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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Elsevier apologizes for Applied Mathematics Letters retraction, pays author’s legal fees

with 16 comments

Elsevier, the publisher of Applied Mathematics Letters, which retracted a paper questioning the second law of thermodynamics earlier this year, will issue an apology and pay $10,000 in legal fees.

According to John West at the Discovery Institute’s blog, which broke the story:

Dr. Rodin and his journal now have to issue a public statement providing “their sincere and heartfelt apologies to Dr. Sewell… and welcom[ing] Dr. Sewell’s submission of future articles for possible publication.” More important than the apology, the journal has to set the record straight by reiterating that “Dr. Sewell’s article was peer-reviewed and accepted for publication” and by making clear that his article was not withdrawn because of “any errors or technical problems found by the reviewers or editors.”

The move is unusual enough, but what makes it even more remarkable is that it followed some legal saber-rattling by the study’s author, Granville Sewell.  Sewell was represented by attorney Pete Lopiscopo, of California.  Lopiscopo has, according to his bio, represented plaintiffs in several cases championed by conservatives, including the

California challenge to the 2010 Health Care Bill, the Mount Soledad Cross case in San Diego, the Texas and Kentucky Ten Commandments cases, and the Pledge of Allegiance case.

We contacted Elsevier, who wouldn’t confirm or deny that there had been a settlement, but said that an explanation would be released soon. The study will not be reinstated.

We also tried West and Lopiscopo for details of the settlement, which West’s post appears to be quoting, and will update with anything we hear back.

As we noted in March, the second law of thermodynamics states, in a nutshell, that entropy — sometimes shorthanded as “disorder” — always increases. Intelligent Design proponents — which include the Discovery Institute as well as Sewell — argue that it “makes it impossible for evolution to improve living organisms,” Panda’s Thumb blogger Joe Felsenstein noted:

The obvious reply is that the biosphere is not an isolated, closed system, that to come near having one, we must also include the sun which undergoes a huge increase of entropy as it radiates energy, that more than compensates for the much smaller decrease of entropy involved in the evolution of life.

The withdrawal of Sewell’s paper happened quickly, following an exchange between Panda’s Thumb contributor David vun Kannon and Applied Mathematics Letters editor Ervin Rodin. The paper is still marked as retracted, with the original notice.

We should point out that Applied Mathematics Letters also retracted a paper in March claiming that science and spirituality both came from space. And Rodin, the journal’s editor, is also editor of Mathematical and Computer Modelling, which retracted a paper earlier this year too. Rodin has given us a stock (non-)response whenever we ask for comment:

Thank you for your message.  We receive many comments and much information, which are designated confidential for the Editor-In-Chief only.  Furthermore, we provide information only to the authors involved, or to the relevant reviewers.

We appreciate your understanding in this matter.

The settlement seems a highly unusual situation to us. Can anyone substantiate other cases?

Update, 1:40 p.m. Eastern, 6/8/11: Sewell has posted an item about the paper on Uncommon Descent.

Please see an update with the text of the apology.

Hat tip: Martin Hafner

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Written by Ivan Oransky

June 8, 2011 at 1:07 pm

16 Responses

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  1. “…the second law of thermodynamics states, in a nutshell, that entropy — sometimes shorthanded as “disorder” — always increases…”

    That’s a little too short for my taste. The “always increases” only applies to closed systems – ones where no energy flows in or out (or matter, for that matter).

    “Disorder”? That’s so hard to define, and it tends to give an improper (visual) image, such as some sort of visual messiness. All of thermodynamics is focused on energy and not matter, and so it is with the Second Law. So how can we speak of energy disorder? I can’t grasp that. But instead, if we speak of energy spreading out, going from high content volumes to low content volumes, then I think that is both easy to understand and still correct.

    A kettle of hot water on the countertop will cool to room temperature. We all know that, we’ve all seen that and know that the opposite will never occur. That’s the Second Law.

