Lewandowsky’s Peer Reviewer Makes Things Up

As most people reading this blog know, a paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Recursive Fury, was recently retracted. This is a big deal as scientific papers are rarely retracted, and merely being wrong doesn’t cause it to happen. One would instinctively assume that means there was something very problematic with the paper.

That’s not how people are portraying it. Quite a few people have spun this retraction of a paper criticizing skeptics as demonstrating skeptics are in the wrong. One of them is Elaine McKewon, one of the peer-reviewers for Recursive Fury. Unfortunately, does this by making things up.

McKewon recently published an article you can find here and here. The article contains numerous errors, to the point it grossly misrepresents Recursive Fury. This can be seen in its very first sentence:

In February 2013, the journal Frontiers in Psychology published a peer-reviewed paper which found that people who reject climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

Recursive Fury did nothing of the sort. It didn’t claim to examine relative amounts of conspiratorial ideation in any groups. It didn’t attempt to compare or quantify levels of such ideation. There is no way to read Recursive Fury as doing what Elaine McKewon claims it did. She has simply made this up.

What does it say when a peer-reviewer of a paper makes an obviously untrue claim about what the paper shows? I don’t know. What I do know is it should make everyone question McKewon’s judgment when she says:

Recursive Fury was theoretically strong, methodologically sound, and its analysis and conclusions – which re-examined and reaffirmed the link between conspiracist ideation and the rejection of science – were based on clear evidence.

But that’s not the only basic point McKewon got wrong. She also misrepresents an indisputable fact. Her portrayal of the events leading up to Recursive Fury being retracted is:

Shortly after publication, Frontiers received complaints from climate deniers who claimed they had been libelled in the paper and threatened to sue the journal unless the paper was retracted.

After taking the paper down from its website, Frontiers began its investigation and arranged a conference call so that the journal’s manager, legal counsel, editors and reviewers could discuss how to proceed.

Before the call ended, three academics, including me, argued that scientific journals must not be held to ransom every time someone threatens litigation. In response to our concerns, we were assured by the journal’s representatives that the legal matter would be considered settled once the two sentences had been amended as agreed.

Yet the paper remained in limbo while the journal’s investigation into the academic and ethical aspects of the study dragged on for more than a year.

The important part is where McKewon says “the paper remained in limbo.” Her portrayal holds “the paper remained in limbo” because of threats of legal action regarding two sentences which could be amended to address the complaints. That is a figment of her imagination. Here is what Brian Little, editor for the journal says happened:

The article was removed on February 6th because of a complaint about a factual error. We did due diligence, contacted the authors, had it corrected and it was put up again.

Notice the last part. Little clearly states the paper was put back online after it was amended. McKewon’s portrayal pretends this never happened. This means she can only claim “the paper remained in limbo” because of those supposed “threats of legal action” by ignoring the fact those complaints had actually been resolved.

To see what actually happened, we can simply ask the journal itself. It explains:

I think there’s a misunderstanding: the manuscript was accepted for publication by Frontiers on Feb 2, and the provisional (i.e. non proof-read) PDF was made available immediately, as we do in most cases. Because there was subsequently identified a need for authors, reviewers, editor and associates to review and Chief editors to agree on the modification of one specific line in the text, the provisional PDF was hidden on Feb 6 while this modification was agreed. The paper was then published in the agreed form on March 18, and as you know was subsequently unlinked while we deal with all the complaints and allegations.

In other words, the paper was first taken offline to address the complaints McKewon refers to. Once they were addressed, it was reposted. It was then taken offline a second time in response to other complaints. Those later complaints are what led to the paper remaining in limbo for nearly a year.

Given that, when McKewon asks:

Just how clear would the legal context need to be for Frontiers to stand up to intimidation and defend academic freedom? First, the two sentences discussed in the conference call had been amended as agreed, which satisfied the journal’s lawyer even under the former libel laws.

She shows she has no idea what she’s talking about. She’s created a story which ignores basic facts nobody disputes, facts which even the simplest of research would have uncovered. All she had to do was look at the Retraction Watch article about the paper’s retraction and follow the first link it offers for background. Or she could have asked the journal.

Only, if she had done that, she’d have found the journal says her entire argument is bogus. She claims the paper was retracted because “the journal’s management and editors were clearly intimidated by climate deniers who threatened to sue.” The journal disagrees. It says:

Our decision on the retraction of this article was taken on the basis of a number of factors. This decision had nothing to do with caving in to pressure and was driven by our own analysis of various factors and advice received.

The journal directly contradicts Elain McKewon’s argument. Had she questioned the journal for her story, she’d have known that. Had she investigated or researched the story, she’d have known the paper wasn’t placed in limbo because of the complaints she referred to. And had she reread Recursive Fury, she’d have known it did not find “people who reject climate science are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.”

