Guest essay by Brandon Schollenberger
As most people reading this blog know, a paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Recursive Fury, was recently retracted. This is a big deal as scientific papers are rarely retracted, and merely being wrong doesn’t cause it to happen. One would instinctively assume that means there was something very problematic with the paper.
That’s not how people are portraying it. Quite a few people have spun this retraction of a paper criticizing skeptics as demonstrating skeptics are in the wrong. One of them is Elaine McKewon, one of the peer-reviewers for Recursive Fury. Unfortunately, she does this by making things up.
McKewon recently published an article you can find here and here. The article contains numerous errors, to the point it grossly misrepresents Recursive Fury. This can be seen in its very first sentence:
In February 2013, the journal Frontiers in Psychology published a peer-reviewed paper which found that people who reject climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
Recursive Fury did nothing of the sort. It didn’t claim to examine relative amounts of conspiratorial ideation in any groups. It didn’t attempt to compare or quantify levels of such ideation. There is no way to read Recursive Fury as doing what Elaine McKewon claims it did. She has simply made this up.
What does it say when a peer-reviewer of a paper makes an obviously untrue claim about what the paper shows? I don’t know. What I do know is it should make everyone question McKewon’s judgment when she says:
Recursive Fury was theoretically strong, methodologically sound, and its analysis and conclusions – which re-examined and reaffirmed the link between conspiracist ideation and the rejection of science – were based on clear evidence.
But that’s not the only basic point McKewon got wrong. She also misrepresents an indisputable fact. Her portrayal of the events leading up to Recursive Fury being retracted is:
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from climate deniers who claimed they had been libelled in the paper and threatened to sue the journal unless the paper was retracted.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.
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.
Yet the paper remained in limbo while the journal’s investigation into the academic and ethical aspects of the study dragged on for more than a year.
The important part is where McKewon says “the paper remained in limbo.” Her portrayal holds “the paper remained in limbo” because of threats of legal action regarding two sentences which could be amended to address the complaints. That is a figment of her imagination. Here is what Brian Little, editor for the journal says happened:
The article was removed on February 6th because of a complaint about a factual error. We did due diligence, contacted the authors, had it corrected and it was put up again.
Notice the last part. Little clearly states the paper was put back online after it was amended. McKewon’s portrayal pretends this never happened. This means she can only claim “the paper remained in limbo” because of those supposed “threats of legal action” by ignoring the fact those complaints had actually been resolved.
To see what actually happened, we can simply ask the journal itself. It explains:
I think there’s a misunderstanding: the manuscript was accepted for publication by Frontiers on Feb 2, and the provisional (i.e. non proof-read) PDF was made available immediately, as we do in most cases. Because there was subsequently identified a need for authors, reviewers, editor and associates to review and Chief editors to agree on the modification of one specific line in the text, the provisional PDF was hidden on Feb 6 while this modification was agreed. The paper was then published in the agreed form on March 18, and as you know was subsequently unlinked while we deal with all the complaints and allegations.
In other words, the paper was first taken offline to address the complaints McKewon refers to. Once they were addressed, it was reposted. It was then taken offline a second time in response to other complaints. Those later complaints are what led to the paper remaining in limbo for nearly a year.
Given that, when McKewon asks:
Just how clear would the legal context need to be for Frontiers to stand up to intimidation and defend academic freedom? First, the two sentences discussed in the conference call had been amended as agreed, which satisfied the journal’s lawyer even under the former libel laws.
She shows she has no idea what she’s talking about. She’s created a story which ignores basic facts nobody disputes, facts which even the simplest of research would have uncovered. All she had to do was look at the Retraction Watch article about the paper’s retraction and follow the first link it offers for background. Or she could have asked the journal.
Only, if she had done that, she’d have found the journal says her entire argument is bogus. She claims the paper was retracted because “the journal’s management and editors were clearly intimidated by climate deniers who threatened to sue.” The journal disagrees. It says:
Our decision on the retraction of this article was taken on the basis of a number of factors. This decision had nothing to do with caving in to pressure and was driven by our own analysis of various factors and advice received.
The journal directly contradicts Elain McKewon’s argument. Had she questioned the journal for her story, she’d have known that. Had she investigated or researched the story, she’d have known the paper wasn’t placed in limbo because of the complaints she referred to. And had she reread Recursive Fury, she’d have known it did not find “people who reject climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.”
But she apparently didn’t do any of that. Even though she describes herself as a “journalism PhD candidate,” she didn’t do any of the basic journalism that goes into doing a story.
And she is one of the people who approved Stephan Lewandowsky’s work for publication.