The “Ethics Application” for Lewandowsky’s Fury

In today’s post, I will discuss the ethics application and approval process for Fury.

According to Fury, on August 28, 2012, Michael Marriott (of Watching the Deniers) and John Cook (of SKS) began a program of monitoring and “real time” categorization of “conspiracist ideation” within blog articles and comments. The monitoring program continued until October 18, 2012.

The program was carried out under UWA ethics approval RA/4/1/4007 “Understanding Statistical Trends”, an approval originally issued for a protocol for questioning pedestrians on their understanding of statistical trends. In August 2010, Lewandowsky had applied for an amendment under which he almost completely changed the scope of the project, which now consisted of an online questionnaire on conspiracy theory, attitudes towards free markets etc. Attached to the amendment application were the new protocols. Lewandowsky advised the ethics officer that he wanted to obtain responses from skeptic blogs, but the survey was actually distributed through stridently anti-skeptic blogs. In the course of this amendment, Lewandowsky applied for permission to deceive bloggers about his association with the survey. As a result, survey invitations to skeptic blogs were distributed by a Charles Hanich without mentioning the names of Lewandowsky or any of the actual coauthors.

Lewandowsky’s follow-up article (“Fury”) once again completely changed the nature and scope of the research. Instead of administering an online questionnaire, Fury purported to carry out textual analysis of online blog articles and blog comments for conspiracy theory. And whereas the existing approval presumed anonymization, Fury purported to identify “psychopathological characteristics” (in the later words of the journal) in named individuals (Lewandowsky’s critics). In order to do so, Lewandowsky and coauthors culled and trimmed quotations from blog threads during the period. These trimmed quotations were then grouped into synthesized “conspiracy theories”, though the use of the term “conspiracy theory” in Fury became very elastic, no longer limited to untrue fantasies involving governments and major institutions but morphed to include even the most minor methodological criticism, even if the criticism was valid.

In the predecessor questionnaires, Lewandowsky had provided the ethics committee with questionnaires (“scales”) that had been, at least to some extent, previously used in the literature. However, in Fury, Lewandowsky introduced his own novel scale for attributing conspiracist ideation to blog comments: while some of the criteria were drawn from prior literature, their use as criteria was novel.

One of the major themes of Fury arose from Lewandowsky’s earlier concealment from skeptic blogs of his association with the survey. Although Australian human research policy required Lewandowsky to unwind the earlier deception, he did not do so. Thus when bloggers searched their 2010 emails for an invitation from “Lewandowsky”, their searches came up empty, leading to considerable puzzlement among the skeptic blogs as to who Lewandowsky had contacted. Rather than simply clearing up the problem by notifying the bloggers in question of his connection with the Hanich email, Lewandowsky sought to embarrass the bloggers as much as he could, privately relishing the prospect of bloggers having “egg on their face”.

In addition, rather than passively observing blog reaction, Lewandowsky busily intervened with his own blog articles, in which he disparaged and taunted individuals that would be later telediagnosed (including and, in particular, me). Between September 3 and September 11, Lewandowsky published multiple blog posts at the UWA blog Shaping Tomorrow’s World (here, here, here, here, here) and desmog here, as well as posts by coauthor Marriott here. I had not initially covered Lewandowsky at Climate Audit and did not do so until after I had been personally named or identified in multiple Lewandowsky’s blog posts.

This quick synopsis barely touches the backstory.

Research psychologists are obligated to comply with the human research ethics policies of their universities, which, in Lewandowsky’s case, required him to comply with both University policies and the Australian National Statement. Policies within the latter document categorically prohibit identifiability of subjects of psychological research. In the aftermath of the rejection of Fury, Lewandowsky has chafed at the journal taking this policy seriously, but the policy is very clear and Lewandowsky’s dispute is necessarily with the policy and not the journal’s enforcement of the policy.

In addition, the National Statement regulates deception and active concealment in psychological research. It is permitted in some limited circumstances provided that approval has been obtained from an Ethics Committee (and not merely an ethics officer) and provided that measures are prescribed for unwinding the deception subsequent to the protocol. The Statement also contains extensive language enjoining the importance of respect for the subjects of the study.

Both the Statement and policies of the University emphasize that protocols cannot begin until ethical approval is obtained, observing that starting without such approval may be misconduct.

The Application and Approval

Given the many large ethical issues raised by the Fury project, one would expect that Lewandowsky’s application for the Fury research would have been meticulous and its consideration by the University Ethics Committee a model of due diligence. I will outline the sequence of documents and leave readers to judge for themselves (also see Shub Niggurath’s summary from late last year here.)

On September 11, nearly two weeks after the program had begun and following no fewer than five blog posts at Shaping Tomorrow’s World, Lewandowsky made his first contact to Kate Kirk, Secretary of the Ethics Committee. Instead of completing a new ethics application form, Lewandowsky merely notifyied Kirk that he planned to write a follow-up paper that will “basically just summarize and provide a timeline of the public’s response”, making no mention of his ongoing engagement with bloggers, his intent to revisit their reaction to his earlier deception or his plans to telediagnose psychopathological disorders among named opponents:

ethics application 1
ethics application 2

Three days later (Sept 14, 2012), Kirk responded to Lewandowsky, informing him that his request to proceed without ethics approval was not accepted, but that she would treat his letter as an amendment application under the existing protocol (RA/4/1/4007).

ethics application 3

University policies for amending ethics approvals require the submission of an Amendment Application Form. This form contains salient questions that would have required Lewandowsky to be somewhat more forthcoming about the wholesale changes in the protocol that had already been implemented.

However, Kirk did not even require Lewandowsky to file an Amendment Application Form and, only a few minutes later, Kirk issued a covering letter together with an amendment approval issued in the name of Peter Johnstone. (Either the signature was redacted in the FOI process or the document was unsigned, but either way, the document produced in the FOI process does not show a signature.)

ethics application 4
ethics application 5

Soon afterwards, Lewandowsky acknowledged Kirk’s ethics approval and informed her that “the research should be completed by November as our paper is already due in December.”

Questions about the ethics application for Fury were raised in complaints to both the University and the journal in April 2013. The University peremptorily dismissed these concerns a couple of weeks later. The journal appointed its own investigation, which apparently reported in or about June 2013. According to the retraction statement negotiated by the journal with Lewandowsky, the journal investigation likewise did not “identify” any ethical issues in regard to Fury. However, after being publicly attacked by Lewandowsky’s associates and supporters, the journal subsequently stated that there were indeed ethics issues in respect to Fury, prompting further attacks by Lewandowsky and supporters.

Stepping back somewhat from the immediate controversy, given the timing and limited scope of the ethics application shown above, it seems hard to understand how an investigation could have failed to identify “any” ethical issues. Release of the investigation reports from both the University and the journal would go a long way to answer such questions.

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