

      • Neuroskeptic

        He is well within his rights to tell me to withdraw my own post – I won’t, but that’s debate.

        Now if he wrote to Discover and tried to get them to take it down, that would be outrageous. Lucky nothing like that has ever happened in this debate!

        • geoff Chambers

          My suggestion was facetious. Glad that was understood.

          • Neuroskeptic

            Indeed. I’m hardly one to point fingers in the facetiousness department…

    • Neuroskeptic

      That inaccuracies in the article were identified and corrected does not constitute an ethical issue; only if it were shown that they were deliberate would that be the case.

      Furthermore, if you are right that this is why RF was pulled, Frontiers are liars because that is not the reason they gave.

      But we are missing the point here. You correctly call RF a discourse analysis. This is precisely the point I was making in my post – this is its genre. Whether or not the authors were competent to conduct a discourse analysis is not the point.

      Now it is very common to find academic discourse analyses of public statements, and very often these are not anonymized. Just to pick one of thousands, see (the authors, all journalists, are not named, but it’s trivial to look them up… Source #10 was Béatrice Jérôme)

      In this one, the source journalists are named:

      And in this one it’s even worse: here named journalists are accused of “constructing images of [a Chinese person] as robotic or automated” which “can be understood as emanating from wider Western discourses on Oriental otherness based on a particular concept of oriental people as emotionless, homogenous and lacking individuality which has been derived from a curious mixture of urban myth, military history and misinformation.” Not a very nice thing to say about someone but not unethical!

      So you see there is absolutely nothing unusual about RF, it is no more or less unethical than many others of its genre. Frontiers simply applied the wrong ethical frame of reference.

      • geoff Chambers

        I’m not talking about the inaccuracies which were corrected. They were three: two, by Foxgoose and Jeff Condon were accompanied by talk of legal action, and were corrected, le

        • Neuroskeptic

          “I am not challenging Lewandowsky’s right to conduct a discourse analysis of what I write, and even be rude about it”

          Then we agree! And I can respect your views on RF.

          Two questions for you:

          1 – Are you aware that many people on your side of this argument do challenge Lewandowsky’s right to conduct a discourse analysis of what you wrote?

          2 – Are you happy with Frontier’s retraction notice and subsequent statements, which do not mention any of the inaccuracies that you & others have alleged, but rather, are about Lewandowsky’s right to conduct a discourse analysis? Do you think Frontiers came to the right decision… but for the wrong reasons?

          • geoff Chambers

            1. Of course I am! I’m a sceptic, I read sceptic blogs. All sorts of people say all sorts of things, including many who are not very hot on academic freedom. So what? (By the way, I’ve praised Lewandowsky’s courageous stand on torture on my blog.)
            2. I’d be happier if they came right out and said: “Sorry. This was a lot of nonsense and we should never have published it”. Their first statement was crafted by lawyers. It was obviously designed to save face all round by not admitting any errors. This has been deliberately misinterpreted by Lew & co to mean that there were no errors. Journalists are supposed to spot this kind of thing.

            And now a question for you:

            Will you deal with the points that I raised in my first comment?

          • Neuroskeptic

            Well I’ve already addressed your point about inaccuracies in the paper – unless there are good reasons to believe that these not only exist but were deliberate then that’s not an ethical issue, and as I’ve said many times, this post is not about the accuracy or sloppiness or otherwise of the paper.

            However re: the theory that the original Frontiers statement was the work of lawyers, of course it was, but lawyers aren’t God – they don’t just create statements ex nihilo. They work with what they’ve got.

            If Frontiers had in their posession a cast-iron reason to retract the paper then they would have said so, no? That’s what happens in every other retraction. Lawyers or not.

            That the best argument Frontiers have yet presented is the flimsy one about ‘identifiable subjects’ is rather odd.

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  • Paul Matthews

    I have written a blog post in response-

    The desperate delusions of the Lewandowsky apologists.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your title is supposed to be ironic. Your blog post categorizes named individuals in psychopathological terms!

