This is my favorite new bizarro science scandal on the internet

Illustration for article titled This is my favorite new bizarro science scandal on the internet

Last year, a psychology researcher named Stephan Lewandowsky published an article based on an internet survey of climate change deniers. In it, he argued that his evidence strongly suggested that people who don't believe in climate change also believe NASA faked the Moon landing, and that the US government created AIDS. Yeah. So that made people a little mad on the internet. But wait — it gets better. Because then he published a psychological study of the people who criticized his first psychological study.


So OK, Lewandowsky has already called a bunch of conservative bloggers paranoid conspiracy nutjobs in his first paper, which was published in Psychological Science. Though admittedly he used slightly less incendiary academic language to say so. And these bloggers respond by saying that actually the paper is based on fake evidence — that basically a bunch of lefty warmists took the survey, pretended to be climate change deniers, and checked all the "I'm crazy" boxes. So then in the new paper, Lewandowsky writes about what he calls "recursive fury" of these climate change deniers inventing conspiracy theories to account for the fact that he calls them conspiracy theorists.

This is even better than the Alan Sokal hoax of the 1990s, or the Hakin9 scandal of the 2010s!

But then, a few days after the second paper was posted, the scientific journal where it appeared took it down, mostly in response to criticisms about factual errors from the bloggers named in the paper. Which — say what you like about climate change deniers, but they certainly didn't sign up for a psychological study, nor did they sign up to be doxed by some academic in Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences.

One commenter on Retraction Watch, Toby White, summed up the problems with this second paper very succinctly:

First, the senior author has an extraordinary conflict of interest. The behavior under study is precisely public criticism of the author’s professional competence. Psychology in particular has a deep concern with the distortions caused by even relatively trivial conflicts of interest.

Second, it is probably safe to assume that Prof. Lewandowsky did not write his Psych. Sci. paper simply to create the experimental conditions for the Frontiers paper. Still, negative reactions to the Psych. Sci. paper were entirely predictable. This was not a “natural” event. On the contrary, the experimental set-up (the contents and release of the then-unpublished Psych. Sci. paper) was completely under the author’s control. Thus Prof. Lewandowsky created, controlled, conducted, analyzed, and published a psychological experiment without any disclosures to, or consent from, the subjects.

Third, regardless of whether consent was required for the experiment, the authors published individually identifiable information about, and analysis of, the mental health and cognitive status of their subjects. This is not simply bloggish, lay opinion. This is, mind you, published as objectively determined, scientifically verified, analysis by professional psychologists for publication in a professional journal — concerning named individuals who were not willing subjects and did not consent to participation in a study, or to the release of personal mental status information.

Is this the first case of an academic trolling and doxing conservative bloggers in a scientific journal? I think it just might be. At last, my theory that 4Chan is actually run by academics has been validated.

Read more about this fascinating scandal over at Retraction Watch.

Illustration by Sashkin via Shutterstock



Anekanta - spoon denier

Well... whether or not the methodology of the studies was sound (or at least he first one), the ethics of them were not, which discredits his work. Any good psychologist should realize that when you're doing such politically charged work, that you have to dot every i and cross every t, or your work will be torn to shreds in the court of public opinion (and sometimes being meticulous still isn't enough).

And having said that, his conclusions seem (intuitively) accurate, and I'd like to see some more objective and carefully designed research that demonstrates whether or not this is so. Are conservatives really more prone to paranoia than liberals?