A Reply to Lewandowsky’s sideswipe

In looking analysing the data on the Lew et al paper I made the following comment.

If you sample some of their articles, you will find a dogmatic defence of climate change, and blocking, editing or denigration views that are contrary to their own. The claim in the paper that they contacted five sceptical blogs to improve the spread of views is highly suspect. Jo Nova contacted 24 such blogs (including all the most prominent ones), with not a single one remembering such an approach. Prof. Lewandowsky is currently refusing to divulge the names of the blogs contacted. As there was no proper control of the answers, there could be rogue results generated.

It turns out that Prof. Lewandowsky’s assistant Charles Hanich did contact 5 “skeptic” blogs with requests. These requests were either ignored or rejected with little or no thought nearly two years ago. On his blog Stephan Lewandowsky stated

At this juncture one might consider a few intriguing questions:

1. When will an apology be forthcoming for the accusations launched against me? And how many individuals should now be issuing a public apology?

To explore the magnitude of this question we must take stock of public statements that have been made about my research. For example, one blogger considered it “highly suspect” whether I had contacted any “skeptic” sites.

It troubled me greatly this comment. Why had I failed to trust the word of a professor of psychology? A science which I have never studied? I will not give excuses, but give the reasons that were going through my mind at the time.

Firstly, I was prejudiced against Prof. Lewandwosky. I had first heard of him in relation to the Peter Gleick affair. This was when a so-called scientist impersonated someone else to fraudulently obtain documents from the Heartland Institute. He was “outed” because the key document – which was fabricated – was in the style of Peter Gleick. Yet, Lewandowsky’s believed Gleick’s lying to defend “science” was on the same moral plane as Churchill’s lying to deceive Hitler. Further, he accepted Gleick’s statement that he was sent the forged document in the post. In my eyes that was a choice between strong circumstantial evidence and the statement of a self-confessed liar. Also, for Gleick, admission of fabrication might be a far more serious crime, than his claim to receiving something in the post gullibly accepting it as genuine. So whatever the truth, there might be motive for an additional lie. Further, I do not believe that climate denial is as evil as Nazism. In fact I happen to believe that the term “climate denial” is a vicious smear.

Secondly, my prejudices were further exaggerated when I came across a climate opinion survey at “Watching the Deniers” blog. I not only answered this opinion survey, but recorded the questions and commented upon them. When I saw the Lewandowsky paper, with the some of the same questions on free markets and conspiracy theories, I erroneously thought that this was the same questionnaire. In fact, the questionnaire I answered is probably a later development of the survey behind the Lewandowsky paper. Looking at the actual questionnaire, my comments can be applied to the earlier and shorter survey.

Thirdly, I saw the paper and read the opening paragraphs. I see Lewandowsky’s belief (and the climate scientists as being) along the lines of climate scientists are the experts with PhDs, and are in strong agreement. I believe that far from the strong foundation sufficient to declare anyone who disagrees a motivated denier of the truth.

Fourthly, I am also prejudiced against using psychology to declare that critics sub-normal after reading in the 1980s about the abuses of psychiatry in the Soviet Union, to consign dissidents to mental institutions. Or the arguments the KGB put forward to dissidents of how they could possibly disagree with the huge consensus. Maybe this is an analogy that Lewandowsky will cry foul as one who knows the subject, but this is the honest truth.

Fifthly, I then looked at the data. I found a number of misleading statements in the paper, including the small minority of skeptic responses; the fact that the typical respondent wanted little or anything to do with any conspiracy theory not related to climate. In the extreme case of the “NASA Faked the Moon Landings” referred to in the title only 10 responses out of 1145 responses agreed with the proposition. Further, the two dogmatic rejecters of climate science I identified (before Tom Curtis) as being likely scammed. In other words, the dogmatic conclusions rested on little or no evidence.

My conclusion was this. Prof. Lewandowsky believes it is alright to lie and smear opponents in his “noble” cause. He has issued a highly prejudiced survey to verify a hypothesis that those who reject what he believes are nutters. He then failed to get a decent sample of skeptics and then failed to filter out the rogue responses. When the vast majority of responses failed to verify his hypothesis, he used the small differences in the minority who believed in conspiracy theories to support his dogmatic conclusions. Yet those could be accounted for by scam responses.

On the basis of all this, I had completely lost trust in any statement that Lewandowsky and his mates wrote. I believe I had more than sufficient grounds for suspecting that he had lied about contacting sceptical blogs.

What this leads me onto is something that Lewandowsky has completely missed. The claim is that we should trust climate scientists, as they are the experts.

But what happens when you betray that trust? Let me give three cases.

1. A business fails to deliver on time and what was specified. Then digs themselves into a deeper hole be making excuses and telling the customer that if they have not broken the small print of the contract. After such an experience would the customer ever trust that business again, even if dealing with a different department or people?

2. Somebody was wrongly convicted of murder due to misinterpretation of the evidence by experts, or tampering of the evidence by the police. After this is exposed, there is no action taken to release the innocent party or to stop these events occurring again. What would happen to people’s trust in the judicial process?