      Now onto your actual argument, you say that the UWE guidelines cover this research. They don’t. The guidelines say:

      “A ‘human participant’ in research is any person who, for example:

      1 Provides research data, e.g. completes surveys
      2 Participates in interviews, discussions, a focus group, or observations
      3 Undergoes psychological, physiological or medical assessment that is not part of their clinical treatment
      4 Tests software or a device, or equipment
      5 Grants access to personal data or records, photographs, etc
      6 Provides human tissue, e.g. blood, urine, saliva, hair, etc
      7 Is identified in a record, e.g. employment record, medical record, education record, membership list, electoral roll
      8 Is identified in a databank, including unpublished human research data, e.g. an analysis of existing unpublished data collected by another researcher or collected for another research project”

      Of these, 1-6 are clearly referring to individuals who actively choose to participate in a particular study. Which is not the case here.

      #7 is referring to individuals who are identified in a record containing personal information as the list of examples makes clear. It is not intended to cover research on published statements. Where is the ‘record’ in this case?

      #8 ditto.

      If you were determined to stretch the definition of #7 to breaking point you could fit Recursive Fury into it, but this would be absurd, because in doing so you would also include all discourse analysis involving identifiable authors.

      Here to take just one example is a 2013 paper from the UWE in which a number of named people (and other people who are easily identifiable) are quoted, all quotations being taken from newspaper articles:

      Do you really think that those authors got informed consent from everyone they quoted? If they did, they didn’t mention it; they don’t mention ethics at all. Do you think they ought to have considered the privacy of their ‘participants’? It’s ridiculous.

      • Paul Matthews

        At the risk of stating the mindbogglingly obvious (though apparently not to you) there is a difference between what is written on blogs and what is written in academic papers. One is governed by professional ethical guidelines and one isn’t.

        Are you too much of a coward to comment on my blog?

        I would really like to know why you seem so intent on making such a fool of yourself. It’s an interesting psychological question.

      • MikeR

        “Do you really think that those authors got informed consent from everyone they quoted?” Your theory baffles me. If people give informed consent, then there are ethical guidelines on how you have to treat them, but if they gave no consent, you can do whatever you want to them?
        These “subjects” weren’t just studied, they felt that they were mistreated: quotes taken out of context, totally wrong psychological diagnoses based on absurd misunderstandings of their words, attempts by the experimenters during the experiment to goad them into saying things they could use or abuse. In effect, the authors were using a scientific journal as a weapon against their enemies. How can that be okay, and how can anyone think that a journal ought to allow it to happen?

        As for the fact that the article had already been published, that particular journal has a lot of autonomy on the part of the authors and reviewers. It sounds like it took quite a while for the matter to make its way up to the top level, with all the lower-level reviewers eager to help the authors trash their enemies – and then the top level found out, decided that this was wrong and they wanted nothing to do with it.

        • Neuroskeptic

          I’ll go through this one more time very simply.

          I am not disputing the inaccuracy or offensiveness of RF, and the reason I’m not discussing those is that Frontiers did not discuss them in any of their statements and this post is about Frontiers.

          Their statements are about a point of principle about the ‘rights of research subjects’. Not the rights of anyone to be quoted accurately – they don’t mention it. Not the right of anyone to have ones’ feelings respected. They don’t mention it. I’m not denying that these are important but they are not important in the context I have defined for this post.

          The closest Frontiers come to sharing your concerns is when they mentioned ‘categorizing behavior in terms of psychopathological characteristics’ and hence I did deal with that point in my post.

          As for your theory of how the Frontiers retraction came about, this is the third such theory I’ve come across in this comment thread alone. It’s as likely as any of the others.