    I would put it as “…the second law of thermodynamics states, in a nutshell, that in a closed system, energy spreads out and can’t be recovered…”

    John Spevacek

    June 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

  2. A retraction of a retraction following legal threats – is this a first?

    Neuroskeptic

    June 9, 2011 at 2:55 am

  3. Applied Math Letters did not “retract the retraction.” They will apologize to Sewell for the mishap but the paper will not be published in the journal.

    olegt

    June 9, 2011 at 7:21 am

  4. Sewell’s paper demonstrates that he either has a tenuous, at best, grasp of the concepts of thermodynamics or is deliberately equivocating on essential terms. This paper includes no application of mathematics; it is nothing more than religious apologetics wrapped in a simplistic summary of how to calculate entropy and a great deal of confused discussion of “order.” This paper should never have made it past review.

    It’s understandable, but regrettable, that Elsevier chose to pay off a nuisance rather than spend more money on lawyers. Naturally the intelligent design creationists will trumpet this as a victory. Since they have no science to back up their position, they need to spin what they can.

    Patrick May

    June 9, 2011 at 8:55 am

  5. olegt: OK, not quite a retraction then, but an apology & payout for a retraction, following legal threats – is that a first?

    Neuroskeptic

    June 9, 2011 at 2:44 pm

  6. I have taken a superficial look at some of the things that radiate out from this article’s retraction, and as usual it has quickly become website quicksand. For example, the retraction is described as “censorship” in creationist circles and the “apology” is trumpeted as a great victory for creationism, I mean Intelligent Design. Never mind that the improbability of evolution is irrelevant since, however improbable it can be calculated to be, it does in fact exist (I’m convinced by the evidence. You should be, too.) and scientific “laws” cannot be violated, unlike laws written by men.
    It would appear to this amateur that the action of Elsevier was a cheap way of getting rid of Sewell: I would have to pay $10K to any competent lawyer just to get his representation against any criminal misdemeanor charge by the DA, so it’s chicken feed to those rich medical publishers. On the other hand, it became a cheap victory for Sewell and a quick and typical way to make ten grand for his lawyer(who makes a living representing Sewell’s type of antiscientist and/or conservative). This sort of thing just makes grist for the mills of these antiscientific types.
    Obviously Elsevier doesn’t want any publicity in scientific circles for Sewell; scientists will ignore Sewell and his blogging friends, the retraction still stands, and science at least is (semi)intact.
    Sewell’s arguments are absurd and never should have been published in the first place. “God” only knows how he got into print, but his paper does not reflect well on the journal that he appeared in.

    conradseitz

    June 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm

  7. The comments here are by people who have not read the paper. Keep in mind, the publication in question admitted that the paper was not rejected due to technical errors.

    @Conrad – evolution is used to mean many different things. If you mean change over time, then yeah, it happens. If you mean that the human eye is the result of successive small changes that came about randomly and were selected based upon their fitness and benefit to the survivability of organisms, then you have no evidence to back it up. Don’t you find it odd that Darwin said his theory (hypothesis, to be precise) would collapse if it could be shown that the eye did not evolve gradually? Is that how science is supposed to work? No. The burden of proof is on Darwin (and you) to show how it did evolve gradually.

    DaveW

    June 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    • Which Darwin then did. Chapter 6 of “the Origin of Species” notes:
      “In the Articulata we can commence a series with an optic nerve merely coated with pigment, and without any other mechanism; and from this low stage, numerous gradations of structure, branching off in two fundamentally different lines, can be shown to exist, until we reach a moderately high stage of perfection. In certain crustaceans, for instance, there is a double cornea, the inner one divided into facets, within each of which there is a lens shaped swelling. In other crustaceans the transparent cones which are coated by pigment, and which properly act only by excluding lateral pencils of light, are convex at their upper ends and must act by convergence; and at their lower ends there seems to be an imperfect vitreous substance. With these facts, here far too briefly and imperfectly given, which show that there is much graduated diversity in the eyes of living crustaceans, and bearing in mind how small the number of living animals is in proportion to those which have become extinct, I can see no very great difficulty (not more than in the case of many other structures) in believing that natural selection has converted the simple apparatus of an optic nerve merely coated with pigment and invested by transparent membrane, into an optical instrument as perfect as is possessed by any member of the great Articulate class.”

