Restoring Recurrent Fury

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 8 July 2015

A peer-reviewed article appeared in print today in an open-access journal that is likely to stimulate some interest and debate:

Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J., Oberauer, K., Brophy, S., Lloyd, E. A., & Marriott, M. (2015). Recurrent fury: Conspiratorial discourse in the blogosphere triggered by research on the role of conspiracist ideation in climate denial. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3 (1). doi: 10.5964/jspp.v3i1.443.

The article fits within a fairly large and growing body of evidence that suggests that the rejection of well-established scientific facts, such as the safety and efficacy of vaccinations or the fact that HIV causes AIDS or the fact that CO2 emissions alter our global climate, is often accompanied by conspiracist ideation—that is, the idea that scientists or the government are colluding to create a "hoax". The "hoax" may involve the link between HIV and AIDS or between smoking and lung cancer or between CO2 emissions and climate change: Denial of scientific propositions involves the same playbook and the same motivated cognition, irrespective of which scientific fact is being targeted.

Our new 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. 

In a nutshell the new article applies criteria from the scholarly literature on conspiracist ideation to the public discourse in the blogosphere in response to the publication of LOG12. The first study reports a thematic analysis that establishes the presence of various potentially conspiracist hypotheses in the blogosphere in response to LOG12. The second study shows that when “naïve” judges (i.e., people who are not conversant with any of the issues and are blind to the purpose of the study) are given the blogosphere content material, they reproduce the structure of hypotheses uncovered in our thematic analysis. In a final study, naïve participants were presented with a sample of anonymized blogosphere content and rated it on various attributes that are typical of conspiracist discourse. This final study found that blogosphere content was judged extremely high on all those attributes. For comparison, the study also included material written by junior scholars who were instructed to be as critical as possible of LOG12. This comparison material was rated lower on all conspiracist attributes than the blogosphere content, but it was rated higher on an item that related to “reasonable scholarly critique”—in a nutshell, the blogosphere discourse was identified by blind and naïve participants as being high on conspiracism but low on scholarship.

These results add to a growing body of research on the nature of internet discourse and the role of the blogosphere in climate denial. It also confirms that conspiratorial elements are readily identifiable in blogosphere discourse, which should not be altogether surprising in light of the fact that the U.S. Senator who chairs the Senate's Committee on the Environment and Public Works has written a book entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Yes, he does chair that committee.

Some readers may recognize that this new article is related to work we published two years ago in the online open-access journal Frontiers of Psychology. The history of this earlier article, entitled “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation” is relevant to this new article and also carries considerable implications for academic freedom and the public’s right to be informed about the risks it is facing.

Recursive Fury (2013-2014)

Recursive Fury reported the thematic analysis of the blogosphere response to LOG12 that is reported in Study 1 of the new article.

To my knowledge, Recursive Fury became the most-read article in psychology ever published by Frontiers (approximately 65,000 page views and 10,000 downloads at the time of this writing). The article also received considerable media attention, including in the New York Times.

Within weeks of publication, the journal had received complaints from a small number of individuals and removed the article from its website. To illustrate the nature of those complaints, investigative reporting by Graham Readfearn eventually established that they relied, in part, on illegally-obtained statements made in the presumption of privacy by third parties not known to me and not associated with Recursive Fury in any way.

The article was eventually withdrawn by Frontiers (in March 2014) based on legal concerns, but not for academic or ethical reasons. The publisher deemed the legal risk posed by a non-anonymized thematic analysis to be too great.

Upon withdrawal, a copy of Recursive Fury was posted by my host institution at the time, the University of Western Australia, at a dedicated URL ( ). Recursive Fury was viewed and/or downloaded from the UWA website a further 13,000 times until the time of this writing. The University received no complaints or legal threats (let alone actions) in response to its public hosting of Recursive Fury for over a year.

The withdrawal of Recursive Fury in 2014 engendered a number of further events, including the public resignation of 3 Editors of Frontiers in protest (and critical commentary by a fourth Editor); an online petition by an NGO (Forecast the Facts) calling for the reinstatement of the paper that attracted nearly 2,000 signatures; and several opinion pieces in the media (including Scientific American) by one of the paper's initial reviewers that were critical of the journal's actions. In addition, the Australian Psychological Society issued a statement that expressed “dismay” at the withdrawal of Recursive Fury; this position was publicly echoed by the (American) Union of Concerned Scientists.

More details can be found in this video of a talk in which I summarize the events surrounding Recursive Fury.

Recurrent Fury (2015)

The new peer-reviewed article reports the same thematic analysis reported in Recursive Fury. The new article goes beyond Recursive Fury in two important ways:

(1) All content is anonymized and all quotations have been extensively paraphrased to prevent identification of authors. Similarly, the corpus of text underlying the analysis is no longer publically available. These step was undertaken to guard against intimidation of the journal, even though Frontiers’ own expert panel had confirmed our right to subject non-anonymized public speech to scholarly analysis, and even though the initial article was written and conducted with ethics approval from the University of Western Australia.

(2) In the new paper, the thematic analysis is confirmed by two behavioural studies involving naïve participants who were blind to the identity of all parties involved and unaware of the source of the statements they were processing.

Broader context

In my view, the events surrounding Recursive Fury are of importance to the academic community and the public at large because they reveal how scholarship can sometimes be compromised by a small number of individuals who intimidate and bully editors, authors, universities or journals to suppress inconvenient work. Recursive Fury is not an isolated incident as harassment of editors has, unfortunately, become widespread.

Recurrent Fury can help inform the academic community and the wider public about the behaviour and discourse that is being used by the “skeptic” climate blogosphere, and how it differs from conventional scholarly critique.

Some FAQs relating to Recurrent Fury are available here.

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Comments 1 to 3:

  1. Excellent, Dr Lewandowsky and co. Figured I'd get in a comment first before the usual suspects wake up - breaking the pattern :)
  2. Barry Woods at 21:08 PM on 8 July, 2015
    Hmmm - table three now has anonymous ID's... (instead of names)
    (thus at least one ethics concern HAS been accepted and addressed)

    but as Recursive Fury was the 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...

    Perhaps, now this is published, you should take down the original from here:

    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

    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
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