Blacklist by Nature follows defamation by BioScience: journals reject ethics of science

Along with hundreds of other people – 385 to be exact – I have been blacklisted [#181] by the science journal Nature Communications in a recently-published abysmal paper by three authors from University of California Merced, after I and a number of others were publicly defamed by a squadron of authors in a similarly-stupid paper less than two years ago in the general interest journal BioScience. This obsession that scientists-with-a-message have about silencing peers with other viewpoints (rather than constructing and communicating a winning argument themselves) is vile and utterly counter to what real science is about. Not surprisingly, they positively fawn over media stars like Al Gore and Greta Thunberg who have no science background but willingly repeat the accepted message of climate-change-doom.

Stupidest paper ever final

Now we have two stupid papers that purport to uphold the sanctity of one particular view of climate change: the Harvey et al. “absolutely the stupidest paper I have ever seen published” (Curry 2017) – which we all truly thought could not be matched – and now the Petersen et al. “worst paper published in a reputable journal” (Curry, 2019).

Judith Curry: “Apart from the rank stupidity of this article and the irresponsibility of Nature in publishing this, this paper does substantial harm to climate science.

Jo Nova: “Skeptics get banned, rejected, blocked and sacked from the mainstream media yet somehow Nature has a paper on Skeptics getting too much media. Believers don’t have to be an expert to control the news agenda, just a Greenpeace activist, or a teenage girl. Skeptics on the other hand, can be Nobel Prize winners, but the BBC won’t even phone them.”

UPDATE 18 Aug. 2019: Additional commentary on this new paper (new or previously overlooked in my initial story); do cruise the comments, some additional gems of analysis there:

Visibility and Invisibility (15 Aug 2019)

A thin bench (15 Aug 2019)

Nature Defamation (16 Aug 2019)

The Nature Communications hate list – a fast-moving story (17 Aug 2019)

Inside The Sausage Factory 18 Aug 2019

ADDED 20 Aug 2019: See this scathing letter to the Editor of Nature Communications by President of the National Association of Scholars, Peter Wood. (15 Aug 2019). In part, he states:

“Nature Communications has published an article which forwards the technology of censorship in pursuit of political activism, but which does not even pretend to forward scientific knowledge.”

The two papers were equally-poorly conceived and executed: see critiques of the new one here, here, here, and here. Jo Nova summarized the new Nature paper this way:

“…compares bloggers, commentators and journalists with largely academic scientists, as if the two groups ought have comparable scientific citations or media mentions. Somehow paid scientists get more science citations and professional media personalities get more media. Who would have guessed? Or rather, who couldn’t?”

However, Petersen and his co-authors crossed a very clearly defined ethical line – they did research on human subjects without their consent and then publicly named them. An unknown number of people, including Roger Pielke Jr., have filled official complaints with the journal and at least one has threatened a lawsuit.

The list of subjects and other ‘supplementary material’ was available for two days – plenty of time for internet immortalization – and while it was eventually removed, that action did nothing to correct the underlying ethics violation. Even if, as seems very likely, the paper is withdrawn because of it, the damage has been done: the list is out there.

That this Nature paper was intended as a blacklist is made clear by the press release, comments by the authors (another quoted below, my bold), and their supporters.

“It’s time to stop giving these people visibility, which can be easily spun into false authority,” Professor Alex Petersen said. “By tracking the digital traces of specific individuals in vast troves of publicly available media data, we developed methods to hold people and media outlets accountable for their roles in the climate-change-denialism movement, which has given rise to climate change misinformation at scale.”

Recall from two years ago: so happy was the editor at BioScience with the international media storm that the ‘Climate change denial by proxy’ paper generated for his journal that he publicly blew off my request that it be retracted because of the blatant defamation and misrepresentation it contained. He also blew off many others who objected to the lousy science and poor copy-editing: the paper eventually went to print with two prominent spelling errors.

So sloppy was the work on this BioScience paper that a correction notice for the paper – a corrigendum – issued by the journal had to be retracted because they posted it to the wrong journal. It is therefore no surprise to find few scientific articles cite this paper and virtually no one on the Internet has mentioned it since it went to print in April 2018.

Such an embarrassment to science was the Harvey et. al. paper that the Petersen et al. Nature Communications effort released last week did not reference it, despite the strong similarities in subject matter. What a slap in the face! It would have been quite a coup to be cited in a Nature journal but alas, Harvey and colleagues had gone too far.

However, if the authors of the Petersen paper (or the reviewers or editors at Nature) had the wherewithall to leave out (or remove) any reference to the Harvey tripe, why on earth did not any of them give a second thought to what was in front of their noses?

Here is what Richard Tol had to say about the implications of this blacklist effort for future publications:

“How did this paper get published? The authors are trained as natural scientists and, moonlighting in the social sciences, may not have been aware of the rules that apply to working with human subjects. They received funding from UC Merced but it is hard to imagine they had permission from the Institutional Review Board to identify people. For two years, the authors worked with human subjects and never paused to wonder about the ethics or consult with a social scientist.

The editors did not stop them either, nor did the referees.

The referees did not spot the basic flaws in research design and data collection, errors that were very quickly found post publication.

Over the last few years, we have seen published a number of papers on the science-media interface that are very bad, so bad that the idea should have been killed over the first coffee. Those papers were challenged but never corrected or retracted. Editors therefore now have a pool of referees who do not know the first thing about research ethics or experimental design.

If the Nature Communications paper stands, Petersen, Vincent and Westerling will be asked to review similar papers in the future.”

The clear intention of this paper is to try and put an even tighter lid on the scientific literature and mainstream media so that any individuals with views that run counter to a message-of-climate-doom are excluded. As scientific journals and the media slide further down the slippery-slope of treating scientific integrity and rigor as optional, they further diminish the value of science in the eyes of the public: not just climate science, but all science.


Harvey, J.A., van den Berg, D., Ellers, J., Kampen, R., Crowther, T.W., Roessingh, P., Verheggen, B., Nuijten, R. J. M., Post, E., Lewandowsky, S., Stirling, I., Balgopal, M., Amstrup, S.C., and Mann, M.E. 2017. Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy. Bioscience 68: 281-287. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix133 Open Access, available here. Supplementary data file available here and the data for the principal component analysis is available here and (h/t to R. Tol), the R code is available here Corrigendum here (issued 28 March 2018).

Petersen, A.M., Vincent, E.M. and Westerling, A.L. 2019. Discrepancies in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians. Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 3502. Open access.

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