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Climate Hustle

Climate contrarian backlash - a difficult lesson for scientific journals to learn

Posted on 14 April 2014 by dana1981

Scientific journals have had a bumpy road trying to learn how to deal with climate contrarians. Poor decisions by journal staff in dealing with contrarians have often led to editors resigning and a damaged reputation in the academic community.

The latest such example is the journal Frontiers and its response to bullying by contrarians over a paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues. The paper analyzed the conspiratorial psychology of contrarian comments made on public blogs. As I previously documented, Frontiers received a number of complaints from contrarians that this analysis of their public comments was libelous or defamatory, and the journal ultimately caved and decided to retract the paper.

In its investigation, Frontiers had found no academic or ethical problems with the paper, but was concerned about legal liabilities. The journal and paper authors contractually agreed to a retraction statement saying as much. However, perhaps in the face of criticism from the academic community for failing to support academically and ethically sound research, Frontiers later revised its statement to depart from the contractually agreed statement and shift all the blame to the authors, contradicting the contractually agreed upon statement.

This final move backfired and led to the resignation of three of the journal's editors, Ugo Bardi, Björn Brembs, and Colin Davis. Brembs' comments were particularly scathing,

"It is quite clear, why the content of the paper may feel painful to those cited in it, but as long as "conspiracist ideation" is not an official mental disorder, I cannot see any defamation. If you don't want to be labeled a conspiracy theorist, don't behave like one publicly on the internet. Therefore, after reading the paper, in my opinion, Frontiers ought to have supported their authors just as their home institution (UWA) is supporting them as their employees."

Robert Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University has also informed me that as a result of the Recursive Fury incident, he has declined to write an article that Frontiers requested, and will no longer write or review for any Frontiers publications. The journal's reputation has undoubtedly taken a serious hit in the academic community for failing to stand behind sound research, and then trying to shift the blame to the authors of that research.

The Frontiers debacle is just the latest in a long history of interactions between contrarians and scientific journals that have not ended well for the latter. Unlike the Lewandowsky case, the previous examples involve the publication of contrarian research that's generally fundamentally flawed in peer-reviewed scientific journals, through one of the four approaches illustrated in the graphic below.

Ways contrarians get papers published in peer-reviewed journals Four ways in which flawed research gets published.

The first approach is a common one in which a fundamentally flawed paper makes it through the peer-review process into a credible journal. In a paper published by John Abraham, myself, and colleagues last week in Cosmopolis, we examined several examples of flawed contrarian research that simply hasn't withstood scientific scrutiny or the test of time. This first approach isn't necessarily problematic – the peer-review process is necessary but imperfect, and in fact contrary hypotheses are often useful scientific contributions. However, it's important that we recognize and accept when these hypotheses have been disproved.

In the second approach, contrarians will often publish a flawed paper in an off-topic journal where it's less likely to be subjected to peer-review by experts in the applicable scientific field. This approach is often taken after a paper has failed to withstand expert peer-review in an appropriate topical journal. We documented several examples of this approach in our Cosmopolis paper as well, including several papers published in off-topic journals by Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen. In fact, an editor of the journal Remote Sensing resigned after the publication of a flawed Spencer paper, because he felt the journal had failed in its task of ensuring the paper was reviewed by qualified and unbiased experts.

"The editorial team unintentionally selected three reviewers who probably share some climate sceptic notions of the authors ...The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extent also in the literature, a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers."

In the third approach, a friendly editor gets a position at a journal where he can ensure that contrarian papers are given "pal reviews." The infamous example of this approach happened at the journal Climate Research between 1997 and 2003. During that six year period, editor Chris de Freitas published 14 separate papers from a select group of 14 climate contrarians including Willie Soon, John Christy, and Pat Michaels.

