Lewandowsky: ethical considerations for "moon landing denier" paper

Ethical dilemma

UPDATE 2 [Tuesday 16 October]: Further research has unearthed the specific procedure for amending an ethics approval at UWA. It can be found here. It states, inter alia:

When would a new ethics application be required?

Should a request for an amendment propose a significant change to the procedures and ethical implications of a project, the applicant may be required to submit a new Human Research Ethics Application to the HREO.

In such cases, a new human research ethics project will be established with a new project reference number.

The amendments proposed in the email of 12 August 2010 would have constituted a “significant change to the procedures and ethical implications” especially given the approval had already been used for an earlier piece of research. The policy in force at the time of the amendment (see here) are less specific, and only require a request to be in writing, however, the old policy still anticipates that if significant changes are made to procedures and ethical implications:

“the amendments will be referred to the full Human Research Ethics Committee, which could request the resubmission of an application form.”

UPDATE [Monday 15 October]: The “first” paper – dealing with interpretation of graphical data – is in fact no longer “in press” but was published in the journal Psychological Science as far back in April of 2011. Abstract is here. The paper states that the survey was completed during February 2010, seven months prior to the request for the amendment. Note that in the email, he states: “I want to administer THE survey not in person but via the internet”. The truth is, however, THE survey had already been completed and the paper written.

The Freedom of Information documents received recently from the University of Western Australia (and discussed here) suggest that Prof Lewandowsky submitted a substantial amendment to an existing Ethics Committee (“EC”) approval, which had already been used for one study, in order to use it for the now infamous “moon landing denier” paper (see here).

The amendment was approved by an administrative officer in the EC in less than 24 hours, and I currently have an email in to the head of UWA’s Ethics Office with a number of questions regarding the conduct of the approval of the amendment. The text of the email is reproduced at the end of this post.

However, notwithstanding the above, I have spent a little time researching the Australian National Statement of Ethical Conduct in Human Research (which can be found here). The introduction provides some background to the Statement’s purpose:

The purpose of this National Statement is to promote ethically good human research. Fulfilment of this purpose requires that participants be accorded the respect and protection that is due to them. It also involves the fostering of research that is of benefit to the community.

The National Statement is therefore designed to clarify the responsibilities of:

  • institutions and researchers for the ethical design, conduct and dissemination of results of human research; and
  • review bodies in the ethical review of research.

The National Statement will help them to meet their responsibilities: to identify issues of ethics that arise in the design, review and conduct of human research, to deliberate about those ethical issues, and to justify decisions about them. 

In the introduction, the Statement discusses the basic principles which apply to ethical considerations in research involving humans:

[…] the values of respect, research merit and integrity, justice, and beneficence have become prominent in the ethics of human research in the past six decades, and they provide a substantial and flexible framework for principles to guide the design, review and conduct of such research.  

In section 1.1, Values and Principles of Ethical Conduct, we find the following with regard to “merit and integrity”:

Research that has merit is:

[…]

(d) designed to ensure that respect for the participants is not compromised by the aims of the research, by the way it is carried out, or by the results;

[…]

Section 1.6 deals with “beneficence”:

The likely benefit of the research must justify any risks of harm or discomfort to participants. The likely benefit may be to the participants, to the wider community, or to both. 

Section 2.1 deals in more detail with Risk and Benefit, and the following extract is from the section “Harm, discomfort and inconvenience”:

Research may lead to harms, discomforts and/or inconveniences for participants and/or others.

No list of harms can be exhaustive, but one helpful classification identifies the following kinds of potential harms in research:

  • […]
  • devaluation of personal worth: including being humiliated, manipulated or in other ways treated disrespectfully or unjustly;
  • […]

The next consideration is:

Do the benefits justify the risks?

Research is ethically acceptable only when its potential benefits justify any risks involved in the research.

Benefits of research may include, for example, gains in knowledge, insight and understanding, improved social welfare and individual wellbeing, and gains in skill or expertise for individual researchers, teams or institutions.

The UWA Ethics Office web site links the duties of researchers at UWA to the terms of the National Statement:

The ethical conduct of research involving humans is governed by a number of guidelines and by legislation. In particular, the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research embodies the key values, principles and guidelines for the design and conduct of human research.

The University, and its staff and student researchers, must comply with the principles and guidelines contained in the National Statement when designing and conducting human research.

Does the research raise questions regarding “respect”? Given Prof Lewandowsky is on the record, well prior to the research being carried out, that he was of the opinion that climate scepticism was linked to far-fetched conspiracy theory ideation (see here), it could be argued that there was a substantial risk of humiliation or disrespectful treatment of participants, given that it may be argued that the intention of the research was to make that link – which in itself is objectively demeaning (either to the participants or a subset of the “wider community”). Even if it did not reach the threshold for “harm” could be regarded at least as a “discomfort”.

The emails to “sceptical blogs” stated:

” … I am seeking your assistance with a web-based survey of attitudes towards climate science (and other sciences) and skepticism [sic]. The survey has been approved by the University’s ethics committee and carries no risks for participants.”

We will see what kind of approval the survey received in due course, no doubt.

What benefits did the research provide? Evidence that climate sceptics have a psychological inability to accept climate science, linked to an acceptance of wacky conspiracy theories? It would be easy to reach the conclusion that the purpose of the research was simply to confirm a belief already held and portray sceptics in a negative light, in order to make a political point.