3. After twenty years of marriage, one of the partners sleeps with another. What happens to the trust in the marriage if the guilty partner then makes excuses, including blaming the other?

Betrayal of that trust will lead to the betrayer being viewed in a completely different light by the betrayed party. The betrayed now questions every statement and every motive. Once you have lost people’s trust, it is very hard to regain that trust – a point that Dale Carnegie makes in “How To Win Friends And Influence People”. Shifting blame, or failing to acknowledge fault, will only make matters worse. Yet this is what the climate science community has being doing for years. Look at the skeptic blogs and you will find lots of reasons for questioning the science. Some are valid, some are less valid. It is by a group of people that has, with multiple reasons, lost trust in the “science”. The response of the scientists is to call them names, question their motives and (if you look at the skepticalscience blog) provide feeble and biased excuses. By not acknowledging that differences of opinion are possible, or that the science is weak, or that misinterpretations are possible, they are destroying the trust people have in science.

In short what Lewandowsky has completely missed is that people reject the “science” because of lack of trust in scientists, for reasons that they believe in. His actions and those of climate scientists are just exacerbating the rift between the climate science community and people who live in the real world.

Final Note

I am not a scientist. But I have a degree in economics and worked for over 20 years in industry as a management accountant, mostly within the manufacturing sector. I am a Christian, who believes that people are fallible. That is human beings are prone to error, whether by design or by failing to perceive whether they are wrong. I am certainly fallible. In fact, my best work has often by analysing figures in different ways, wasting my time going up blind allies, learning and eventually getting to better solutions. But I strongly believe that those who believe themselves to be the most infallible are those who are usually the most wrong.

I have used an anonymous handle for various reasons, including that people who support “science” think that is alright to make unsubstantiated character assassinations against those who question them.

Kevin Marshall


  1. Brian H

     /  19/09/2012

    Edit: “a point that Dale Carnegie in “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.” Needs a verb.

    Lewandowsky has provided a sterling example of extension of the “ad hominem” attack to the world of (pseudo-)science. Even if there were an attraction of fringe theory believers to scepticism of AGW, that logically says nothing about the relevance and force of particular arguments in play.

  2. Molly

     /  20/09/2012

    Hi Mr Marshall,

    Thank you for this post. Your comments on “trust” in relation to Climate Science were interesting and I think quite pertinent.

    Some of the blogs on Climate Science that you can read are enquiring, courteous and constructive. (eg allmodelsarewrong.com; judithcurry.com) others are not so much.

    The Lewandowsky paper is written by psychologists. There is an interesting note about Psychology experiments at the blog deldem.weblogs.anu.edu.au. The author is psychologist Luisa Batalha

    Batalha says

    “Moreover and typically, experiments use deceptive methods in order to keep participants naive about what is going on.”

    She writes further about the debriefing of participants and also asks whether Psychology Departments could approach the issue of experiment participation differently.

  3. David Ball

     /  23/09/2012

    “But I strongly believe that those who believe themselves to be the most infallible are those who are usually the most wrong.”

    Very well put.

    I believe that the true intent of Lewandowsky’s “experiment” has yet to be revealed, as Batalha has implied. Thanks for that Molly.

  4. anon

     /  24/09/2012

    Chock full of defensive reasoning and rationalization. Totally devoid of an *explicit* apology or even an implicit apology. There isn’t an admission that you were in error and had wrongly accused someone on the other end.

    All you did was list down all your prejudices (a long list) and end the post by once again attacking Lewandowsky (in bold no less).

    Good job. You’ve won 3 delicious internat cookies.

    • manicbeancounter

       /  24/09/2012

      One thing I try to do is substantiate my arguments, something Prof. Lewandowsky has failed to do. I said I had reason to suspect. I had more than reasonable grounds for suspicion.

      If someone who disagreed such a way on so-called pro-science sites the comment would either be blocked or strongly edited.
      Also, although I often post comments on other blogs, I always post with a valid email address.
      If you wish to comment here again you will use a proper email address, and argue your claims.

      • anon

         /  25/09/2012

        I’m not taking sides in this particular argument (I do have one, just not taking it here), and I don’t have any claims.

        I’m just somewhat amused at your refusal to admit that you’ve wrongly accused someone of not sending out emails when he actually *did*. You might have had your reasons and prejudices, but a mistake is a mistake, and people make them all the time. It doesn’t weaken your stand to admit that you were in error.

        Well unless now you’re claiming now that he’s somehow faked those 5 emails … then forget what I said.

        • manicbeancounter

           /  26/09/2012

          You need to look at the facts. Stephan Lewandowsky did not send the emails. They were sent by assistant Charles Hanich. Lewandowsky was no where mentioned in the text either. He had plenty of opportunity to correct any misunderstanding.
          Lewandowsky’s thesis is that those who oppose climate change have no good reason to do so. His writing is forceful and dogmatic, but based on a weak foundation. Further, his sideswipe should be seen in the context of someone who has spent 18 months massaging figures to show his pet theory of opponents being a bunch of conspiratorial nutters was verified by the evidence of a biased survey. I presented basic evidence it was not.
          My charge is that Lewandowsky is destroying science by attacking people’s ability to freely examine and question the evidence.

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