      And more recent:

      http://www.springerlink.com/content/m3k441k67q3n/

      Marco

      June 10, 2011 at 1:41 am

    • “The comments here are by people who have not read the paper.”

      That is not true. The reason I wrote to the editors of AML was because I read the paper after it was made available online by Sewell and determined, based on my degree in chemical engineering, that his claims about entropy were unfounded. It’s very clear to anyone who has followed the Intelligent Design Creationism movement for any length of time that Sewell’s paper was just a rehash of frequently refuted creationist nonsense.

      Patrick May

      June 10, 2011 at 6:59 am

    • Not rejected due to errors – found by the reviewers or editor. Found by other folks, well…

      David vun Kannon

      June 11, 2011 at 5:41 am

  8. Besides being flawed and anti-scientific the Sewell’s submission could have been rejected because it is just not new and to some degree self-plagiarized as Wesley Elsberry demonstrated on Panda’s Thumb. E.g. parts of the last paragraph of Sewell’s current article

    And perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really is not, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and digital computers. But one would think that at least this would be considered an open question, and those who argue that it really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying the second law of thermodynamics, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their colleagues, but we are not.

    are nearly identical with parts of his 2005 American Spectator article

    Perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn’t, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and computers. But one would think that at least this would be considered an open question, and those who argue that it really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying the second law, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their colleagues, but we aren’t.

    (identities bolded)
    I just wonder if he owns the copyright for his 2005 writings.

    MartinHafner

    June 10, 2011 at 12:33 am

  9. Those who are interested will find copies of two letters that initiated the the retraction at here and here. Maybe there have been more.

    Martin Hafner

    June 10, 2011 at 2:58 am

  10. FWIW, Sewell has blogged about this on Uncommon Descent. Questions in the comments about why he thought it necessary to call in the lawyers aren’t getting through moderation.

    Bob O'Hara

    June 10, 2011 at 3:00 am

    • Has anyone asked Sewell who the reviewers were? Sternberg, Meyer, and a guy about to retire from the UTEP math department is my guess.

      David vun Kannon

      June 11, 2011 at 5:45 am

  11. I doubt that he would know. Unless the referees contacted him.

    olegt

    June 12, 2011 at 6:47 am

    • According to the AML procedures, he submitted a list of eight possible reviewers.

      From the author instructions:
      Referees

      Please read the requirements for submitting reviewers thoroughly and completely before preparing an appropriate list of referees to submit on-line with your manuscript.

      Failure to meet the requirements will result in the rejection of your article.

      REQUIREMENTS FOR SUBMITTING REVIEWERS

      (1) Please prepare a list of 8 (eight) proposed reviewers. You MUST include Full Names, Department, University, Country and Email Addresses for each proposed reviewer. This list should not contain names which have been suggested by you or any of your co-authors for previously submitted manuscripts. It should be a globally geographically diverse list of potential reviewers; there should be no more than two suggested referees from any particular area/region/country.

      If you, or any of your co-authors, have submitted to our offices previously, to any of our journals, please note that you must have a different list of reviewers for each manuscript submitted.

      All proposed reviewers MUST be fluent in English to ensure the integrity of each review and the correct processing of all manuscripts.

      (2) Proposed reviewers MUST BE knowledgeable in your area of research and these reviewers should not be persons with whom any of the authors have in the past or currently have a personal/working/professional relationship (i.e., instructors, co-workers, advisors, students, former co-authors, etc.). (3) Reviewers MUST NOT be a member of any of our Journals’ (Applied Mathematics Letters (AML), Computers and Mathematics with Applications (CAMWA), and Mathematical and Computer Modelling (MCM)) Editorial Boards:
      ———————————-

      Where did he find eight experts on entropy, evolution, and SLOT?

      David vun Kannon

      June 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm


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