Science ‘abused’ by Lewandowsky paper, says Frontiers

Higher ethical standards than UWA…

Higher ethical standards than UWA…

The journal Frontiers, which by now no doubt wishes it had never heard of Lewandowsky, attempts once again to set the record straight, but ends up stirring the pot even more:

For Frontiers, publishing the identities of human subjects without consent cannot be justified in a scientific paper. Some have argued that the subjects and their statements were in the public domain and hence it was acceptable to identify them in a scientific paper, but accepting this will set a dangerous precedent. With so much information of each of us in the public domain, think of a situation where scientists use, for example, machine learning to cluster your public statements and attribute to you personality characteristics, and then name you on the cluster and publish it as a scientific fact in a reputable journal. While the subjects and their statements were public, they did not give their consent to a public psychological diagnosis in a scientific study. Science cannot be abused to specifically label and point out individuals in the public domain.

Really? Perhaps someone should tell the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) at UWA, since, as Steve McIntyre has noted, the ‘application’ was nothing more than a casual email from Lewandowsky to Kate Kirk in the ethics office, which read:

Dear Kate:
this is just to inform you of the fact that I will be writing a follow-up paper to the one that just caused this enormous stir. This follow-up paper will analyze the response to my first paper in the blogosphere, by keeping track of events and conspiracy theories that were launched in response to the publication of my paper.
None of this follow-up research will involve experimentation, surveys, questionnaires, or a direct approach of participants of any sort. Instead, we will be analyzing “Google trends” and other indicators of content that are already in the public domain (e.g. blog posts, newspapers, comments on blogs, that type of thing).
In other words, this research will basically just summarize and provide a timeline of the public’s response.
It is my understanding that this type of work does not require ethics approval as there is no human participation as such—whatever people do and say, they do this in public anyhow, irrespective of whether we then summarize that activity. I would appreciate it if you could confirm this, or point out why this would not be the case.
Regards Steve

Translation: move along, nothing to see here. Note that Lewandowsky claims it was ‘his understanding’ that it didn’t require ethics approval, and the HREC were almost completely taken in by this sleight of hand, their only change being to regard the email as an ‘amendment’ to the earlier ‘moon landing’ approval. The HREC wrote back:

I confirm receipt of your correspondence requesting an amendment to the protocol for the above project.

Approval has been granted for the amendment as outlined in your correspondence and attachments (if any) subject to any conditions listed below.

Any conditions of ethics approval that have been imposed are listed hereunder:

1. Follow-up research – writing of Follow-up paper

If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact Kate Kirk on (08) [redacted]

Please ensure that you quote the file reference RA/4/1/4007 and the associated project title in all future correspondence.

Yours sincerely

Peter Johnstone

At no point did anyone within the UWA ethics department raise the concerns outlined by the editor of Frontiers, namely that one cannot provide a psychological diagnosis to identifiable individuals in a journal paper without consent, whether or not that is based on publicly available statements.

When will UWA stop pretending that these papers were subject to proper ethical review?

(h/t Bob K)

Email to UWA Ethics Department



I have written the following email to the Associate Director for Research Ethics at the University of Western Australia:

I refer to our previous correspondence on the issue of Stephan Lewandowsky.

You will no doubt be aware that the journal Frontiers has issued a statement regarding the retraction of the paper, which states (my emphasis):

As a result of its investigation, which was carried out in respect of academic, ethical and legal factors, Frontiers came to the conclusion that it could not continue to carry the paper, which does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics.

I suggest that this reveals a significant failing on the part of UWA to properly consider the human research ethical implications of Recursive Fury (and, by implication, the predecessor paper, NASA faked the moon landings), and as a result the paper(s) have breached the requirements of the National Health and Medical Research Council policies on human research.

Do you stand by your previous assertion that you believe the research carried out by Stephan Lewandowsky was fully in compliance with the relevant human research ethics policies of UWA and/or the NHMRC? I intend to publish your response on my blog, Australian Climate Madness.

Stay tuned!

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