The publication of a particularly bad paper by Soon and the journal's refusal to retract it led to the resignation of five of the journal's editors, including recently-appointed editor-in-chief Hans von Storch, who explained the reason for his resignation:

"...the reason was that I as newly appointed Editor-in-Chief wanted to make public that the publication of the Soon & Baliunas article was an error, and that the review process at Climate Research would be changed in order to avoid similar failures. The review process had utterly failed; important questions have not been asked ... It was not the first time that the process had failed, but it was the most severe case"

In another possible example, a new journal called Climate published a fundamentally flawed paper by Syun-Ichi Akasofu that used unphysical magical thinking to try and blame global warming on natural causes. Fortunately the journal soon thereafter published a rebuttal by myself, John Abraham, and colleagues detailing the clear errors in Akasofu's paper. In the meantime, editor Chris Brierley resigned from the journal in frustration, explaining his decision,

"I do not believe that the paper is of sufficient quality for publication and have decided that I do not want to be associated with a journal with such lapses of judgment ... this paper does not pass five of the criteria for a distinction at the MSc level, and is therefore logically not of sufficient quality to deserve publication."

In the fourth approach, contrarians simply form their own journal in which they can publish whatever flawed research they like. This approach was exemplified in the short-lived journal Pattern Recognition in Physics. The journal's editors-in-chief were Nils-Axel Mörner, who denies that sea level is rising and believes in dowsing, and Sid-Ali Ouadfeul, a geophysicist at the Algerian Petroleum Institute. In one of its first issues, the journal published several papers that tried to blame global warming on various astronomical cycles. It had been published by the reputable Copernicus Publishing, but Copernicus quickly terminated the journal, explaining,

"...the initiators asserted that the aim of the journal was to publish articles about patterns recognized in the full spectrum of physical disciplines rather than to focus on climate-research-related topics ... In addition [to violating this understanding], the editors selected the referees on a nepotistic basis, which we regard as malpractice in scientific publishing and not in accordance with our publication ethics we expect to be followed by the editors.

Therefore, we at Copernicus Publications wish to distance ourselves from the apparent misuse of the originally agreed aims & scope of the journal as well as the malpractice regarding the review process, and decided on 17 January 2014 to cease the publication of PRP."

It's important to reiterate that research questioning accepted and established science is important and often a useful scientific contribution. However, it's also critical that this contrary research be subjected to proper expert peer-review. Bypassing this standard process undermines the credibility of the research and the journal in which it's published, and often leads to backlash against the journal, for example through the resignations of frustrated editors, and lost academic credibility. Outlandish hypotheses often have more in common with Bozo the Clown than Albert Einstein.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 14:

  1. Thanks for the two related articles, which do a useful service in demonstrating that not only does the research concluding that human activites have little effect on climate change, or that it is nothing to worry about, comprise only 3% of published research in this field, but that these studies are also of inferior quality, and many have been shown to be simply wrong. This point has been made before, but it receives little attention in the news most people hear or read.

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  2. "... bullying by contrarians over a paper ..." I am still not convinced that pressure has come from "contrarians" as such, more like the pressure has come from conspiracy theory proponents who feel they have been slighted. Maybe someone can clear this up for me.

    My own "conspiracy theory" is I can understand why Frontiers is nervous about any legal action. Such action would get a lot publicity as it is connected to Climate Change, and the claimants may well get a lot of anonymous financial help to pursue their lawsuit.

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  3. This article presents a good case study of highlighting some of the many fatal flaws of the current dominant socioeconomic systems. It highlights the expected result of a system that enable pursuers of unsustainable and damaging actions to viciously compete to benefit and become powerful. It shows how “uncaring vicious pursuers of anything they can get away with” will viciously abuse the power they get away with getting, including using any potential fiscal/legal threats they can get away with to keep the population less aware of anything contrary to their interest.

    It can also be shown that those type of people try to ensure effective promotion/threat mechanisms are developed that they have more ability to benefit from than those who would try to develop a sustainable better future for all.

    The obvious conclusion is that the socioeconomic systems “cherishing image over substance” combined with promotion of “personal freedom to enjoy the best life any way you want” leads to unacceptable actions being popular and profitable. Unacceptable unsustainable ad damaging behaviour should simply not be accepted, yet those wanting to maximize their lazy harmful ways of benefiting often succeed in getting popular support for a “balance”, meaning doing something contrary to the best understanding of its unacceptability and risk of harm.

