The worst paper ever published has competition. I was going to mock this, but it has all rather slipped beyond the Plains of Derision and sunk in a parallel universe. Researcher Jose Duarte is flummoxed, he simply can’t explain why a paper so weak was written, but moreso why it was ever published, and why everyone associated with it is not running for cover. It’s not so much about the predictable flaws, biased questions, and mindless results, it’s now about why UWA, The Uni of Bristol, PLOS, and the Royal Society are willing to wear any of the reputational damage that goes with it.
Lewandowsky, Gignac and Oberauer put out a paper in 2013 which was used to generate headlines like “Climate sceptics more likely to be conspiracy theorists”. The data sample is not large, but despite that, it includes the potential Neanderthal, as well as a precocious five year old and some underage teenagers too. The error was reported on Lewandowsky’s blog over a year ago by Brandon Shollenberger, then again by Jose Duarte in August 2014. Nothing has been corrected. The ages are not just typos, they were used in the calculations, correlations and conclusions. The median age was 43 but the mean age was a flaming neon 76. One wildly old person in the data skewed the correlation for age with nearly everything:
That one data point – the paleo-participant – is almost single-handedly responsible for knocking out all the correlations between age and so many other variables. If you just remove the paleo-participant, leaving the minors in the data, age lights up as a correlate across the board. Further removing the kids will strengthen the correlations.
Duarte remarks he would not sleep if he knew his work had a problem as major as this:
I don’t understand how anyone could let a paper just sit there if they know the data is bad and specific claims in the paper are false. No credible social psychologist would simply do nothing upon discovering that there were minors in their data, or a five-digit age. I’d be running to my computer to confirm any report that claims I’d made in a peer-reviewed journal article rested on bad data, fake participants, etc. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I knew I had something like that out there, and would have to retract the paper or submit a corrected version. You can’t just leave it there, knowing that it’s false.
In any case, something is very wrong here. The authors should explain how the 32,757-year-old got into their data. They should explain how minors got into their data. They should explain why they did nothing for more than a year. This is a very simple dataset – it’s a simple spreadsheet with 42 columns, about as simple as it gets in social science. It shouldn’t have taken more than a few days to sort it out and run a correction, retraction, or whatever action the circumstances dictated. These eight purported participants allowed them to claim that age wasn’t a factor. It allowed them to focus on the glitzy political stuff, allowed them to focus on finding something negative to pin on conservatives.
They don’t tell you until late in the paper that conservatism is negatively correlated with belief in conspiracies – the exact opposite of what they claimed in the earlier scam paper that APS helped promote. Also note that we already know from much higher quality research that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in the moon hoax, though it’s a small minority in both cases (7% vs. 4%), and that Democrats endorse every version of the JFK conspiracy at higher rates. I think some journals might be unaware that the pattern of these conspiracy beliefs across the left-right divide is already well-documented by researchers who have much higher methodological standards – professional pollsters at Gallup, Pew, et al. We don’t need junky data from politically-biased academics when we already have high-quality data from professionals.
Duarte describes how unusual this kind of simple mistake is. The software used to run the survey specifically asks researchers to set age boundaries and it automatically checks to make sure respondents fit within the accepted range.
What’s also exceptional is that Lewandowsky, Gignac and Oberauer managed to delete and filter out more than a quarter of their participants, yet somehow left in the person born in 30,000 BC. They ruled out one in four responses yet allowed minors to be included, which they don’t have ethical approval for, and given the political conclusions, don’t have a scientific reason to include either.
Duarte wonders where the accountability is:
Which brings us back to the previous paper. APS extended that scam in their magazine, fabricating completely new and false claims that were not made in the paper at all, such as that free market endorsement was positively correlated with belief in an MLK assassination conspiracy and the moon-landing hoax. Neither of these claims is true. The data showed the exact opposite for the MLK item (which we already knew from real and longstanding research) – free market endorsement predicted rejection of that conspiracy, r = -.144, p < .001. And there was no correlation at all between free market views and belief in the moon-landing hoax, r = .029, p = .332. APS just made it up… They smeared millions of people, a wide swath of the public, attaching completely false and damaging beliefs to them.
They’ve so far refused to run a correction. It’s unconscionable and inexplicable. The Dallas Morning News has much higher standards of integrity and truthfulness than the Association for Psychological Science. I don’t understand how this is possible. This whole situation is an ethical and scientific collapse.
He fears for his profession, and is writing a longer article for a magazine to discuss the corruption in science and the roles that organizations like APS, IOP, and AAAS play:
This situation is beyond embarrassing at this point. If anything were to keep me from running the magazine piece, it’s that it’s so embarrassing, as a member of the field, to report that this junk can actually be published in peer-reviewed journals, that no one looks at the data, and that a left-wing political agenda will carry you a long way and insulate you from normal standards of scientific conduct and method. This reality is not what I expected to find when I chose to become a social scientist. I’m still struggling to frame it.
What does “science” mean anymore and who is responsible for keeping the standards? Normally the host institution investigates allegations of scientific misconduct:
… the system appears to be broken. Lewandowsky has not been credibly investigated by the University of Western Australia. They’ve even refused data requests because they deemed the requester overly critical of Lewandowsky. That’s stunning – I’ve never heard of a university denying a data request by referring to the views of the requester. UWA seems to have exited the scientific community. Science can’t function if data isn’t shared, if universities actively block attempts to uncover fraud or falsity in their researchers’ work.
To this day Lewandowsky refuses to release his data for the junk moon hoax study. That’s completely unacceptable, and there is no excuse for Psychological Science and APS to retain that paper as though it has some sort of epistemic standing – we already know that it’s false, and the authors won’t release the data, or even the national origin, age, or gender of the participants.
Jose Duarte is a PhD candidate in psychology, who writes an excellent blog unpacking the weaker links in his chosen field. It’s really worth reading the whole gobsmacking description, and all the comments too, which are especially well informed.
Gullible media science writers who take mistakes and magnify them
- Guardian Environment Title: “Climate sceptics more likely to be conspiracy theorists and free market advocates, study claims”
- NeuroLogica Blog Title: “Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking”
- Popular Science Title: “Surprise! Conspiracy Theorists Are More Likely To Disavow Vaccines, Climate Science And GM Foods”
- Scientific American Blogs Title: “Motivated reasoning: Fuel for controversies, conspiracy theories and science denialism alike”
- The Burrill Report Title: “Princess Di, Faked Moon Landings, and the Denial of Science -”
- The Conversation Title: “Right, left, wrong: people reject science because …”
- Times Live Title: “Conspiracy theorists, conservatives more likely to reject science”
- Vaccine Nation Title: “Belief in a range of conspiracy theories predicts vaccine denial”
Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Oberauer (2013) “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science”, PLOS ONE. e75637. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075637 (Full paper)
Editor: Tom Denson, The University of New South Wales, Australia
Funding: This project was supported by funds from the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia under the auspices of the Adjunct Professor scheme.
For more on the unending saga of junk-psychology:
- Do we hate our participants Lewandowsky?
- Lewandowsky hopes we meant “Conspiracy” but we mean “Incompetence”
- 10 conspiracy theorists makes a moon landing paper for Stephan Lewandowsky (Part II) PLUS all 40 questions
- Lewandowsky, Cook claim 78,000 skeptics could see conspiracy survey at Cooks site where there is no link
- Three Frontiers editors resign in protest over Lewandowsky’s Recursive Fury retraction
- Are ARC grants for science or a form of government advertising disguised as research?
- Lewandowsky – Shows “skeptics” are nutters by asking alarmists to fill out survey
- $1.7m of taxpayer funds to Lewandowsky et al to denigrate people who disagree