The Conversation Stands by Fabricated Story

Last week, I published a post discussing factual inaccuracies in a news article, written by Elaine McKewon, about events surrounding the retraction of Stephan Lewandowsky’s paper, Recursive Fury. Today, I’m disturbed to say The Conversation has insisted the piece is accurate.

Before discussing that, I want to take a moment to point out Social Science Space, which also ran the piece, took my complaint seriously and handled it promptly and fairly. That stands in constrast to The Conversation. I sent them basically the same e-mail you can see displayed in the link above, and I got a timely response from an Michael Hopkin:

Dear Brandon,

Thank you for your correspondence regarding Elaine McKewon’s article in The Conversation. I have raised your points with the author and we are looking into the issue.


A couple days later, when Frontiers posted a new statement about the retraction of Recursive Fury, I sent an e-mail to Hopkin alerting him. I didn’t get a response. After about four days without hearing anything, I e-mailed Hopkin to ask about the status of my complaint. Specifically, I asked:

Have you investigated the issues I raised? If so, what conclusions did you reach? If not, how long do you think it will take for you to do so?

Hopkin responded:

Dear Brandon,

Thank you for your correspondence in this matter. The article has been updated in light of the new statement issued by Frontiers.


This obviously doesn’t address anything I said in the e-mail he was responding to. Perturbed, I reiterated the central aspect of my complaint:

I’m afraid that does nothing to address the issues I raised in my initial communication. Primarily, the narrative Elaine McKewon creates in these paragraphs is highly misleading:

But in February 2013, the journal had no such protection, and the lawyer raised concerns about two sentences in the paper that had been the subject of threats of litigation. By the end of the 20-minute conference call, we had all agreed that, if the authors made minor modifications to these sentences, the content would remain intact and the paper could be re-published without fear of successful legal action.

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 paper did not remain in limbo as McKewon claims. The paper was reuploaded by the journal after the changes she refers to were made. An entirely different set of issues caused the paper to be taken down a second time. The second time the paper was taken down is when it was placed in limbo. McKewon apparently had no knowledge of or involvement with this decision.

McKewon has created a narrative in which two sentences which could be easily amended were the cause of the paper being placed in limbo. This narrative is entirely false. The two sentences she refers to had no bearing on the paper being placed in limbo for nearly a year. They had no bearing on the paper being retracted. As such, her narrative is false and her conclusions is deceptive:

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.

These are basic, factual matters, and with the links I provided, it would take no more than a few minutes to confirm my complaint. Given the ease of verifying what I’ve said, it appears you’ve done nothing to check the veracity of McKewon’s article.

Am I mistaken? If so, could you please confirm you stand by the accuracy of the article despite the complaint I initially filed?

Hopkin’s next response seemed to be his final word:

Dear Brandon,

I have indeed investigated your complaint fully, both with the author of the article and with senior editorial colleagues.

We are satisfied that the article does not misrepresent the paper’s findings or the timeline of events. We also posted a link to Professor Lewandowsky’s more detailed timeline, which is not at odds with our account.

As a result, The Conversation stands by the article. Thank you for your interest, and I trust that this now brings the matter to a close.


And he has thus far not responded to my attempt to get him to elucidate how The Conversation reached its conclusions. In our entire exchange, Hopkin did not list a single thing I got wrong. He did not point to any facts I misrepresented or failed to support, and he didn’t point to any logical lapses on my part. All he said is The Conversation talked to Elaine McKewon, and they decided I was wrong.

What do you do when a media organization adamantly insists fabricated claims are true? And what do you do when the Australian government helps fund that organization?



  1. Hi Brandon. It’s quite remarkable that a media organization can be so unreasonable. Perhaps the next step could be to bring the issue to the attention of a competing organization…use peer pressure to highlight the failings of The Conversation.


  2. bdaabat, to make things worse, this isn’t the first time I’ve complained to The Conversation about factual problems. This is the third article I’ve written to them about. I’ve had similar experiences each time.

    The idea of contacting a competing organization is one I hadn’t consider. I don’t know if competitors would care or not, but it’d be interesting to see what they’d have to say.

  3. Considering the Australian Government’s recent Budget, the winding back of the ABC’s role in Asian broadcasting, and reduced tertiary funding, perhaps now is time to ask why university-based, federally-subsidized The Conversation should not be deprived of some tax-payer funding. After all, in Australia we already have privately-funded Fairfax media who do an outstanding job extolling the CO2 lobby’s point-of-view.

  4. Oksanna Zoschenko, if The Conversation is anything like my country’s NPR, that will probably never happen. The NPR always insists it is independent despite being funded in part by the government, yet whenever anyone suggests its government funding be cut, it cries about how that funding is necessary. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around their logic, but it’s worked for decades.

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