But she apparently didn’t do any of that. Even though she describes herself as a “journalism PhD candidate,” she didn’t do any of the basic journalism that goes into doing a story.

And she is one of the people who approved Stephan Lewandowsky’s work for publication.

Go figure?

4/2/2014 Edit: I’m happy to say Social Science Space, one of the two organizations I linked to in this post, addressed a complaint I sent them promptly and fairly. They’ve updated their piece to now include the e-mail I wrote to them about Elaine McKewon’s piece. I think that’s the ideal way to handle factual inaccuracies. It lets people see the original mistakes and see the correct information. Feel free to take a look.



  1. I took that from her Twitter account description. Here’s a description of her from one of the sites her article was published on:

    Elaine McKewon is a third-year journalism PhD student at the University of Technology, Sydney examining coverage of climate science in Australian newspapers during 1996-2010. The primary aim of her study is to explain how the scientific consensus on climate change was reconstructed as a ‘scientific debate’ in the Australian news media.

    I’m assuming that’s up to date as she only has one article on the site. If so, that’d mean she was a second year PhD student in journalism at the time she reviewed the paper. I’m not sure how to feel about that.

  2. Here’s a page which lists Elaine McKewon’s published papers. There are five (and one book). I’m not an academic so I don’t know what to make of that, but it seems like a weak resume for a peer reviewer.

  3. From uts.academia.edu/ElaineMcKewon:
    “Elaine McKewon is a third-year journalism PhD student at the University of Technology, Sydney examining coverage of climate science in Australian newspapers during 1996-2010. The primary aim of her study is to explain how the scientific consensus on climate change was reconstructed as a ‘scientific debate’ in the Australian news media.”

    According to the same source, one of her interests is agnotology.

    From Widipedia: “Agnotology (formerly agnatology) is the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.”

    The subjects listed that she has written on (see http://uts.academia.edu/ElaineMcKewon) span … well, not so much “span” as “appear to be limited to” prostitution in Australia and climate change.

    Does this go some distance toward answering Lucia’s exclamation/question?

  4. It’s worth pointing out this got reposted over at WUWT. I imagine the discussion there will be more active.

    Speaking of which, I feel like someone is trying to steal my credit. I don’t mind WUWT getting all the hits, but that Brandon Schollenberger guy keeps plagiarizing my stuff!

  5. In The Conversation – Elaine quotes this academic (Sarah Green, Michigan Tech ) under the retraction notice.

    “I am dumbfounded to see a scientific paper retracted by the editor because of threat of libel. The fundamental job description of a science editor should include the defense of academic freedom. I certainly expect my newspapers to defend freedom of the press; do scientific publications now hold themselves to lower standards?” – Sarah Green, Michigan Tech

    This is of course the same Sarah Green, who is a regular author and contributor at Skeptical Science….
    The retracted paper being written by regular contributors and authors (and the founder of ) Skeptical Science….
    One of the key criticism being the LOG12 survey not being held at Skeptical Science and Cook/Lewandowsky lying about it..

    Sarah (which includes a link to her publication record at Michigan Tech)

    The Conversation really is appalling, I have had dozens of civil comments removed, on a number of articles.

    Do you think there is any way for someone to get a response into the Conversation?

  6. When Recursive Fury was published last March – Elaine was cheerleading on twitter..

    Instead of ‘pal review’ – ‘groupthink’ review?

    Recursive fury: facts, misrepresentations & conspiracist ideation in response to conspiracist ideation study http://t.co/7IfRflTFEs #climate
    10:10 PM Mar 26th from Tweet Button

    Unlocking the conspiracy mindset of #climate change deniers http://t.co/bjr0WAGgHK #antiscience
    1:49 AM Feb 22nd from Tweet Button

    Secret funding from conservative billionaires helped build vast network of #climate denial thinktanks http://t.co/da6Y0BPH #antiscience

  7. That’s how I found you…

    and on a lighter subject, I believe that in Elaine’s case, I believe PHD is the acronym for “piled higher and deeper”

  8. David Jay, thanks for not pointing out how badly I misspelled vice versa. I don’t know how that happened. Anyway, the key to remember is Brandon Schollenberger is the pretty one, and Brandon Shollenberger is the smart one. That’s why Schollenberger gets all the publicity.

    As for Elaine McKewon’s attempt at earning a PhD, I feel bad for saying this, but I hope she doesn’t earn it. The things she writes are terrible. Here’s a quote from one of her papers:

    Firstly, how is reality represented in the text? The fantasy themes dramatise the IPA’s interpretation of reality, in which communism and the Judeo-Christian tradition have been replaced in the West with the irrational, quasi-religious environmental movement that advances a leftist political agenda of government intervention.