    That is why so much of the current developed economy is fundamentally a threat to the sustainable growth of the economy. Fundamentally unsustainable and damaging activities cannot possibly be expected to develop toward a sustainable better future for all. Such a future will fundamentally not be in the interests of many of the pursuers of profit through popularity. And those who do not care about the sustainability and damage of their desired actions have a competitive advantage, and they will viciously fight to "enjoy the best possible life for themselves" for as long as they can get away with any way they can get away with.

    This is nothing new. History is full of observations of the unacceptable results of allowing “some people” to get away with doing as they please. The record of human thoughts includes clear statements of the threats such people pose. And yet today we see that attitude being admired with many people desiring to be like that. Whenever those type of people succeed everyone else suffers, especially the future of humanity. That is clear. And it is also clear why such clearly understandable things are “unpopular” and viciously fought against.

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  4. I am going all contrarian here.

    First, "the journal" when referring to Frontiers is wrong. None of the people who resigned are from the journal that published the Lewandowsky paper (Davis coming closest as an editor of a sub-publication of Frontiers in Psychology". Please get that fixed.

    Second, the publisher may well have felt compelled to change its story, deviating from the mutually accepted statement, because several of the people involved attacked the journal for its decision to retract. It would not be the first time that a retraction statement is not fully truthful, and that the later statements are closer to what the journal/publisher had considered.

    To be quite honest, there are a few situations around the paper that make me uncomfortable. While the conclusions and analysis may be sound, in my opinion it was improper for several of the authors to interact with their study objects. I don't buy the "psychopathological characterization", but I also don't buy the paper to be an objective analysis. Lewandowsky should have known better and asked a third party to do the analysis.

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  5. Second, the publisher may well have felt compelled to change its story, deviating from the mutually accepted statement, because several of the people involved attacked the journal for its decision to retract. It would not be the first time that a retraction statement is not fully truthful, and that the later statements are closer to what the journal/publisher had considered.

    This doesn't seem very likely to me. Up until the second statement from Frontiers in Psychology, everybody's story was the same. It wasn't just the authors of the study, it was Frontiers' own lawyer and one of the peer-reviewers. Both of them corroborated the story that the only issue surrounding the paper before, during, and after its retraction was one of potential defamation liability in the wake of reactions to the paper. They were both part of the internal dialogue about the retraction. At no point was the decision to keep the paper withdrawn ever pinned on anything other than this, even in sources other than the original statement.


    If the later statements are truthful in that the higher-ups decided to keep the paper retracted for other reasons, then they apparently hadn't shared this information with their lawyer, their reviewer, or the authors of the paper.

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  6. WheelsOC, McKewon's story is not helpful, as there is no discussion of other issues than two sentences which indeed involved a legal threat (IIRC by Foxgoose and/or Jeff Condon). There were other complaints, and McKewon does not discuss them at all, suggesting they were not discussed at that meeting. She would also not have been the right person to discuss those criticisms with.

    Lawyerspeak is lawyerspeak. One cannot expect a lawyer who just arranged a mutual agreement to contradict that agreement, so let's take his comments with the appropriate pinches of salt.

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  7. It seems to me that your objections are basically just raising points that A) have none of the evidence necessary to support them, and B) are already contradicted (not just spoken around) by the evidence we do have. You have to assume that there's more going on than we have any evidence for (which is not implausible by itself), and you have to assume that the evidence we already have from multiple sources has been falsified or is inadmissable for some reason (which has some credulity-stretching to do).
    If McKewon's version of events does not discuss the "other complaints," then we can either assume that those other complaints were not at stake at all or that they were not something on which the journal felt she could give any valuable input. I don't find the latter to be very convincing. Why wouldn't she have the relevant knowledge about issues of potentially unethical revelation of sources being quoted for publication? Doesn't she have a background in journalism?

    Kenyon's statements seem to go beyond lawyerly bafflegab and misdirection; he flatly states that Frontiers' investigation found no academic or ethical problems with the paper. He plainly describes the paper as "ethically sound." This is entirely consistent with the version of events relayed independently by both Lewandowsky and by McKewon, and perhaps unsuprisingly with the original retraction statement. It's not consistent with the version of events later given by Frontiers (it might be reconciled with their second statement if we give THEM the benefit of circumspection in their choice of words, but doesn't work with the third). I've considered his words from several angles and can't reconcile it with the idea that mere "lawyerspeak" explains the discrepancy. It's not as though he's avoiding the question of ethics to shift the focus onto something else, he directly deals with it. So either he lied about there being ethical issues and convinced everybody to sign a statement to that effect, or there didn't turn out to be any ethical issues. A pinch of salt tastes insufficient here. Maybe that's just lack of imagination on my part; I'd love to hear some proposed explanations that don't boil down to either of "Kenyon's lying" or "the editors are lying."

