Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Recursive recursiveness: Retracted Lewandowsky et al conspiracy ideation study republished

with 14 comments

Stephan Lewandowsky

Stephan Lewandowsky

A paper on “the role of conspiracist ideation in climate denial” whose puzzling publication (and retraction) history formed the basis of a series of Retraction Watch posts in 2013 and 2014 is back, as part of a new article in a different journal.

Retraction Watch readers may recall a paper published in 2013 in Frontiers in Psychology. That paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” was an attempt by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues to describe the reactions to another controversial Psychological Science paper Lewandowsky had co-authored, “NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science.”

The reason we started writing about the Frontiers paper was that it was removed from the journal’s site in March of 2013, for unclear reasons, before being formally retracted a year later with a reference to an investigation that “did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study” but found that “the legal context is insufficiently clear.” That didn’t really clear things up, however: A statement from the journal a few weeks later, we noted in our coverage, seemed to contradict the retraction notice. (Of note: Earlier this year, a different Frontiers journal allowed an HIV denial article they published remain in the literature, but reclassified it as opinion.)

Today, in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Lewandowsky and colleagues publish “Recurrent Fury: Conspiratorial Discourse in the Blogosphere Triggered by Research on the Role of Conspiracist Ideation in Climate Denial.” Here’s the abstract:

A growing body of evidence has implicated conspiracist ideation in the rejection of scientific propositions. Internet blogs in particular have become the staging ground for conspiracy theories that challenge the link between HIV and AIDS, the benefits of vaccinations, or the reality of climate change. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and other scientific propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS. That article stimulated considerable discursive activity in the climate blogosphere—i.e., the numerous blogs dedicated to climate “skepticism”—that was critical of the study. The blogosphere discourse was ideally suited for analysis because its focus was clearly circumscribed, it had a well-defined onset, and it largely discontinued after several months. We identify and classify the hypotheses that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions using well-established criteria for conspiracist ideation. In two behavioral studies involving naive participants we show that those criteria and classifications were reconstructed in a blind test. Our findings extend a growing body of literature that has examined the important, but not always constructive, role of the blogosphere in public and scientific discourse.

In a blog post and FAQ on the new paper, Lewandowsky notes that the study in “Recursive Fury,” the retracted article, is one of three studies presented in the new paper:

The article reports 3 studies that examined the discourse in the climate-“skeptic” blogosphere in response to an earlier publication in Psychological Science by Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac (often known as LOG12) which reported a small but significant (and replicable) association between the endorsement of various conspiracy theories and the rejection of climate science.

The paper discusses the retraction — the authors refer to it as a withdrawal, while Frontiers calls it a retraction — and related issues:

There are indications that seeking the retraction of inconvenient papers has become a routine practice among individuals who are denying (climate) science: We already noted the circumstances surrounding Recursive Fury at the outset. Moreover, one of the bloggers who was also involved in the response to LOG12 recently called for the retraction of a peer-reviewed paper that had underscored the pervasive scientific consensus on climate change through an analysis of nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed articles (Cook et al., 2013). To date, we have become aware of 7 instances in which editors were subject to what can reasonably be classified as harassment or intimidation in order to achieve the retraction of inconvenient papers. The potentially chilling effects of those activities on academic freedom must be analyzed further.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

July 8th, 2015 at 3:00 am

  • michael hart July 8, 2015 at 5:37 am

    You’re going to need a new blog; “De-retraction Watch”

  • Neuroskeptic July 8, 2015 at 5:55 am

    Excellent. Frontiers should never have retracted it. Their eventual explanation for doing so, that it did not obtain informed consent from the ‘research subjects’ (bloggers), was deeply confused as I argued at the time.

  • Paul Matthews July 8, 2015 at 6:19 am

    It is disappointing that you regurgitate the claims of Lewandowsky.

    Retraction was not sought because the paper was ‘inconvenient’, as he claims. As the journal put it, “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 behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics. ”

    The editors were not subjected to “harassment or intimidation”. Again from the journal statement: “Some of those complaints were well argued and cogent…Frontiers did not “cave in to threats” ”

    Finally it’s worth pointing out that many object to Lewandowsky’s claims, as pointed out in a recent comment by Dixon and Jones published in Psychological Science: “Reanalysis of the survey data sets of Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac (2013) and Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Oberauer (2013) indicates that the conclusions of those articles—that conspiracist ideation predicts skepticism regarding the reality of anthropogenic climate change—are not supported by the data.”

  • Barry Woods July 8, 2015 at 6:46 am

    Fury isn’t so much as back, but a very different paper in parts.

    table 3 now has anonymous ID’s… with people labelled with negative psychological traits.

    but as Recursive Fury was one of psychologies most downloaded paper (Stephan’s own words), which had table 3, with the people actually named…

    It isn’t really that anonymous now even now.. (which is why I imagine Frontiers wouldn’t publish an anonomised versin)

    Perhaps Lewandowsky should take down the original Recursvie Fury now?

