by Stephan Lewandowsky (Winthrop Professor and Australian Professorial Fellow, School of Psychology, University of Western Australia), Shaping Tomorrow's World, September 3, 2012
I recently published a paper on the motivated rejection of science that is forthcoming in Psychological Science. The abstract of the paper is as follows:
In a somewhat ironic twist, given that the paper addressed conspiracist ideation, much attention has focused on the source of participants, which were “Visitors to climate blogs voluntarily completed an online questionnaire between August and October 2010 (N = 1,377). Links were posted on 8 blogs (with a pro-science stance but with a diverse audience); a further 5 “skeptic" (or “skeptic"-leaning) blogs were approached but none posted the link.”
To clarify, this means that participants were recruited from those blogs that posted the link—not those that did not. One might therefore presume that attention would focus on those blogs that provided entry points to the survey, not those that did not, because it is entirely unclear how the latter might contribute to the results of the survey. For example, the website of the British RSPCA also did not post a link to the survey, and neither did the Australian Woolworths website, so how might their non-involvement affect the results?
I am keen to hear about potential mechanisms, perhaps we have overlooked something.
However, attention has primarily focused on those non-participating blogs and their identity. I have been inundated with requests to release their identities, and I have thus far declined to comply with those requests because I believe that a presumption of privacy should apply to my correspondence with potential participants in research.
Unlike some of the people who have been emailing me, my work is subject to ethical guidelines and is subject to approval by my University’s ethics committee—as is the work of any other behavioral scientist in Australia and elsewhere. It is therefore not solely my decision whether or not to reveal the identity of people who were approached on the presumption of privacy.
Because this issue is likely subject to different opinions, I have therefore approached the Australian Psychological Society and my University’s Human Research Ethics Committee to provide guidance on this decision.
There is an obvious asymmetry of potential harm here: If I release the names but it turns out to have been unethical, this cannot be undone. If I decline to release the names, as I have done to date, and it turns out that this was unnecessary, then no harm is done if release of the names is delayed by a few days.
I am therefore awaiting guidance on this issue.
In the meantime, I understand that there is a list on the internet of individuals who have declared that they were never contacted. As we are awaiting the decision about release of the names, just a matter of general principle, there can be no harm if those folks were to again check their inboxes (and outboxes) very carefully for correspondence from my assistant at UWA in August and September 2010. I know how difficult it is to locate individual emails among thousands received in a year, and a double check may therefore be quite prudent. (Who knows, it might even prevent some overly trigger-happy and creative people from floating a conspiracy theory about how I just made up the fact of having contacted those blogs, similar to the way NASA faked the moon landing.)
There are other issues that have been raised in connection with the paper, including some interesting points regarding the statistics, and they are worthy of further commentary in the near future. As it happens I am attending a conference at the moment with one of my co-authors, which ties us up for most of the time but which also provides an opportunity for discussion that is likely to lead to further posts in the not-too-distant future.