Letter to the Guardian

To Chris Elliott, Readers’ Editor,

on March 30th 2014 I wrote to you to complain about this article:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2014/mar/21/contrarians-bully-climate-change-journal-retraction

which accuses “contrarians” (i.e. climate sceptics) of bullying a scientific journal into retracting an article.

I pointed out that no bullying took place. We have the journal’s word for it. I further pointed out that the only evidence for bullying was a link to a blog article (by another Guardian contributor, as it happens) and the only evidence he gave for bullying was a link to my blog.

I pointed out that the link, and remarks about two other people, “Foxgoose” and Steve McIntyre, were potentially defamatory. But that was not the main point of my complaint, which was [that] the headline was clearly false, and that the author had provided no evidence to back up his claim, and anyway the supposed victim of the bullying, the editor of the journal, had denied it. There are other errors in the article and in the author’s comments below the line, but my complaint was focused on this one point: that the headline and the main gist of the article were false.

Three weeks later I received a reply from Barbara Harper in which she refers to links in the Readfearn blog article linked in the Nuccitelli article (she confuses an article by Lewandowsky and Cook, linked by Nuccitelli, with an article by Lewandowsky and Oberauer, linked by Readfearn, but no matter). She ends her reply: “Your point of view and your own statements are reflected in the places where you are named and I don’t believe there is any need for a further reply in the Guardian.”

There is nothing in her reply about the fact that the Guardian has published an article whose headline and contents are demonstrably false. The article accuses people unnamed (though clearly identifiable thanks to links) of bullying, while the supposed victim says that no bullying took place, a fact revealed in a comment on to the article.

I replied to Ms Harper, pointing out why her reply was unsatisfactory, and received the following reply the same day:

We’ve gone carefully through all the links, including the correspondence obtained under FOI, in the light of the issues you raised and as a result we do not feel that any further action is necessary.”

Neither of Ms Harper’s letters make the slightest mention of my principal concern: the fact that the Guardian has published an article which is demonstrably false.

I’ve highlighted a couple of phrases in her letters, which I interpret thus:

that Ms Harper (or possibly Mr Nuccitelli, or someone else) has looked at the articles by Lewandowsky and Oberauer or Cook, and discovered that McIntyre, Foxgoose and I were all frequent critical commenters on these articles, and that Ms Harper (or someone else) thinks that our frequent criticisms are sufficient to establish the fact that we are bullies.

If that is the reasoning behind Ms Harper’s replies (and it’s only my surmise, of course) it’s not enough to establish that we bullied the journal “Frontiers in Psychology”. I’ve been rude about Lewandowsky, calling him a liar, a fraud, a charlatan and a fool, but I haven’t bullied anyone. Lewandowsky has written an article replying to anti-semitic and other racist attacks, but he has never replied to the accusation that he is a liar.

It’s your job, isn’t it, “to collect, consider, investigate, respond to, and where appropriate come to a conclusion about readers’ comments, concerns, and complaints in a prompt and timely manner, from a position of independence within the paper”?

I’ve been looking back through past articles on your site for similar situations, without success, but at:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/16/open-door-appending-notes-stories-errors

I found this:

When a serious allegation is made to the readers’ editor about a published article, it is often not possible to come to a quick decision as to whether the complaint has merit or not.”

Here, there is no problem about coming to a decision. Your article accused (via links) named people of bullying. They deny the bullying. The journal which is the supposed victim of bullying denies being bullied. Therefore there was no bullying, and the article is false.

Will you please reply to this complaint?

Yours, Geoff Chambers

 

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7 Responses to Letter to the Guardian

  1. I won’t tell you anything new, but it is the same in any other field.
    You’d think history teaches us at least anything, but no.
    Disagree if you will but the world is changing, and we have no control whatsoever over it.
    For instance, imagine Barack had enough balls to put Putin to his place, but it seems like it’s never happening, welcome WW3.
    Awesome post, thanks!
    Sarah http://phyto-renew350i.com/

  2. Brad Keyes says:

    I wonder if it was Ms Harper who acted—3 months too late—to amend the falsehood that “Dr Lindzen denies [cigarettes] cause cancer” in Dana’s hit piece on Lindzen.

  3. j ferguson says:

    Geoff, How is this thing coming along?

  4. jferguson
    I received the following reply 29 April. I haven’t replied yet, because I’ve been away on holiday. I’m not sure if it’s worth replying, or whether the Press Complaints Commission might not be a better route. Chris Elliott seems determined to frame my complaint as a defense of my character, when it’s clearly something else: I’m simply pointing out that the article and its headline are false.

    Dear Mr Chambers,
    The role of the readers’ editor is, indeed, to investigate a complaint and come to a conclusion. When we have come to a conclusion with which a complainant disagrees she or he is free to use any alternative course of action that an individual feels open to her or him. I have now reviewed your complaint with colleagues. In my view, it is unfounded.