    Table 3
    Summary of recursive—and at least partially conspiracist—hypotheses advanced in response
    to LOG12 during August – October 2012
    ID Date Originatora Summary of hypothesis Criteriab
    1 29 Aug JN Survey responses “scammed” by
    NI, PV, MbW, SS
    2 29 Aug JN “Skeptic” blogs not contacted NI NS PV
    3 3 Sep ROM Presentation of intermediate data NI, NS, MbW, UCT
    4 4 Sep GC “Skeptic” blogs contacted after
    NI, NS, MbW, NoA,
    5 5 Sep SMcI Different versions of the survey NI, MbW, UCT
    6 6 Sep SMcI Control data suppressed NI, NoA
    7 10 Sep SMcI Duplicate responses from same IP
    number retained
    NS, MbW
    8 14 Sep SMcI Blocking access to authors’ websites NI, PV, NoA
    9 Various Various Miscellaneous hypotheses See text
    10 12 Sep AW Global activism and government
    NI, PV, SS
    a Attribution is based on where and by whom a hypothesis was first proposed in public.
    JN=Jo “Nova” of; ROM=Anonymous commenter with pseudonym
    ROM at; GC=Geoff Chambers (commenter at; SMcI=Steve McIntyre of;
    AW=Anthony Watts of
    b NI=nefarious intent; NS=nihilistic skepticism; PV=persecuted victim; MbW=must be
    wrong; NoA=no accident; SS=self sealing; UCT=unreflexive counterfactual thinking.

    • Kevin J. Black September 5, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      The idea that one needs consent to quote public posts from the blogosphere is risible.

  • Barry Woods July 8, 2015 at 7:53 am

    I was amused by this though (from the new paper):

    “Conversely, a peer-reviewed critique of LOG12 and LGO13 has recently appeared in print (Dixon & Jones, 2015) (accompanied by a rejoinder; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2015),which exhibited none of the features of conspiratorial ideation that we report in this article and which involved authors that were not part of the blogosphere examined here. Crucially, such academic discourse, however critical,does not involve the attempt to silence inconvenient voices, which has become an increasingly clearly stated goal of elements of the climate “skeptic” blogosphere.”

    ref: “and which involved authors that were not part of the blogosphere examined here”

    Jones and Dixon were very much involved in the blogosphere with respect to this paper and are well know climate sceptics (Jones FOI’d the Climate Research Unit,( and eventually won) when they refused to supply data, he did this on basic scientific principle, when Climate Audit was refused CRU’s data. And from the climateate emails, showed how the scientist were discussing how to deal with J Jones and Don Keiller, (having words with their university’s)

    Prof J Jones even gets quoted in Mark Steyn’s book, criticizing Michael Mann, Ruth Dixon has a well respected blog, and Jonathan Jones has comments in the blogosphere about LOG12 quite often during the period (Climate Audit and Bishop Hill)

    an example recently being this (at Climate Audit)

    Prof J Jones:

    “From one point of view there are only four things wrong with the original LOG13-blogs paper. Unfortunately those four things are the design of the experiment, the implementation of the data collection, the analysis of the data, and the reporting of the results. As a consequence of this interlinked network of ineptitude it is very difficult to disentangle all the errors from each other.

    The LGO13-panel paper, by comparison, is much better. The design is relatively standard: no worse than many papers in the field. The implementation is still very poor (see for example the discussion at our post on satisficing), but it’s not so bad as to render the data completely useless. The analysis is still incorrect, but this time it is possible to tease out how and why it is incorrect, rather than just noting that it’s all a horrible mess. The reporting is still poor, but that doesn’t matter for a reanalysis.

    So the original point of our comment was to see what we could say about the analysis of the data from LGO13-panel. Somewhat to our surprise we found that, once we knew what to look for, the same analysis also worked for LOG13-blogs, albeit not so clearly because of the appalling skew in that dataset. We don’t say much about other issues, not because we don’t believe they are important, but simply because it’s best in a comment to pick one important issue, where the argument can be made very clearly, and then run with it.” – Prof Jonathan Jones

  • Barry Woods July 8, 2015 at 7:57 am

    Prof Henry Markram (co founder of Frontiers) explains why he retracted recursive Fury)

    “….The studied subjects were explicitly identified in the paper without their consent. It is well acknowledged and accepted that in order to protect a subject’s rights and avoid a potentially defamatory outcome, one must obtain the subject’s consent if they can be identified in a scientific paper. The mistake was detected after publication, and the authors and Frontiers worked hard together for several months to try to find a solution. In the end, those efforts were not successful. The identity of the subjects could not be protected and the paper had to be retracted. Frontiers then worked closely with the authors on a mutually agreed and measured retraction statement to avoid the retraction itself being misused. From the storm this has created, it would seem we did not succeed.