    Communism, seriously? Since when do “deniers” wish for the good old days when the West was communistic?

  9. Barry Woods:

    Secret funding from conservative billionaires helped build vast network of #climate denial think tanks

    LOL. She’s a conspiracy nut in addition to everything else!

  10. Barry,

    Watch out—if you keep discovering how the apologists for Lew’s shoddy work have links back to SkS, they’ll accuse you of being an incest theorist.


    I once pointed a believer to his own ravings about “secret networks” but, surprise surprise, he wouldn’t admit such rants made him a conspiracist. “They’re not really secret, because we know they exist—so not a conspiracy,” was his escape route.

  11. By the way, now that conspiracist ideation is a sign of psychopathology, does anyone know how the 9/11 attacks *were* pulled off? Because I’m having trouble believing 19 unrelated terrorists spontaneously chose to protest US policy/existence *on the same day.* That kind of coincidence hasn’t occurred since the day 10 or 20 guys who’d never met decided independently that they’d like to stab Julius Caesar in front of Pompey’s statue.

  12. Hello Brandon. I discovered you via Martin Lack’s ‘Lack of a brain’ website. Have been enjoying your scrap with him over there. But, it’s only a matter of time before he censors you altogether – as he does with anyone who persists in disagreeing with him – including me.

    He’s a kind of fascinating enigma. He can appear a mild and nice kind of guy on the face of it (which is what he would like people to think), but in frustration at his own inability for rational argument, is driven to visciousness. He so completely lacks understanding of the AGW debate, that his final defence is always: ‘you must be a conspiracy theorist!’.

    I even made the effort to buy and read his book ‘The Denial of Science’. My genuine intention was to find something rational. But my comment on Amazon shows my failure to do so. (Headed ‘The Accidental Satirist, under name Richard Parker).


    I’ll be checking our your site form now on.

  13. You’re right about him censoring me oakwood. He’s now said he’s going to start editing my comments. I don’t expect anything I write to go through now save to allow him material to mock me with. I have to say, he’s a remarkable person. I see few people who are so open about their close-mindedness. A person who openly states you must be a conspiracy theorist in order to doubt global warming could kill off 50% of species on Earth is a rare breed indeed. That’s a good thing too. He kind of scares me.

    The book you mention seems interesting too. I’m morbidly curious about what it says now. I’ll definitely read it if I get a chance to pick it up for free (the library system for my area is great). I don’t know if I’ll buy a copy though. The idea of giving him money, even indirectly, doesn’t sit well with me.

    By the way, I don’t normally worry about typos, but the one in your last sentence makes me laugh. I think I’d rather you check out my posts than my form.

  14. I don’t think you’ll find his book in a library. I doubt he’s sold any more than about 10 copies. Just checked his latest repsonse to you (plus censorhips). Just so funny. He so zealously kills off any debate that he’s left with less than a handful of loyal regulars. And he aspires to change the world! He’s just started a PhD project, but I doubt he will ever get it unless he truly upgrades his scientific and debating skills. Even the most sympathetic academics to his views would find his approach hard to stomach.

  15. Since he asked me a direct question, I’ve answered it to the best of my ability. I think my answer is quite reasonable, and I think it shows his portrayal of people who disagree with him is wrong. I’m curious if he’ll let it stand.

    By the way, some reading this may know what we’re talking about. Here’s a link to the topic I’ve been commenting on:


  16. I don’t know the lackwit in question but if you’ll permit me to broadcast an aspersion, I find that what believalists hate the most is reasonable, conciliatory and open-minded rhetoric on our part.

    At Deltoid, a polemical marathon I once competed in raged on for three days with minimal censorship, but I finally said something that got me incarcerated like Zod, Ursula etc. in my own naughty thread. You know what it was?

    I said, “I may have been too harsh on Naomi Oreskes—your explanation of her apparent error actually makes good sense.”

    Bam. Crossed the line.

  17. I don’t know about the example you describe, but you’re right about what they hate. It’s not just them though. People on all sides do it. The reason is it’s easier to disagree with someone if you feel they’re unreasonable. That’s why you see so much demonization. The idea is if your opponents are horrible people, you must be right.

    I’ve had numerous experiences which show the same pattern, but my favorites are with Andy Skuce (of Skeptical Science) and Anders. Back when I pointed out Skeptical Science was repeatedly using a fabricated quote, Skuce told me I shouldn’t call someone a “filthy liar” (as I said about John Cook) if I want people to listen to me. However, he ignored the fact that post was one in a series of posts which had been ignored. In other words, he conveniently ignored everything until he found “harsh” language to criticize.