    First, I believe that the letters and emails received by Frontiers and/or UWA, the magazine, which led to their decision to pull their link to the researcher’s article (http://www.desmogblog.com/sites/beta.desmogblog.com/files/Recursive%20FOI%20complaints.pdf) and obtained in an anonymised form through an FOI request, provide clear evidence of both a bullying tone and threats of legal action. For instance, one piece of correspondence dated 30 April 2013 from a complainant refers to a researcher whose name is redacted, suggesting (at page 12) the university must be ‘greatly relieved that this third rate academic has left UWA’ and that his research is ‘nonsense’. The same letter complains about a previous response to the complainant from an ‘underling tame professor’. Other letters/emails of complaint make threats to bring a ‘formal complaint’ and to contact the ethical committees of ‘universities concerned’. Further examples of correspondence accuse one of the researchers involve of ‘falsifying data’ and the ‘alleged data fraud’.

    A complainant in the FOI correspondence also alleges defamation against the researchers. An email dated 5 April 2013 repeatedly uses the word defamation. The reply from Frontiers of the same date makes clear that they removed their link to the article complained of because of the allegation of defamation (see page 22 of the correspondence). A previous email dated 5 April 2013, apparently from the same complainant, says (at page 29) ‘I should also remind that, if this proceeds to legal action, any court or tribunal would take a very poor view of you attempting to impose an arbitrary and unreasonable deadline….’

    On 4th April, a complainant (presumably the same one) wrote (at page 30): ‘I have sought legal advice which confirmed…I could potentially have a defamation action against the authors and publishers of this paper’. The same email says: ‘Obviously, I understand that any legal action would have to be prosecuted under my real identity.’

    Moreover, you say in your email (below) to me: “I’ve been rude about Lewandowsky, calling him a liar, a fraud, a charlatan and a fool, but I haven’t bullied anyone.” I disagree. That is a bullying tone.

    You and Steve McIntyre are not mentioned in the Guardian article. You are both featured in Redfern’s blog. Redfearn links to both your own online publications regarding this matter: your point of view and your own statements are included in the Redfearn blog that mentions them. Your comments, Mr Chambers, also appear with that article. You have both already ‘replied’ or had your views reflected in the same places you are named. There is no need for a further reply in the Guardian and I don’t propose to take any further action. You are, as I said at the beginning, free to take any other action that you feel is open to you. I am unable to help you any further.

    best wishes

    Chris Elliott

  5. j ferguson says:

    Hi Geoff,
    I suspect the above may never go anywhere. Beyond the possibility that they do not want to understand your words is the possibility that they can’t. That would not be because you weren’t clear.

    I’ve noticed in commenting over recent years that there is some variation in the precision readers expect of your words. If “pathological” can be used without intending to demean, I’ve found that several people whom we probably both read interpret their way through our notes word by word with what I would label a “pathological” precision. In so doing, something that might have been floating midst the words is lost because the intent might have been contextual and depend on the flavor acquired over a paragraph, not word by word. I find that Nick Stokes, Brandon Shollenberger, and from time to time Lucia do this, not my stuff for the most part, but comments I thought I understood, but which they took issue with.

    Of course the stuff I write won’t bear the burden of “strict construction.”

    I’m 71, and have been writing at length since secondary school, although mostly technical stuff required for contracts, specifications, reports, and so forth in connection with my “career.”

    I feel that my clarity has improved immensely in the last 5 years mostly as a result of being misunderstood in blogs and finding that the words I wrote really were sufficiently imprecise to include the (to me) incorrect reading. I also treasure the ready access to highly intelligent people that this sort of thing allows.

    But when I encounter someone who seems obtuse, my conclusion is that he can’t cut it, not that he doesn’t want to. Occasionally, however, it may be that he is afflicted with a need for “hyper-precision” in order to comprehend intent and accordingly will be unsatisfied with the logic of what he reads if it is not “hyper-precise.”

    I wonder if this is a known problem.

    Thank you for your often pithy and always interesting comments.

    john

  6. Seems to me that the only purpose of this so-called “response” to your concerns, Geoff, is the not-so-subtle “reinforcement” of the new, improved, anti-skeptic meme (dreamed up by Mann & Lewandowsky last November): we’re all “bullies” now!

  7. “Climate Bullies” – it does sound a mite more interesting than “climate sceptics”. And of course, the idea that a professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol, (and the recipient of a Royal Society medal what’s more), has been bullied into silence by a retired teacher of the history of art at an obscure French University has a certain appeal.
    But the reality is still that it’s Lewandowsky who writes at Huffington Post or the New Yorker; and its us the poor bloody infantry who shot down his paper who have to defend ourselves below the line.

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