    For Frontiers, publishing the identities of human subjects without consent cannot be justified in a scientific paper. Some have argued that the subjects and their statements were in the public domain and hence it was acceptable to identify them in a scientific paper, but accepting this will set a dangerous precedent. With so much information of each of us in the public domain, think of a situation where scientists use, for example, machine learning to cluster your public statements and attribute to you personality characteristics, and then name you on the cluster and publish it as a scientific fact in a reputable journal. While the subjects and their statements were public, they did not give their consent to a public psychological diagnosis in a scientific study. Science cannot be abused to specifically label and point out individuals in the public domain.” – Markram


    “….Like all other journals, Frontiers seriously investigates any well-founded complaints or allegations, and retraction only happens in cases of absolute necessity and only after extensive analysis. For the paper in question, the issue was clear, the analysis was exhaustive, all efforts were made to work with the authors to find a solution and we even worked on the retraction statement with the authors. But there was no moral dilemma from the start – we do not support scientific publications where human subjects can be identified without their consent. ” – Markram


    “Activism that abuses science as a weapon is just not helpful at a time of crisis.”

    – Markram (his personal comment)

  • Jonathan Barchi July 8, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Matthews and Woods are happy to quote the convenient statement from Frontiers regarding this paper, but do so in a vacuum that ignores the other available information about this retraction. This information has been covered in other Retraction Watch articles on the subject, and raises some serious concerns about the wording of the quoted statement from Frontiers.

    Perhaps most seriously disturbing is the fact that the quoted statement seems to contradict the official – and apparently legally agreed-upon – retraction notice, which explicitly stated that there were no issues of ethical or scientific misconduct and that the retraction was driven by an insufficiently clear legal landscape. That is, they thought the risk of litigation was too high to justify keeping the paper.

    As to threats, the claim that “no threats” were made against the journal – presumably to include legal threats – is contradicted by material released by at least one or two of the very individuals who threatened to sue the journal.

    As for issues of anonymity of the subjects, the university involved reviewed the methods – before the work was done and again following complaints – and found no ethical issues with it. I would speculate that part of the reason for this is that the nature of the material used was not just public domain, but promulgated far and wide with the obvious intent of having it seen by as many people as possible.

    • Barry Woods July 8, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      The “convenient statement” was by the founder of Frontiers about why the paper was retracted…

      • Marco July 9, 2015 at 2:22 am

        …a statement which still is at odds with the official retraction notice. If Markrat is correct about the reason for retraction of the paper (“not legal, but ethics”), he thereby implicitly admits that he has no problems with a blatant lie in the retraction notice (“not ethics, but legal”). One should wonder about the ethics of *that*.

  • chris July 9, 2015 at 3:36 am

    Markham’s very strange comments are also at odds with the fact that Frontiers assembled an expert panel to address the issues surrounding the “Fury” paper. The panel concluded that in their opinion that on balance there weren’t any ethical problems with the paper’s analysis of blog posts.

    So Markham’s comments are at odds with the conclusions of the panel that his Frontiers group assembled.

    From the expert panel report:

    ” The question of participant status is an important and complex one. It turns on the question of whether an individual’s (identifiable or not) postings to blogs comprise public information and therefore do not fall under the constraints typically imposed by ethics review boards. The issue is currently under debate among researchers and publishers dealing with textual material used in scientific research. Advice was sought from the leading researcher on web-based psychological studies and his response was that “among psychological and linguistic researchers blog posts are regarded as public data and the individuals posting the data are not regarded as participants in the technical sense used by Research Ethics Committees or Institutional Review Boards. This further entails that no consent is required for the use of such data.” Although this view is held by many researchers and their ethics boards, it is by no means a unanimous judgment and it is to be expected that legitimate challenges, both on ethical and legal grounds, will be raised as web-based research expands in scope. But to the charges that Fury was unethical in using blog posts as data for psychological analysis, the consensus among experts in this area sides with the authors of Fury. ”

    • Paul Matthews July 10, 2015 at 11:20 am

      This “expert panel” report has not been published. Lewandowsky posted one small section from it, and wrote “Some commenters have, quite reasonably, asked me to release the entire expert report. I cannot do so because it is still strictly confidential.”

  • Barry Woods July 9, 2015 at 5:03 am

    Michael Marriott is still listed as a co-author..
    still showing this affiliation:

    [g] Climate Realities Research

    I can’t find it on the web, or registered as a company, no mention beyond a statement on Michael Marriott’s – Watching the Deniers – blog

  • Eli Rabett July 9, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Markham and Frontiers are very strange operators and operations as recent controversies show.

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