Skeptic Baiting and Academic Misconduct

I see over at Watts Up With That that Australian professor Stephan Lewandowsky has teamed up with other climate activists to publish a paper designed to make skeptics look like flat-earth mouth breathers unfit for polite society. As I know from personal experience that this is not true for the majority of skeptics I have met in person or online, I feel a response is in order.


I encountered Professor Lewandowsky last year when he used a horribly constructed push poll to gather opinions from skeptics about their belief in various conspiracies. Unfortunately, the opinions he received were from climate activists, many recruited from his current co-author John Cook’s weblog Skeptical Science, who took the poll while pretending to be skeptics and posted fraudulent responses. As Professor Lewandowsky discussed the poll with potential respondents while it was still active, it’s possible that he effectively encouraged fraudulent responses and hence may be guilty of academic misconduct.

Sadly, much of Lewandowsky et al’s current paper references that project and a paper that details it. The paper is described as ‘in press.’ Perhaps a more accurate description is dead and buried, never to see the light of day. Other than a confession of sloppy science and unethical behavior, I fail to see what that project could have produced in the way of furthering human understanding of the mind, human nature or any other form of science.

As a non-skeptic I feel the strong desires to a) defend skeptics as not fitting Lewandowsky’s description and b) slap him across the face for contributing to the cheapening of the already debased nature of climate conversations. So we’ll put Matt Ridley’s remaining six questions on hold for a moment while we discuss this.

The paper is titled “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation”.  It is published in a journal titled Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, a publication I had not heard of prior to this morning. The paper is 57 pages long, so my comments are based on a cursory reading. Lewandowsky was joined by John Cook, principal contributor to the climate activist weblog Skeptical Science and Klaus Oberauer, who has collaborated with Lewandowsky frequently.

Lewandowsky maintains a weblog here. As I mentioned above, I have prior experience with him. In 2012 he published a series of posts on conspiracy ideation. When I criticized his methodology he deleted about 50 comments I made. Perhaps I’ll discuss that episode further–Steve McIntyre blogged about the incident here.

Again, this paper is a description of the reaction of bloggers and commenters to the flawed project I described above. He seems to think it noteworthy that its flaws were pointed out to him on various weblogs, including his own. He actually writes that pointing out his shoddy work is evidence of conspiracist ideation.

His first ‘error’ in describing his previous project in his current paper occurs on page 7 of this paper. He is describing the methodology of how he conducted the poll meant to uncover conspiracy thinking on the part of skeptics. He writes, “Lewandowsky et al. placed links to their study on a number of climate blogs with a pro-science orientation but a diverse audience of readers, including a notable proportion of climate \skeptics. The survey queried people’s belief in the free market (which previous research had identi ed as an important predictor of the rejection of climate science; Heath & Gi ord, 2006), their acceptance of climate science, their acceptance of other scienti c propositions such as the link between HIV and AIDS, and most important in the present context, conspiracist ideation.”

That is not true. Links to his survey were published on climate activist weblogs. Far from having diverse audiences, those blogs are frequented almost exclusively by other climate activists. Both Lewandowsky and the blog administrators discussed the purpose of the survey and conveyed with a nudge and a wink that it would be great fun for activists to pretend to be skeptics and sign up for all the outlandish theories they could.

As the survey methodology was so clumsily constructed there was no way of preventing or even monitoring this–and that may have been intentional, given Professor Lewandowsky’s lengthy experience in the field, having published 140 papers.

Worse yet, respondents from different weblogs were shown different versions of the questionnaire and no attempt was made to stratify the data by source. It really is very poor research design to have labored so mightily and bring forth a mouse.

Lewandowsky refused to report on inconvenient data. One of the conspiracies he asked about was the Iraq invasion by the U.S., asking if there were additional motives beyond the stated ones for the attack. When it was pointed out that the U.S. Congress, the UN and several other august bodies shared the same opinions as those he wanted to label as conspiracy theorists, the question and its answers disappeared from the results. Nor does he mention that for many of the conspiracy theories, more respondents who honestly identified themselves as firm supporters of the climate consensus believed in conspiracy than did skeptics, both in gross numbers and in some cases percentages.

Lewandowsky et al’s current paper then focuses on blog reaction to his study. Again, he uses sloppy methodology and finds the results that confirm his bias. Using his methodology, my written reactions to his research project would have qualified as conspiracist ideation. I wrote a guest post on skeptic weblog Watts Up With That where I detailed my objections to his research design, the execution of the survey and what he wrote on his weblog regarding results.

As a professional market researcher my objections were to sloppy work, ill-conceived design choices and blatant confirmation bias. I am not a skeptic. I don’t hold much with conspiracy theories. I just hate to see self-aggrandizing hacks cheapen the reputation and further utility of public opinion polling.

