Recursive Fury: A Summary of Media Coverage

The journal Frontiers retracted our “Recursive Fury” paper some time ago not for academic or ethical reasons but owing to legal fears. The paper can now be found at because the University of Western Australia has come to a different risk assessment and sees no reason not to host the paper.

There has been quite a flurry of media activity since the retraction, and a complete listing can be found over at Skepticalscience. This post highlights some of the mainstream coverage and provides some of the more notable quotes:

    Contrarians bully journal into retracting a climate psychology paper

      Blog Post published by The Guardian on 22 March 2014

      Dana Nuccitelli:

      It’s unfortunate that the Frontiers editors were unwilling to stand behind a study that they admitted was sound from an academic and ethical standpoint, especially since UWA concluded the paper would withstand a legal assault. This series of events should be a wake-up call to editors and publishers that they must remain resilient to organized campaigns by the blogosphere. Academics can no longer be confident that the Frontiers staff will stand behind them if they publish research in the journal and are subjected to similar frivolous attacks. Frontiers may very well be worse off having lost the confidence of the academic community than if they had called the bluffs of the contrarians threatening frivolous lawsuits.

      Fortunately, several journals and organizations have stood up against this type of contrarian bullying. The journal Environmental Research Letters easily withstood the campaign against our consensus paper, and the Australian Psychological Society has been very supportive of Lewandowsky and his team, as has the Association for Psychological Science. 

      These groups offer a good example for journals to follow when subjected to organized bullying from contrarians trying to censor sound but inconvenient research.

        Recursive furies, hurt feelings or confected outrage

          Blog Post published by HotWhopper on 22 March 2014

          Frontiers in Psychology is an open access journal that says:

          Our grand vision is to build an Open Science platform that empowers researchers in their daily work and where everybody has equal opportunity to seek, share and generate knowledge.

          By all accounts the journal could be viewed as taking a step backwards from that “grand vision” by caving into people who object to research.

          The University of Western Australia is standing by the paper.  It’s probably a lot bigger than the Frontiers in Psychology journal and almost certainly has more expertise in law. 


            Journal pulls paper due to “legal context” created by climate contrarians

              Magazine published by Ars Technica on 22 March 2014

              The article cites Michael Kenyon, the Frontiers lawyer, as follows:

              Frontiers is concerned about solid science and it’s obviously a regret when you have to retract an article that is scientifically and ethically sound.

                Academic journal bows to pressure from climate deniers

                  Magazine published by Salon on 22 March 2014, citing Kim Heitman, the UWA’s General Counsel:

                  ‘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

                  Thanks to Heitman, the study can still be found at the University of Western Australia’s website; a second study conducted by Lewandosky, which replicated the results of the first in a representative U.S. sample, remains where it was posted at PLoS ONE.

                    A Conspiracy Theory Researcher Falls Victim to Conspiracy Theories: Intimidated Journal to Retract Lewandowsky Paper

                      Blog Post published by the Union of Concerned Scientists on 21 March 2014

                      Such a retraction would reflect badly on the journal and may set a terrible precedent. Papers should be withdrawn based on significant concerns with the quality of the research, not based on threats.

                      This is yet another example of why researchers, journals, and universities need to be sufficiently prepared to effectively respond to outside scrutiny of their work. Sometimes that scrutiny is warranted and adds to public understanding, but in other cases, such as this one, it can be distracting and frivolous.

                      This is not the only scientific organization to be dismayed at the retraction; officers of the Australian Psychological Society have likewise expressed their distress at the retraction of Recursive Fury, as I discuss in this video.

                        The paper they don’t want you to read!

                          Blog Post published by Pharyngula on 21 March 2014

                          PZ Myers

                          Steve McIntyre wrote a “strongly worded” “formal letter” demanding that the “defamatory” article be removed, and accusing the authors of malice. Further, they complained that analyzing the content of blog posts and comments, public, openly accessible work, was an ethics violation.

                          Ludicrous as those claims are, Frontiers in Psychology is apparently about to fold to them. For shame.

                          You know, my university had a meeting with our institutional lawyers yesterday — I was called in to attend the information session for some reason, like having a reputation as a trouble-maker or something — and I was impressed with their professionalism and their commitment to actually defending the faculty and staff of the university. I guess not every organization is lucky enough to have good lawyers of principle.

                            Science Journal Set To Retract Paper Linking Climate Change Scepticism To Conspiracy Theorists After Sceptics Shout Libel

                              Blog Post published by Desmogblog on 20 March 2014

                              Graham Readfearn

                              In McIntyre’s complaint letters (seen as item numbers 95 and 99 on the FOI document release), the Canadian blogger uses quotes hacked from a private forum of the Skeptical Science, founded University of Queensland academic John Cook and co-author on the Recursive study.

                              McIntyre cites the quotes in an attempt to demonstrate “malice” against him, even though none of those quotes were written by any of the authors of the paper.

                                Liability fears drive psychology journal to retract climate study

                                  Blog Post published by Scholars and Rogues on 24 March 2014

                                  … the fact that an informal group of critics was able to force the retraction of an ethically and academically sound study will embolden others to turn this into a legal tactic against research they disagree with. …

                                  And in the process, those critics are demonstrating yet again that the conclusions of all three studies are correct: there is correlation between being a conspiracy theorist and believing that climate disruption is a hoax or scam.

                                    ‘Conspiracist’ climate change study withdrawn amid legal threats

                                      Sydney Morning Herald 2 April 2014 (this also ran in the Canberra Times and the Brisbane Times)

                                      Peter Hannam

                                      Kim Heitman, a lawyer for the UWA, said the university had done its own risk analysis before publishing the paper online. “There’s no reason to take it down,” Mr Heitman said.

                                      The university, though, had also received plaudits from around the world for its decision to publish the paper. “I couldn’t list them,” Mr Heitman said. “And I wouldn’t list them, having regard to the fact that anyone who issues a ‘thanks UWA’ will probably get their own enquiry.”

                                        The journal that gave in to climate deniers’ intimidation

                                          The Conversation 2 April 2014

                                          Elaine McKewon

                                          This piece was written by one of the reviewers of the original paper and it tells her side of the story. She concludes:

                                          In any event, the journal’s management and editors were clearly intimidated by climate deniers who threatened to sue. So Frontiers bowed to their demands, retracted the paper, damaged its own reputation, and ultimately gave a free kick to aggressive climate deniers.

                                           I would have expected a scientific journal to have more backbone, certainly when it comes to the crucially important issue of academic freedom.


                                          By and large, the mainstream media coverage seems to have picked up on what’s really at issue here, namely academic freedom and editorial intimidation by a small band of vociferous individuals.

                                          The Recursive Fury retraction is just one visible instance of such intimidation. Subterranean campaigns against inconvenient scientific articles by climate deniers have become increasingly frequent and they deserve to be exposed in order to safeguard the public’s right to be informed about the risks it is facing from climate change.

                                          In whose hands the future?