        • MikeR

          I think you are spending too much time and effort parsing their exact wording, when their exact wording is and has been an attempt to tiptoe around the storm of detractors who support Lewandowsky. What the paper did was wrong, for the reasons I mentioned, and I don’t see why you and others should post on the ethics of _the exact wording used in the retraction statements_ and ignore the ethics of the paper itself.
          Essentially, I agree with your bare-bones point: I would have no problem with a scientific paper studying speeches by politicians, for instance. But your bare-bones point is irrelevant. The paper was unethical, and I can’t understand debating this one point without acknowledging that the journal was 100% right to retract the paper, only they should have been sharper and harsher in their statement.

          • Neuroskeptic

            OK I see your point, but I don’t think Frontiers ought to have been harsher in their statement, I think their statement should have been fundamentally different – e.g. it should not have made reference to ‘subjects’, ‘privacy’ and the ethics of psychology experiments.

            If you’ll forgive the hyperbolic analogy this is how I see it:

            Someone hunts down Joseph Kony and kills him. Many people are pleased that he has been killed. But when asked why he did it, the assassin says nothing about Kony’s war crimes and atrocities, but only says, “Because he was black”.

            Being black is not why Kony should die even if you agree that Kony should die. And the assassins’ statements would set a very dangerous racist precedent if taken seriously. Right?

  • Tom C

    I get your point Neuroskeptic. Now just for the record, what do you think about the quality of the paper? Moreover, what do you think about the clearly dishonest central claim of the paper, that the bloggers in question “deny global warming science”? In fact, every one of them has written voluminously that they accept global warming science, but question this or that paper or this or that conclusion. Do you not see this paper as a crude and dishonest exercise in propaganda?

    • Neuroskeptic

      I’m not going to comment on that because I’ve got nothing to say; I don’t know anything about those issues.

  • MikeR

    By the way, though I strongly disagree with your point of view about the Frontiers paper, I think this post is very helpful, and it’s especially helpful that you are willing to defend your point of view and answer critics directly here in the comments. Thank you. I wish more blogs felt that discussion is more valuable than unanimity.

    • Neuroskeptic


  • Pingback: Recursive Fury: Misunderstanding The Ethics of Criticism – Discover … | Neurophysiology – What is neurophysiology?

  • Pingback: Weekend reads: Retraction Watch on NPR; “hysteria” over replication; when a paywall might be a good thing | Retraction Watch

  • WetWork

    Lewandowsky and his fan club of followers at

    Climate Skeptic, deliberately baited people online to ‘prove’ tha they were conspiracy therorists.
    If you don’t think that is ethically unacceptable, then you are in the wrong field.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Whether he did that and whether it would be unethical is not relevant to this post because Frontiers didn’t mention ‘baiting’ in their statements.

      I would add however that ‘bait’ maybe a poor choice of words because if you took the conspiracy ‘bait’ that implies you liked the taste of it…

      • WetWork

        Baiting is entirely the correct word; when the lead author goads people who question his methodology section and his description of a timeline line of events, then he is interacting with living subjects, and not harvesting published material.
        That the handling editor and referees missed a huge ethic problem reflects very poorly on their professionalism. That the Journal reacted with speed following their being aware of these breaches in scientific ethics reflects very well on their professionalism.

  • littlegreyrabbit

    Frontiers declared in private correspondence with UWA they had established a committee of senior academics without any editorial staff to examine the ethics of the paper and they would be guided by this committee’s decision. Presumably they pulled the paper on the basis of this committee’s recommendation.
    To me the paper seemed rather bullying and spiteful, ie it didn’t really want to make a serious contribution to psychological science (to the extent that term is not oxymoronical) but rather was a political weapon to harry ideological opponents.
    Defamation is the other issue, most of the people “studied” in RF were nameless nobodies, but not all of them were and their livelihood is to some extent contingent on their reputation. People who jump up and down complaining about legal threats miss the point. A scientific journal should pride itself on being a model civic institution – it should not defame people regardless of whether not they might suffer legal consequences – and especially not in the cause of such junk science.

  • hnarf

    And of course we end up with perfect shitstorm of second degree recursive fury here in the comments as well. Illustrates the point of the original paper rather nicely, it does.


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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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