One conspiracy theory he holds as evidence of the looniness of skeptics is belief that Climategate was real and that scientists conspired to conceal evidence. Lewandowsky writes,

“Concerning climate denial, a case in point is the response to events surrounding the illegal hacking of personal emails by climate scientists, mainly at the University of East Anglia, in 2009.

Selected content of those emails was used to support the theory that climate scientists conspired to conceal evidence against climate change or manipulated the data (see, e.g., Montford, 2010; Sussman, 2010). After the scientists in question were exonerated by 9 investigations in 2 countries, including various parliamentary and government committees in the U.S. and U. K., those exonerations were re-branded as a \whitewash” (see, e.g., U.S. Representative Rohrabacher’s speech in Congress on 8 December 2011), thereby broadening the presumed involvement of people and institutions in the alleged conspiracy.”

As the author of a book on Climategate I will tell you right now that some skeptics regard it as a conspiracy. I don’t believe that that makes them conspiracy theorists. Here’s why:

  1. Scientists have admitted manipulating data presented to policy makers in AR4. Specifically they hid the decline in tree ring data to allow them to claim confidence in their statistical findings. This confidence was unwarranted. They discussed this openly in the revealed Climategate emails.
  2. None of the five investigations into Climategate investigated the scientific issues. Science was specifically excluded from the remit of four of the investigations and the fifth looked at the research record of the institution involved, reviewing papers submitted for review by the institution itself, none of which formed part of the controversy.
  3. Nobody has come up with a non-conspiratorial explanation for this email from Phil Jones to Michael Mann: “Mike,
    Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise… Can you also email Gene [Wahl] and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar [Ammann] to do likewise. Cheers, Phil”

Now, I know that some skeptics are in fact believers in conspiracy theories, as are some climate activists. Just as some skeptics, politically conservative, are possessed of the lunatic notion that Obama was born in Kenya or on the moon, some climate activists are equally gripped by the fatal peril posed by vaccines or GMOs.  There are real kooks out there.

But as we wrote regarding Climategate, we found no evidence of a conspiracy to change the science–what we found was the more normal and grubby practice of working together to push ‘their’ theory to the top and push others’ theories down, using poor practice and judgment. It was a mundane example of what happens when people chase fame and glory. They justified their behavior because they felt their cause was just.

But what Lewandowsky et al have produced here is the equivalent of bear-baiting in London in the 18th Century. It is a sport designed from cruel motives, aimed at eroding sympathy and legitimizing further cruelty.

I get that Lewandowsky is a committed climate activist and regards skeptics as a mortal threat to his belief system. What I don’t get is why a publication would allow his personal therapy to appear on its pages.

23 responses to “Skeptic Baiting and Academic Misconduct

  1. Unfortunately there is a lot of junk science published in the psychological literature and this paper from Lewandowsky is a good example of that. However, it is much worse than this. There are entire sub disciplines that are in essence crank or junk science. Psychoanalytics is a case in point. Here is a ‘research field’ that enjoys its own associations and journals yet publishes almost complete nonsense.

    Regarding the Climategate Conspiracy: Was it a conspiracy? Well, if you define a conspiracy as a small group endeavouring to hide some activity (i.e., data and methods) from a larger group, then the answer would obviously be ‘yes’. However, as far as conspiracies go it was not a very startling one. It’s certainly not up there with the shooting of JFK or the moon landings. 😉

    The other point about Climategate is that what was revealed in the emails confirmed some of the things their critics had already worked out. It was nice to get some independent corroboration though.

  2. What I don’t get is why a publication would allow his personal therapy to appear on its pages.

    Because they receive a fee for publishing whatever nonsense someone is willing to pay to have published on the web.

  3. Hi Tom,
    A great piece of writing. It is fascinating to the length some will go to to unwittingly place their biases in public view. Is anyone contacting his university about academic misconduct? What is truly frightening is that he appears to believe what he writes and see no contradictions. The right thing to do is have him terminated but I suppose the compassionate thing would be to get him professional help.

    • Thanks, Bob. As for your question, Anthony Watts republished this and a commenter said he had contacted the university without any satisfactory result.

      In one way my post will only give him further ammunition–another level of recursiveness, as it were. But until someone busts him as an outright fraud, that’s the way these things play out.

      • Hi Tom,
        That is a shame that the university didn’t even acknowledge the concern. Climate activism seems to surface the worst traits in people. I try not to be loquacious in my responses, instead employed the slap and kiss approach. It is an old method to get to the crux of the matter post haste. But I have noticed if you even mildly slap a climate activist, they come back , not with a good, hard response, but with roaring invective. The other day when I slapped Bart on his statistical capabilities ( an area I am conversant with), Jim Bouldin came back with a series of wild and crazy responses. They are a different breed. Got hand it to Mosher, no matter how hard you try to slap him, he usually comes back with a vicious right hand. That, I love.

