Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Right to Read Denied by Deniers

By Peter Bowditch

A research paper about the people who are drawn to conspiracy theories has been permanently retracted due to the threat of litigation by climate change deniers rather than a flaw in the science.

In September last year I wrote about a paper that had been published in the online journal Frontiers of Psychology – “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation” – but had subsequently been removed except for the abstract and the following statement:

“This article, first published by Frontiers on 18 March 2013, has been the subject of complaints. Given the nature of some of these complaints, Frontiers has provisionally removed the link to the article while these issues are investigated, which is being done as swiftly as possible and which Frontiers management considers the most responsible course of action. The article has not been retracted or withdrawn. Further information will be provided as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.”

The complaints came from climate change deniers who didn’t like being described as being prone to “conspiracy ideation”. The paper followed earlier research into conspiracies that had generated much response from climate deniers but almost nothing from other groups mentioned for being strongly influenced by conspiracy theories.

The journal has now retracted the paper completely, with the agreement of the authors. It seems that Frontiers was threatened with a libel suit. Two suggestions have been made – they retracted because they didn’t want (or couldn’t afford) a defamation suit to get to court, or they didn’t want to be seen as a journal that published material that might attract legal action. I hope it wasn’t the second reason, because a policy like that leads to too much caution.

The retraction is being discussed in various places, with opinions being divided along predictable party lines. While admitting that the research and its reporting might have been done better, followers of the scientific consensus that the climate is changing are generally talking about freedom of speech and how the way to combat bad science is with better science, not suppression. The deniers, however, seem to be saying that there are at least three reasons why the paper should never have been published.

  1. It is unethical to identify subjects in published research papers, even by quoting from web sites, blogs and other publications where the subjects have identified themselves and stated their opinions. (I wonder how you do an “ethical” literature review.)
  2. It is unethical for someone who is not a psychiatrist to suggest in a published paper that subjects suffer from a mental illness such as “conspiracy ideation” or “Dunning–Kruger effect”.
  3. It is defamatory to suggest by the use of such terms as “conspiracy ideation” that the words quoted from named individuals indicate that they are “nuts” or are otherwise mentally unfit.

What is significant is that the objectors aren’t even attempting to refute the findings of the paper, which is that climate change deniers show signs of being prone to believing in other conspiracies. What they are saying is that they don’t like what was found, so it should not have been looked for in the first place, but if someone was going to look they should have paid more attention to not hurting anyone’s feelings.

This sets some dangerous precedents.

If scientists are deterred from certain areas of research, not for ethical reasons but because of fear of a legal fight, then there are legitimate questions that might not be addressed or answered, particularly in the social sciences, health and history disciplines.

Even if the research gets approved and is carried out, journals might be afraid to publish due to fears of a backlash. This is not so much a problem for the larger, well-established players because they have the budgets and resources to vet submissions and they can only publish a small fraction of submitted papers anyway. Smaller or newer publications don’t have these luxuries, so are more likely to apply the Precautionary Principle and not publish material they think could be controversial.

One disturbing aspect of this matter is the speed with which the retraction occurred. The paper was published in March 2013, and for much of the time since then has only been available as an abstract.

While it might be considered a good thing that flawed research is identified and corrected quickly, this correction should be done using the tools of science rather than the courts. Journal articles are usually only retracted because evidence has been found of fraud or incompetence, and this evidence usually comes from detailed investigation of the methods and findings, or failure to replicate findings. This is not perfect – it took 12 years for the Lancet to retract Andrew Wakefield’s paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism, despite doubts being raised within 4 years) – but until a better way to do science comes along it’s all we’ve got and it’s all we should be using.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).