‘Recursive Fury’ sets off new furies and shocking retraction

As I’ve noted in my book, “Prove It! Fact-Finding Secrets of a Fanatical Online Researcher,” climate change is a “controversial” subject not so much because of the science that supports it — which is solid — but because of its implications for society and the responses that will most likely be necessary.

Scientists who research climate change aren’t the only ones to receive criticism from those who don’t like such implications, though. One psychology researcher — Stephan A. Lewandowsky — has received intense criticism from the climate denier camp since he wrote two papers last year: “NASA faked the moon landing | Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science” and a followup paper, “Recursive Fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.”

In an unusual move earlier this year, the journal that published “Recursive Fury” retracted the article … though not because of “any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study.” Instead, the journal’s retraction notice stated, its investigation did “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.”

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 17, Elaine McKewon, a research associate at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, noted that she had been one of the peer reviewers for the “Recursive Fury” paper before its publication. Subsequent to that publication, she added, “The journal received a barrage of complaints from climate deniers, and the bloggers discussed in the paper threatened to sue the journal for libel unless the paper was retracted.”

McKewon continued, “In a move that shocked the scientific community, the journal retracted the paper even though it conceded it was academically and ethically sound. This prompted several of the journal’s editors to resign, angry that Frontiers had failed to defend academic freedom.”

She also added, “One group of deniers has already launched a new campaign to have another scientific paper co-authored by Lewandowsky retracted.”

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