The ‘Fine’ Paper That Had To Be Pulled

  • Date: 26/03/14
  • Michael Kile, Quadrant

The University of Western Australia’s Stephan Lewandowsky, scourge of climate sceptics, likened “deniers” to moon-landing conspiracy buffs. Now that his, er, research has been withdrawn, the catastropharian chorus reckons he’s the real victim.

Carmen Lawrence’s speech last Friday to University of Western Australia Convocation alumni in defence of the Academy was impressive – except for one word and a revealing sentence. Winthrop Professor Lawrence, director of the Centre for the Study of Social Change in UWA’s School of Psychology, spoke on “An avalanche of change: Will universities as we know them survive the onslaught?”

Universities, argued Lawrence, have developed a blind spot over the past three decades or so. By embracing managerialism and its tick-box performance reviews, the academy was becoming a soulless bureaucracy. It was churning out fewer graduates capable of asking the “big questions” — and too many anxious conformists.

“Universities should be crucial players in the issues of the day”, not merely “technical fixers”. The obsession with technology, speed and efficiency was eroding the university’s traditional roles: valuing knowledge for its own sake and providing civilising institutions that encouraged imagination, tolerance, self-governance, and so on. Broader scholarship was being undermined by a focus on specialist research, she continued,often sidelining teaching quality. There were some “very unfortunate practices in the new Church of Measurement” too. Lawrence was especially concerned about the mis-measurement of science, which was producing “serious distortions in research”.

Paradoxically, given the context, Carmen Lawrence then made an aside that probably puzzled many – and worried more than a few:

“Stephan Lewandowsky just emailed to advise he is [still] being pursued by climate deniers in an extravagant way.”

Unknown to her audience, on the day Lawrence presented at the UWA Club, a controversial paper by her colleague, Professor Lewandowsky, was retracted from the online journal Frontiers. Lewandowsky emailed, presumably, to discuss the latest development in this extraordinary saga.

Frontiers posted this statement at 10:35AMPDT on Friday, March 21:

Retraction of the Original Research Article: “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation” by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer and Michael Marriott Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00073

In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.

Perhaps one of the “legal factors” causing the alleged limitations on academic freedom was Stephen McIntyre’s letter of April 4, 2013, to Frontiers and UWA.

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