    In Anders’s case, when he posted here, I told him a couple times he was violating my comments policy. He eventually said I could delete his comments if they bothered me. I said no, that I’d leave them there for people to see be able to judge him for themselves. He claimed that proved I wasn’t interesting in legitimate discussions but was only trying to score points. The screwed up part is the phrasing I used was almost identical to phrasing he has used in a similar situation. That means when he did it, it was perfectly natural. When I did it, it was horrible.

    Ultimately, all this is is close-mindedness. It’s people not wanting to believe other viewpoints could have validity to them.

  18. “Ultimately, all this is is close-mindedness. It’s people not wanting to believe other viewpoints could have validity to them.”

    For sure.

    I think it’s also a kind of sunk-cost fallacy. It takes energy to believe in certain viewpoints (while others are perfectly effortless—like atheism, CAGW skepticism, etc.). Having invested so much will-to-believe, the last thing they’d want to do is admit that a reasonable person could have come to the opposite conclusion.

    By contrast, I love solving the puzzle of how it is that people come to the bizarre conclusions they come to, and I consider it a form of cheating if I have to assume such people are stupid or ill-willed to begin with. That’s the lazy way out. You can explain any belief—and no beliefs—by assuming there’s something wrong with people, mentally speaking.

    I think it should be obvious to all of “us” by now that intelligent, honest, and even well-informed people are perfectly capable of reaching the wrong conclusion on the CAGW question. This may be surprising at first glance, but empirically hard to deny empirically. I knew it was so as soon as I knew Christopher Hitchens was a believer. And it doesn’t particularly trouble, confuse or surprise me (though it did at first).

    Hitchens didn’t know how science works. He didn’t even know that he didn’t know how it works. Very few people do. And that got me thinking about how the whole debate, from 1988 onwards, might have looked to me if I weren’t lucky enough to have been taught how science works. This simple, if time-consuming, exercise made me appreciate how plausible the whole story must appear to people lacking a few key bits of knowledge.

    On the other hand, I’ve yet to meet a believer who can tell me why I’m not a believer. All attempts I’ve ever heard fall rapidly into a heap because they resort to positing some political and/or psychopathological glitch in my cognition.

  19. Brad Keyes, one thing I’ve always found amusing is I have no position on global warming. I don’t really care about the issue. I only started paying attention to it because I stumbled across the hockey stick debate (before Climate Audit even existed), and I found it mind-boggling scientists would behave the way I was seeing. I was in high school at the time, and even then I could tell science was being horribly abused. I couldn’t believe the hockey stick had been promoted like it was when it was such obvious dreck.

    That’s why I discuss global warming issues. As my tagline indicates, I’m interested in the insanity of this world. The global warming debate demonstrates it on a regular basis. That’s all I really care about.

    On another note, Grist republished Elaine McKewon’s piece. I’ve contacted them with the same concerns as the rest. It’ll be interesting to see what, if any, response I get.

  20. Grist being the source for my blog’s title (“what we need is a sort of Climate Nuremberg”), I wouldn’t hold out too much hope that they care about future defendants’ “concerns.”

    I’m absolutely with you on global warming agnosticism. I find AGW itself scientifically unobjectionable, nay plausible. (Not so CAGW, for a number of scientific reasons.) But I wouldn’t be bothered in the slightest if it turned out to be 0%, or even 200%, as real as I thought. Of all the sciences we could have had an intellectual civil war about, climate science has surely got to be the least interesting one ever thunk up.

    It’s not about the climate for me. It’s about the abuse of science.

    And they haven’t just abused science: they’ve defamed it in the most insulting way possible, by reducing it to a pre-scientific, Medieval system of social proof and argument from authority. I wouldn’t blame any child in 2014 for deciding against a career in science given the stupided-down caricature of science that’s now on offer. For every would-have-been Einstein or Curie who’s repelled by what he or she has been taught to think of as “science,” may the climate dysangelists burn in hell.

    No, forgive that rhetorical excess.

    May they die in Science Jail and go straight to Science Hell, wherein may they be locked in the honeymoon suite that has only one item of furniture: Michael Mann.

  21. I didn’t notice this surreal sequence of words from McKewon:

    Recursive Fury was theoretically strong, methodologically sound, and its analysis and conclusions…

    Methodologically sound? Okaaaay. Because journalism students are such conoisseuses of the scientific freaking method.

    Some of her apologists are so scientifically illiterate, they actually cite her previous writings about climate denial as if they made her more suitable as a reviewer.

    Apparently, to these people, zero methodological competence + prior strong opinions on the topic = the perfect preparation for reviewing a scientific (well, psychological at any rate) article.

    (My empathy with climate believalists has its limits.)

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