    I'm not settled on the answer yet, but so far the arguments marshalled to support the journal's side of the story are unconvincing and weak. We can't expect one of the reviewers to know this stuff, and we can dismiss unambiguous statements just because they came from a lawyer? It still seems simpler and more consistent to conclude that the editors are in damage-control mode, and that it's they who are engaging in some kind of misdirection to deflect criticisms in the wake of first legal, and then academic backlash, rather than the other sources being ignorant (McKewon) or dishonest (Kenyon, Lewandowsky[?]) about the issues leading up to the retraction.

    The apparent shift in the journal's stange in going from "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," to this later version implicating ethics rather than "legal context" seems to have caught everybody flat-footed, which we wouldn't expect if they were all privy to the conversation. If the discussion really did revolve around this ethics angle from the start, why didn't anybody else involved in it take that message from it? I also find it compelling that the University of Western Australia has decided that the paper as published is defensible enough to host on their servers, even though Lewandowsky has moved on to Bristol in the UK. And so far, the journal is the only side in this to have seemingly changed their tune in the wake of outside reactions.

    It could come out that this is all wrong, but we'd need e a lot of very convincing evidence to the contrary coming to light. The contrarian position simply doesn't have a lot of wiggle room right now.

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  8. WheelsOC, care to tell me what relevant expertise McKewon has to allow her to make a qualified judgment about the ethical guidelines in the field of *psychology*? Journalists have different rules than psychology.

    One can even find differences in rules *within* scientific fields, depending on the region. There are known examples of medical studies being performed in certain places because the rules there are less strict, and resulting discussions of whether someone from country A should be allowed to perform the studies in country B to deliberately circumvent the rules in country A. Some say yes, some say no.

    Note that there also is the very real possibility she was not involved in the discussions about the other complaints (several came quite a bit later, I have understood).

    In the meantime, Kenyon can easily take the "no ethical concerns" while also supporting the same concerns as raised later by several Frontiers staff higher up the food chain. I disagree with the idea that the other concerns are "legal" in nature, but I can also see how they can be constructed as such (rather than ethical). Plenty of things are illegal but ethically defensible, and vice versa.

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  9. Marco@4, your prologue statement

    First, "the journal" when referring to Frontiers is wrong. None of the people who resigned are from the journal that published the Lewandowsky paper

     

    This is a rather bold statement. However, you pronounced that statement "as is" without any supporting evidence. By contrast, dana has provided the link to the blog by one of the resigned editors Björn Brembs (that I repost here) entitled Recursive fury: Resigning from Frontiers, where Björn writes:

    In the coming days I will send resignation letters to the Frontiers journals to which I have donated my free time for a range of editorial duties.

    Given this evidence, I conclude that your statement is demostrably false. Unless you can show some link that supports your statement and contradicts the evidence herein, I stop reading all of your comments. I generally stop reading comments by people who are not debating in good faith or by paople who tell demostrably false information.

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  10. John Vonderlin@8,

    You assert that you occupy "different part of AGW spectrum" but you said nothing substantial.

    For example I'm interested in your argument in response to "Wheels OC" (sic!): 'A number of other blogs, mainly Contrarian, have dissected this issue "ad nauseum."' Please give me an example together with your short comment as to what that example shows. Note that a short comment is required per this site's policy - "naked links" are not accepted.

    Your responses to One Planet Only Forever and dana1981 appear to be not in good faith, but rather ad hominem trolls so I'm not interested in them.

    But I note hewever, that in case of your response to dana1981, you're engaging in the nitpicking spell/grammar checks, while on the other hand you mispelled WheelsOC's name. While I don't engage in spelling nitpicks, people names are an exception to me. IMO, the care of name spelling is a sign of respect towards others on the internet. So I understand Lewandowsky who suggests the same with his "Say whatever you want about me, but be sure to spell my name right." You seem to denigrate/not understand the issue of person's name respect. No surprise, because you've denigrated WheelsOC's name in the same message.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Vonderlin's post was nothing more than concern trolling and therefore was deleted.  