      • Mosh has had a lot of practice. A lot of people have tried to slap him.

    • Unlike Mosher, snerk -a- jerk, you come back with nothing, just delusional drivel. Have you taken your meds today?

      • Bob, I honestly think ignoring snerkersnerk is the best strategy. As he seldom is right and frequently doesn’t even make sense, as long as he doesn’t use derogatory language, just let him rant and rave.

  4. Pingback: Recursive Fury: the involvement of conspiracist ideation in rejection of science | Watching the Deniers

  5. Science doesn’t have to be “right” but it does have to be plausible. Peer review acts as a vetting process to eliminate anything that is obviously silly or anything that is completely outside conclusions that are generally accepted by the research field.

    ‘Climate Science’ is a messy field because it’s poorly understood, so many matters of agreement are largely speculative. In such a field a ‘consensus’ is largely a matter of majority opinion by experts. The recent shifting of ground on climate sensitivity is a perfect example of that. Other speculative fields where the foundations are soft, include psychology and origins of life research.

    Even in established fields, most of the published research turns out to be wrong:

    Many basic questions come up in science: How good is the data set or sample? What are the assumptions? Can the study be replicated?

    If you ‘believe’ that ‘x’ is true and you’re in a position of influence, and your reputation and career is based on the assumption that ‘x’ is probably true, then you’re going to keep research based on ‘y’ out of the literature – if you can. That’s just self interest at work. That has nothing much to do with ‘anti-science kooks’ but is part and parcel of the sociology of science. A major paper in origins of life research concerning ocean thermal vents ended up being published in an obscure journal because Miller’s group was able to do this; they enjoyed a high profile in their field. The paper they repeatedly blocked from publication is now considered seminal.

    So, what to make of all this? Well it gets even messier when advocacy, politics and ideology intermix with science. I suppose there is this myth that science is pure and objective and it’s about guys in white coats dissecting frogs on foundation grass. Then there is science as it’s really practised, and if you’ve studied that from a sociological or historical perspective, papers of the quality of those of Lewandowsky should not really come as a surprise.

  6. Tom,

    I agree with your assessment of this situation. It is a sad commentary on the current state of discourse on this issue.

    Sadly while we can agree to ignore the useless comments of snerks, we should not ignore this kind of conduct in journals lest it be quoted incessantly in the future.

    • Can you think of any skeptics who have damaged the case for anthropogenic climate change as a serious issue? Monckton? No. Bishop Hill? No. Dick Lindzen? No. Bueller? No.

      Can you think of anyone who has damaged the case more than Stephan Lewandowsky, Peter Gleick, James Prall? Me neither.

      If I were a nefarious evil-doing moustache twirling Koch snorting skeptic denialisterite I would have paid those bozos to do what they did.

  7. The fact is that these groups overlap to a huge degree:

    – Creationists
    – Tobacco deniers
    – Climate deniers
    – HIV/AIDS deniers

    And so on. The very same people tend to deny all scientific areas that seem to contradict their ideology. It is not surprise that research confirms this, because it is something one has been able to observe for a long time.

  8. Labelling any group of people with one characteristic is a basic misunderstanding of the rich diversity of human beings. SnarkSnark probably has difficulties understanding this and probably lives in a black and white world where people are either one thing or another. This type of concrete thinking is a sad place to be and effectively cripples the individual from understanding why people act in sometimes unpredictable ways. Obviously SnarkSnark has an axe to grind and is trying to wind people up, but also he may well be quite a damaged individual and may need sympathy and understanding. However he also needs structure as he cannot provide his own, and that may include banning from the site. Can I suggest you let him try again in a few months when he may have worked through his anger?

    • Makes sense to me. I certainly don’t like banning anyone. But he essentially made the same comment 100 times and was deliberately using a term that I abhor and asked him not to use. Hard to see that he’ll change either attitude or behavior. But we’ll see.

    • Gareth,
      From all evidence, snarksnark lives in the world of his mother’s basement.

  9. What I find incredibly sad is that there are a whole host of skeptics (who often do double duty as lukewarmers) that in no way match the Lewandowsky paradigm. Steve McIntyre, Ross McKitrick, Andrew Morton, Matt Ridley himself and many others come to mind. The thing that really hurts me is the notion that skeptics are often accused of having no concern for the environment and thus have nothing to contribute.
    The tragedy is that understanding the intricacies of the Earth’s climate is a truly massive undertaking and the self-styled climate scientists have done us all a massive disservice by trying to close out all critique. We would be much further along in our attempts to grapple with the Earth’s climate if they had not done so. .

    • The most activist of climate activists would have been very well served to have enlisted the McIntyres and Ridleys of the world and gotten every bit of help they could have from them.

      The funny thing is they still could go to them and ask for assistance. Pride is a strange thing.

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