This conclusion is lent weight by the close association between Prof Lewandowsky and the Skeptical Science web site, which is well known for ridiculing and demeaning anyone (including respected atmospheric and climatic scientists) who questions any part of the AGW consensus. Examples of the tone employed include sections entitled “Lindzen’s Illusions”, referring to MIT Professor Richard Lindzen, “Spencer Slip-Ups”, referring to Dr Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama, Huntsville to name but two.

As it turns out, there were only 10 responses out of over 1100 that either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the moon landings had been faked, and six of those also accepted the alarmist consensus on AGW. [In reality, of course, they were probably mostly fake response from "believers" wanting to assist with Lewandowsky's effort - seriously, who in their right mind honestly believes the moon landings were staged? - Ed]

I consider that the above does not represent an appropriate benefit from supposedly impartial academic research.

I therefore suggest that the nature of the study, as understood from the final paper itself, would raise sufficient concerns regarding the criteria set out in the National Statement to require considerable evidence to demonstrate that they were not, in fact, sufficiently serious to warrant the study not taking place. The EC may, of course, have imposed special conditions on the approval, had a full review process taken place.

I further suggest that such a study, being as it was of a substantially different nature to that originally proposed, would require a fresh application to the EC at UWA, giving full details of the survey and the methodology to be applied. The casual email amendment to an existing approval (which, it appears, had already been used for another, different, paper) would be likely to be regarded as an inappropriate manner in which to seek ethical approval.

The email sent to the Ethics Office is as follows, and the response received will hopefully illuminate some of the questions above. If a response is not forthcoming, a further FoI request will be submitted for documentary evidence to show the what review of the amendment took place.

I have recently been provided a copy of the above document and various related correspondence via a Freedom of Information request to UWA.
 
I have some follow-up questions, which I would be grateful if you would address:
 
1. The original proposal provided by Prof Lewandowsky to the Committee in December 2009 related to a project entitled “Understanding Statistical Trends”. The approval relating to that proposal was RA/4/1/4007. It appears that the paper, Popular consensus: Climate change set to continue, follows from the specific research authorised by that approval. Is that correct?
 
2. Ethics approval for the paper that was the subject of my FoI request, NASA faked the moon landing—therefore (climate) science is a hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science, was sought not by a fresh application, but by an amendment to the existing approval above. Please would you kindly explain why it was not necessary for Prof Lewandowsky to submit a fresh application to the Ethics Committee, given that the nature of the paper and the methodology to be employed was substantially different from the first?
 
3. Prof Lewandowsky submitted the request for an amendment to the approval by email to Kate Kirk on 12 August 2010, for which approval was granted by her by email the following day. What form did the ethics review of that amendment take?
 
4. The amendments proposed by Prof Lewandowsky altered the nature of the research to such an extent that even the Title and Aim of the research (as set out in the original approval) were rendered wholly inaccurate, since no amendment was proposed to those sections by Prof Lewandowsky in his email. Why was Prof Lewandowsky not required to make consequential amendments to the approval so that the approval was at least internally consistent and made some sense in the context of the new research to be carried out?
 
5. Is it considered normal practice at UWA to amend an ethics approval granted for one project in order to use it for a second, entirely different, project? If so, how is this abridged process carried out to ensure that ethical considerations are fully understood and examined prior to subsequent approval, especially where there are such wholesale changes to the original? If not, why was Prof Lewandowsky permitted to use this course of action in order to seek approval for the second paper without going through the full ethics procedure procedure?

Comments

  1. Good work for keeping the focus on this.

  2. The 10 responses out of 1145 supporting the theory that NASA faked the moon landings points to an ethical problem post study. Lewandowky’s hypothesis that skeptics had a conspiracist ideation was contradicted by the evidence. The same was true of the other non-climate conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky used high-level statistical tests to show the opposite of the descriptive statistics. The implication is that this will encourage the “motivated rejection of science” that was the subject of the paper. The reason is to be found in Lewandowsky’s own area of research. When people believe that their trust in science has been betrayed for valid reasons, it will take a long time to restore that trust.

  3. The National Health and Medical Research Council, under its National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research states, under its complaints handling guidelines, “All complaints should be handled promptly and sensitively.”

    Let’s see how ‘prompt’ and ‘sensitive’ are Professor Lewandowsky and the UWA!

  4. Drapetomania says:

    Nice work Simon.
    Seriously sad how low the bar is in our universities.
    Post modernism has seeped into everything..

  5. This is all well and good but even if all CAGW sceptics believed that the moon was made of cheese, that doesn’t make CAGW unquestionably true.

  6. Tenacious, mate, keep going hard as you can as Loo-And-Owe-Sky really is a ‘piece of work’.

  7. Thank you, Simon.

  8. Confusious says:

    Sad to see University of Western Australia being represented by such delusional individual. What an example of Academic Excellence (not)!

  9. Brilliant work as usual Simon. You’re like a cattle dog, always at the heals of the scammers.

  10. Jim Mitroy says:

    You should also check the section 1.6 on “consent” on the national Statement.

    Lewandowsy requested that his name be withheld when the survey
    was distributed. Withholding of the name certainly would have
    given information to some possible particpants to the survey of its purpose,
    which was effectively to characterize them as mentally unstable.

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