Lindsay Abrams Makes **** Up

Journalism requires more than reading blogs and paraphrasing what other people have said. It requires investigation or at least critical anaylsis. Sadly, a lot of professional journalists don’t seem to realize that. Today I’m wondering if Lindsay Abrams, assistant editor of Salon does.

Abrams recently published a post at Salon discussing the latest news in the Stephan Lewandowsky affair. I am, of course, a critic of Stephan Lewandowsky. I say his work is worse than incompetent. I say his entire claim of having found evidence skeptics are conspiracy theorists rests upon an absurd abuse of statistics that shows he has no idea what he’s doing. I’ve even written about this in a simple way anyone can understand.

But I’m not going to worry about that right now. For the sake of today’s discussion, I’m going to assume Stephan Lewandowsky’s work is beyond reproach and everything he says is true. The reason is even if that were true, Lindsay Abram’s recent article is utterly incompetent. I say this because she got basic, indisputable facts wrong.

To begin, let’s start with an easy fact. Abrams’s third paragraph says:

Climate deniers were furious with Lewandowsky’s conclusions, and responded with — you guessed it — more conspiracy theories. Their reaction was enough that Lewandosky was able to compile their conspiracy theories about the conspiracy theory paper into a whole new paper exploring “the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science”– which, until Friday, could be found at the Frontiers of Psychology website.

However, a key reference of hers is a DeSmogBlog post. She links to it in her second paragraph and again in her last paragraph. It says:

This “Recursive Fury” research was submitted to the journal Frontiers in Psychology in early 2013 and was published online in March 18 of that year.

But after several complaints from climate sceptics the journal had removed the paper by the end of the month. The journal said at the time: “Given the nature of some of these complaints, Frontiers has provisionally removed the link to the article while these issues are investigated.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Abrams can justify claiming the paper “could be found at the Frontiers of Psychology website” as recently as this last week. Her source claims the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky was removed from the journal’s site in May 2013. She claims it could be found on their site on March, 2014.

The reality is the paper hasn’t been available via the Frontiers website for about nine months. In case there’s any doubt, on March 28, 2013, Retraction Watch ran a post about that paper being pulled down. Abrams has simply made her claim up, contradicting her own sources while doing so.

The second fact to examine is a bit less easy to examine. In Abrams’s second paragraph, she states:

The paper, led by professor Stephan Lewandowsky, the chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, was a follow-up to an earlier study published by the authors in the journal Psychological Science, which found that people who subscribe to conspiracy theories — who believe, for example, NASA faked the moon landing — are also more likely to be fearful of vaccines and GMO foods — and to be climate deniers.

The “earlier study” is the infamous paper by Stephan Lewandowsky titled,
NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax
. Despite what Abrams claims, that paper did not say anything about people’s views regarding “vaccines and GMO foods.”

Verifying this requires one look at that paper. It can be found here. Table 2 in it lists all the questions used by the authors. None mention vaccines or GMOs. Similarly, the paper doesn’t mention GMOs a single time, and its only mention of vaccines is this sentence:

First, the spread of conspiracy theories about the alleged risks from vaccinations has been linked to reduced vaccination rates with consequent adverse public-health impacts (Goertzel, 2010).

That is a reference to the findings of a different paper. It is not a finding of Lewandowsky’s paper. And it doesn’t discuss “GMO foods” at all.

This time, it’s easy to see why Abrams screwed up the way she did. The source she links to as a reference for claiming this paper found things regarding to “vaccines and GMO foods” does in fact discuss “vaccines and GMO foods.”

The problem is that source was written in October, 2013. That’s half a year after the paper Abrams’s article discusses was published. The reason is Lewandowsky published another paper after all the other ones Abrams referred to. It sought to examine views on “vaccines and GMO foods.” It did (claim to) do what Abrams said the other paper did.

Neither of these errors change the overall message of Lindsay Abrams’s article. However, they show Abrams is unaware of basic facts in the subject she’s writing about. They show she was so unaware of basic facts she didn’t even know what papers she was referring to, much less what the contents of those papers was. They also show she was so unaware of basic facts she contradicted her own source while making things up about basic, factual points.

That’s not journalism. It’s sloppily regurgitating things she read on some blogs. It’s no better than if she simply re-posted things she read in their entirety. In fact, it’s worse. At least if she only re-posted things she wouldn’t contradict her own sources.

There’s a lot more about her article that’s wrong, but I’m not going to get into it. Instead, I’d like to focus on something simpler: Why should anyone trust a “journalist” who does this? Also, will Abrams fix her mistakes? If not, what does that say about her “journalistic” standards?

I don’t know. Why I do know is if you want to pay someone to write articles which just paraphrase other people’s blog posts, I’m your man. I’m more than capable of doing “journalism” which is effectively indistinguishable from clicking the “Share” button on Facebook.



  1. Some interesting news. The article has been edited with this note attached:

    UPDATE 3/23/2014 4PM ET: This post has been revised to reflect the fact that the paper was first removed from the Frontiers of Psychology website last year, although it was formally retracted on March 21. Changes were also made to reflect that it was the PLoS ONE study, not the earlier study on which the retracted paper was based, that showed a relationship between conspiracy theorists, people who are more likely to be fearful of vaccines and GMO foods, and climate deniers.

    Naturally, it would be good to hear they acknowledged and corrected the errors. Unfortunately, the second sentence is misleading. As best I can tell, only two changes were made to that paragraph. The link to Lewandowsky’s later paper was removed, and the phrase “are also more likely to be fearful of vaccines and GMO foods” was removed. In other words, they didn’t make changes “to reflect” anything. They just removed all material related to the false claim. That makes it trouble for the correction to say “the PLoS ONE study” showed anything as the article doesn’t even mention or refer to the PLoS One study now. Nobody reading that article or correction could possibly know what the correction is talking about.

    I guess we should be happy they acknowledged the errors and attempted to fix them. It’s a step in the right direction.

  2. Okay, this comment is completely off topic…. But I just have to say, whenever I see Lindsay Abram’s picture, I immediately think (in no particular order), “Birkenstocks, patchouli, hairy armpits.” Yes, I know, that’s objectifying her, but with no discernible intellectual substance to her writing, what else is there to comment on?

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