Recursive Fury goes recurrent

Some 18 months ago I published a paper with colleagues Oberauer and Gignac that reported a survey of visitors to climate blogs which established a small, but significant, association between the endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of several scientific propositions, including the fact that the earth is warming from greenhouse gases. The effects reported in that paper have since been replicated with a representative sample of Americans. No scholarly critique of either paper has been submitted for peer review to any journal to date.

Publication of the first paper (now known as LOG12) engendered a sustained and ongoing attack on the research and my work in general. Most of these attacks have been pursued by defamation on the internet, but they have also involved activities beneath the surface hidden from public view. I have already written about this Subterranean War on Science.

The strategies employed in those attacks follow a common playbook, regardless of which scientific proposition is being denied and regardless of who the targeted scientists are: There is cyber-bullying and public abuse by “trolling” (which recent research has linked to sadism); there is harassment by vexatious freedom-of-information (FOI) requests; there are the complaints to academic institutions; legal threats; and perhaps most troubling, there is the intimidation of journal editors and publishers who are acting on manuscripts that are considered inconvenient.

Together with colleagues Cook, Oberauer, and Marriott, I also published another paper last year, entitled Recursive Fury, in the online Journal Frontiers. This article reported a narrative analysis of the blogosphere’s response to publication of LOG12. The blogosphere’s response bore a striking resemblance to the very topic of LOG12: our finding that rejection of climate science is associated with conspiratorial thinking triggered elements of conspiratorial discourse among those who sought to deny that denial of climate science involves a measure of conspiratorial thinking:

Recursive Fury attracted some media attention (e.g., in the New York Times) as well as critique. It should come as little surprise that this critique did not involve a scholarly response, such as submission of a rejoinder for peer review, but that it entailed a barrage of complaints to the University of Western Australia (UWA), where I was based at the time, and the journal Frontiers.

While not retracting the paper, Frontiers removed the article from its website in March 2013. The journal then commenced an arduous process of investigation which has now come to a conclusion.

Frontiers will post (or has posted) the following statement on its website today:

“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.”

In other words, the article is fine but Frontiers does not want to take the legal risk that its restoration on the website might entail.

This is not the first time that legal fears have led to the withdrawal of a paper.

The authors were involved in drafting the retraction statement and sanction its content: We understand the journal’s position even though we do not agree with it.

Until January 1st of this year, the U.K.—where I now reside and whose laws are therefore applicable—was the country made in heaven for people who wanted to use “defamation” as a tool to suppress inconvenient speech, to the point that President Obama recently signed a law to make U.K. libel judgments unenforceable in the U.S. That law (PUBLIC-LAW 111-223) explicitly cites the “ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work” as motivating reason for making foreign libel judgments unenforceable in the United States.

Richard Dawkins rightly noted some time ago that scientists in the U.K. were operating in “an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty” under the libel laws. The law has now been reformed and, since January 1st, it contains some protections for scientists, a point to which I may return in future posts.

As far as we can tell, Recursive Fury attracted more attention than any other paper in psychology ever published by Frontiers. It attracted 9,124 full text views, and the count of abstract views was 29,324 when we last checked (at which time the article that we identifies as runner-up had 12,086 abstract views and 1,091 full text views).

Given its popularity, and given that approximately 29,300 viewers did not complain about our work, it would be a shame to deprive the public of access to this article. Because the work was conducted in Australia, I consulted with the University of Western Australia’s chief lawyer, Kim Heitman, who replied as follows:

“I’m entirely comfortable with you publishing the paper on the UWA web site. You and the University can easily be sued for any sorts of hurt feelings or confected outrage, and I’d be quite comfortable processing such a phony legal action as an insurance matter.”

— Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris, LLB, MACS, CT, General Counsel, University of Western Australia

So here, then, is Recursive Fury.

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