Environment

Conspiracy Theorists Get Paper Withdrawn Through Bogus Legal Threat

April 6, 2014 | by Stephen Luntz

Photo credit: NOAA. A study of those who deny evidence of global warming has been withdrawn in the face of legal threats that seem to have no basis.
A peer reviewed journal has withdrawn a paper on conspiracy theory belief amongst opponents of climate science. Not as a result of any factual errors or failure to meet academic standards, but because of the threat of defamation. As serious as this is, concern is even higher because legal advice holds that the paper is not defamatory and any law suit would fail. The withdrawal is a win for those hostile to climate change research and other conspiracy theorists in general, who in the lead author's words, “routinely bombard journals demanding papers be withdrawn.”
 
The paper's lead author, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia (UWA), says he is aware of only one previous peer reviewed paper that was withdrawn under the threat of defamation. He notes that opponents of climate research systematically bombard papers in which the research is published, and this may embolden them to make further threats. 
 
In Lewandowsky's case the work was not climate research, but into the psychology of those who reject it. Nevertheless the tactics to “confect outrage” as UWA's lawyer put it, are the same. Lewandowsky notes that peer-reviewed journals “fairly routinely receive demands to withdraw climate papers even before they have been published.” The people issuing the demands don't know what is in the paper, but know that if it provides evidence for human influence on the climate then they don't like it and want it censored.
 
If Lewandowsky's work had been even potentially defamatory a few other authors might be worried about their own work being affected in the same way. However, it is hard to see who exactly he defamed. Aside from citations and summaries of past research, most of the paper refers to anonymous comments on blog posts. Defaming someone whose name is unknown is hard, to say the least. Moreover, Lewandowsky says that no one has disputed the accuracy of the quotes - his “defamation” appears to amount to pointing out factual or logical errors in the quotes, contradictions between quotes by the same person, and noting ways in which the statements show signs of conspiratorial thinking.
 
If any paper that criticizes flawed thinking is in danger of being withdrawn the affects might be widespread. 
 
In a paper published as part of a series by Lewandowsky in Psychological Science in 2012, he draws the not entirely surprising conclusion that people who believe in one unsubstantiated conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in another. Most amusingly, Lewandowsky found that people who believe Princess Diana was murdered on the orders of the Royal Family are also particularly likely to agree she faked her own death and is still alive. The fact that these could not both be true didn’t bother them – if you believe the truth has not been reported, there is a fair chance you will believe any particular story as long as it is not the one backed by logic and evidence.
 
More significantly, Lewandowsky found that believing all sorts of discredited ideas has predictive value for also being convinced that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing climate change. The association held both for a random sample of 1000 Americans, and in his study of those most outspokenly hostile to climate science online.
 
This engendered a lot of outrage. While many of those hostile to climate science also claim HIV doesn't cause AIDS or NASA faked the Moon landings, those who agree with only some such things don’t like being lumped in with the crazies who believe the others. 
 
Allegations of academic misconduct were made to Lewandowsky’s university and he was hit with Freedom of Information demands to gain access to his emails. Lewandowsky found much stronger correlations with support for free market economics, but this didn’t generate the same angry reaction.
 
So Lewandowsky decided to do a study of the online response, monitoring blogs of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) deniers (the word is used in the psychological sense for someone who refuses to accept strong evidence). That paper, Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation was published in Frontiers of Psychology last year.
 
Many deniers concluded that the results of the first paper had been “scammed”, claiming “alarmists” had answered the survey pretending to be deniers and endorsed discredited conspiracies  to make deniers look bad.
 
Other claims were circulated about the authors' motivations and alleging ways the survey was rigged to produce the published results. Many were demonstrably untrue, but were picked up and recirculated, including on the blog of Australia's most read newspaper columnist.  Random events (eg a website being down for several hours) were presented as part of a conspiracy to prevent people discovering flaws in the survey.
 
Lewandowsky assessed these claims against testable facts and a list of characteristics of conspiratorial thinking, and found that over and over again, the commentators leaped to the conclusion of a vast campaign against them, sometimes stretching to the UWA's ethics committee and the owners of an academic website on which Lewandowsky sometimes discusses his work.
 
A paper on “recursive fury” could hardly expect to be the end of the matter. AGW deniers complained to Frontiers of Psychology on numerous grounds. The publishers withdrew the paper, previously one of the most read on their website, while they investigated the allegations. After over a year they released the following statement:
 
In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. 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 authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors. 
 
The decision has been criticised by one of the paper's reviewers, Elaine McKewon of the University of Technology, Sydney. McKewon noted that libel laws in the UK (the country where such a suit would previously have had the best chance of success) were changed on January the 1st, precisely to prevent such chilling effect on public debate.
 
“There is a fairly small and incredibly vociferous group trying to interfere with scientific process,” says Lewandowsky. “This means people are not informed of full risks of climate change. There is evidence in the literature that scientists are becoming unduly reticent to report what is happening.”
 
UWA has supported Lewandowsky and republished the paper on their own website. So far there are no signs of them being sued, and Lewandoswky says they are unconcerned.
 
Lewandowsky is unsure whether Frontiers of Psychology backed down because the cost of fighting a libel suit, even one they would win, would be too high, or if some other factor was at play.
 
None of the people who allege that scientists who disagree with the mainstream position on climate change are being censored have expressed concern about this genuine act of censorship.
 
Lewandowsky has discussed the evolution of the paper in greater depth in the talk below.

Stephan Lewandowskay: In Whose Hands the Future? from Peter Sinclair on Vimeo.

Update: Frontiers of Psychology have hit back at criticism with a new statement on why they withdrew the paper. However, far from clearing things up this has made them more murky. The new statement reads, "Frontiers did not “cave in to threats”; in fact, Frontiers received no threats." Instead they say "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. Specifically, the article categorizes the behavior of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics."

This suggests that Frontiers' problem with the article was ethical rather than legal. But this directly contradicts the original statement they issued which read, "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," as well as statements of Frontiers' lawyer.

The authors of the statements are not identified in the paper itself, and in most cases even following the references only reveals pseudonyms. The paper does not attempt to diagnose the authors of the statements, only analyzing their words for conspiracy ideation. Papers in other scientific journals have examined public statements of far more easily identifiable individuals in similar ways. 

It would be expected that if the publisher had concerns about the ethics of discussing public statements in this way they would have raised them with the authors. Lewandowsky says they did not.On his blog Lewandowsky says, "Throughout the entire period, from March 2013 until February 2014, the only concern voiced by Frontiers related to the presumed defamation risk under English libel laws." 

The publishers have not made a statement on whether they did in fact raise these issues with the authors, but Lewandowsky has been supported by Ugo Bardi, the editor of the edition, who has resigned from his position with Frontiers of Psychology over the issue.