  11. Dana, WheelsOC, Chriskoz, in this dispute, the title of the journal "Frontiers in Psychology" has often been abbreviated as "Frontiers", thereby leading to confusion.  Frontiers, according to their blurb, is "... a community-oriented open-access academic publisher and research network".  Frontiers publishes nearly fifty journals, all of them called "Frontiers in XXX", where XXX is the name of some particular academic specialization.  The three editors that resigned are all editors for Frontiers.  One is an editor for two of their journals, but none of them are editors for "Frontiers in Psychology", ie, the journal that published and then withdrew "Recursive Fury".  The OP does get that wrong, and should have an update noting the error.

    Marco @4, OK, you got the above right but so what?  The editors in resigning have shown that they feel the retraction of "Recursive Fury", with subsequent comments so calls into question the integrity of the entire organization that they have resigned from any participation in that organization.  How is this better than merely calling into question the integrity of just one journal published by Frontiers?  To my mind it is a much greater indictment.

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  12. A further clarrification needs to follow from my post @12.  The original retraction notice for "Recursive Fury" was approved by Axel Cleeremans, Field Chief Editor for "Frontiers in Psychology".  In contrast, the blog that attempted to alter the story was from the Editorial Office of Frontiers, the organization.  It was not a statement by the Editorial Board of "Frontiers in Psychology".  Consequently, concern about the lack of integrity shown by that statement should result in concern about the integrity of the organization as a whole, rather than one particular Journal.

    Further, neither of the authors of the blog, Costanza Zucca and Fred Fenter, are members of the Editorial Board of "Frontiers in Psychology".  Indeed, they should not have beeen.  Zucca is a physicist specializing in magnetized plasmas.  Fenter is an evironmental scientist.  That is ironic given Marco's argument above that journalists would not have a proper handle on ethical issues in Psychology as ethical requirements differ between disciplines.  If that were true, then Zucca and Fenter would themselves be in no position to judge the ethical issues involved in publishing "Recursive Fury".  Indeed, as no specialists in psychology, they appear to have put themselves at odds with the specialists from the editorial board of "Frontiers in Psychology".  

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  13. Tom@11,12

    Thanks for this important clarification. After that, I still maintain that Marco@4 intentionaly misleads readers like myself by avoiding to provide a clear context of his claim, therefore he tries to muddy the issue rather than to explain it. So I still maintain that he tells us demostrably false information in his comment@4.

    By the same token, the climate science deniers, claim e.g. that "CO2 lifetime [of individual molecule] in the atmosphere in merely 5 years". Which is "right" at the molecular level according to the Henry's law and dynamic equilibrium with the ocean but which has nothing or very little to do with the actual issue at hand of the excess CO2 persistance in the atmosphere. With such worldview, you can produce "right" claims that deny the reality ad infinitum.

    Another argument raised by Marco has not been addressed in this discussion yet:

    While the conclusions and analysis may be sound, in my opinion it was improper for several of the authors to interact with their study objects. I don't buy the "psychopathological characterization", but I also don't buy the paper to be an objective analysis. Lewandowsky should have known better and asked a third party to do the analysis.

    I find it at adds with Dana's assertion that "Frontiers [and UWA] had found no academic or ethical problems with the paper". Surely, they should have found claimed a bias of "interraction" or acquiantance, if there was one. Should the study been "double blindfolded" to be unbiased?

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  14. WRT Marco's comments - interaction was essential to the development of conspiratorial ideation, the very thing being studied. This includes variations on "spammed responses", the two day "IP blocking" theory, the self-sealing extentions to UVA and some kind of world order, all the various reactions to additional information. 

    If you are studying the development of recursive conspiracy theories, you are studying them in the context of reactions to additional information, to corrections of previous conspiracy theories. 

    So yes, it's entirely consistent and in fact required to include interaction responses in this study. Complaints to the contrary seem to add up to (as somebody put it on one of the various blog discussions) a contrarian claim that "...Lew made me do it!".

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