Inconvenient Truth-Tellers

What Happens When Research Yields Unpopular Findings

OBS_Nov_Cover_400pxThroughout history, scientists have found themselves the subject of scorn, slander, ridicule and even violence when their discoveries have failed to mesh with authoritative doctrine or public sentiments. When an ancient Muslim cleric was offended by Persian doctor Rhazes’s book on medicine, he had the man beaten with his own manuscript until he was blind. After Galileo’s telescope challenged the belief that the sun orbited the earth, the Holy Office of the Inquisition accused the astronomer of heresy and sentenced him to house arrest.

Today, most scientists are able to report their findings without worrying about draconian sentences from the state. But they still face the enmity of people who simply don’t believe the empirical results or who have a vested interest in the status quo. Individual ideologues, interest groups, industry lobbies, social networks, and even policymakers freely lash out at researchers whose work threatens their belief systems or their livelihoods.

These attacks are not new, but modern communications technologies have given science deniers far more potent tools to blast everything from climate science to vaccines. In addition to harassing phone calls and letters, they now can pummel researchers with hostile emails, or assail their integrity on blogs and other social media tools — all in relative anonymity. And in addition to questioning the validity of the science, the critics often resort to personal attacks on the scholars as a way to discredit the data.

Psychological researchers have in no way been immune to these tactics. In fact, some have weathered frightening vitriol and threats to their reputations. Back in 1975, US Sen. William Proxmire bestowed the first of his infamous “Golden Fleece” awards on a small federal grant given to APS William James Fellows Elaine C. Hatfield of the University of Hawaii and Ellen S. Berscheid of the University of Minnesota. Proxmire denounced their study on social justice and equity in romantic relationships as a waste of taxpayers dollars. The publicity generated threatening letters and phone calls to both scientists, and their federal funding dried up because of the stigma.

In the 1990s, renowned memory researcher and APS Past President Elizabeth F. Loftus, at the University of California, Irvine, drew considerably hostile reactions when her studies challenged people’s claims that they had uncovered — often with the help of therapists — repressed memories of abuse, molestation, and even alien abduction. Loftus even had to have armed guards accompany her to lectures after she received death threats.

Conspiracies and Denials

Stephan Lewandowsky at the University of Bristol, in the United Kingdom, and University of Western Australia, has been among the most recent psychological scientists to be targeted — oddly, for his studies on the very psychological variables that lead to people’s acceptance or rejection of science. In a high-profile paper titled “NASA Faked the Moon Landings — Therefore (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science,” published earlier this year in Psychological Science, Lewandowsky detailed his research suggesting that people who reject climate science also tend to believe in assorted conspiracy theories, such as the 1969 lunar landing being a hoax and AIDS being a disease unleashed by the government.

Lewandowsky’s study involved questioning people who write and read blogs related to global warming. He surveyed the individuals about their views on climate science, other scientific propositions, and their environmental leanings; their perceptions of what scientific “consensus” means; their beliefs about free-market economics; and finally, their views on a number of well-known conspiracy theories ranging from fears of a World Government (a right-wing idea) to the belief that 9/11 was an “inside job” (typically embraced on the left).

In examining the results, Lewandowsky found that those who support unrestricted capitalism were much more likely to strongly reject climate science — probably, he surmises, because it portends regulations on the marketplace. But he also found that free market advocates were more likely to reject other established scientific findings, even the (undisputed) facts that smoking causes lung cancer and HIV causes AIDS. They also believed in theories unrelated to the environment, such as NASA staging the moon landing or the CIA having killed Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewandowsky concluded that some people have a cognitive style that leans toward beliefs in conspiracies, and this makes them prone to reject scientific facts.

His study prompted a flood of denunciation, primarily from people who deny that humans are the major cause of climatic changes, or who deny that the climate is changing at all. The detractors described the research as malicious, incompetent, unscientific, agenda-driven, and unethical. Some even called for the journal to retract the article pending an investigation into Lewandowsky’s conduct. The journal, and Lewandowsky’s university, stood behind the study. The critics were invited to submit a commentary for publication in Psychological Science, but never acted on that invitation. Lewandowsky replicated his study with a large representative sample of the US population. The peer-reviewed study, with a virtually identical outcome, recently appeared in PLOS ONE (Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2013).

Suppression vs. Denial

Sometimes scientists find themselves under attack because their work is viewed as threatening to the vested interests of the very subjects they’re studying. Lisa Lit, a University of California, Davis, scientist trained in both experimental psychology and genetics, experienced this in relation to her work with drug- and explosives-sniffing dogs. In a study, results of which were published in Animal Cognition, Lit and her research team found that dogs’ performance was swayed by subtle, unintentional cues from their handlers. The dog/handler teams erroneously “alerted,” or identified a scent, when there was no scent present more than 200 times — particularly when the handler believed that there was scent present. Lit’s research carries big implications for criminal prosecutions. The idea that detection dogs are essentially responding to their handlers, rather than truly sniffing out explosives or drugs, allows defendants to argue infringement on their Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful searches.

The setting for the study was a church — selected because it was unlikely to have ever contained either explosives or drugs. The researchers created four separate rooms for the dogs to examine or “clear.” The handlers were told that there might be up to three of their target scents in each room, and that there would be a piece of red construction paper in two of the rooms that identified the location of the target scent. However, there were no target scents — explosives or drugs — placed in any of the rooms.

Each room represented a different experimental condition or scenario: in one, a piece of red construction paper was taped to a cabinet; another had decoy scents — two sausages and two tennis balls hidden together. Another condition had red construction paper placed at the location of the hidden decoy scents, and another had nothing at all. The dog-handler teams conducted two separate five-minute searches of each room. When handlers believed their dogs had alerted — indicated a target scent — an observer recorded the location indicated by handlers. Search orders were counterbalanced; that is, all teams searched the rooms in a different order.

Although the dogs should have identified nothing in the rooms, they delivered alerts in all of them. Moreover, there were more alerts at the locations indicated by construction paper than at either of the locations containing just the decoy scents or at any other locations. That is significant, Lit said, because there were more alerts in target locations cued by human suggestion — the construction paper — than at locations of increased dog interest — the hidden sausage and tennis balls. There were also alerts on a wide variety of other locations, indicating that the dogs were not simply alerting in the same locations where other dogs had done so.

Lit, who was previously a detection-dog handler, said the study should be replicated with dog teams being videotaped to carefully assess hidden cues that handlers might be giving. Lit said many people in the working-dog industry had discouraged her from publishing her findings. Once they did appear in the journal, she learned through sources that people were trying to shut down her research. She was accused of trying to stop the use of detection dogs, which she says is patently untrue.

“Our goal is only to optimize performance and provide evidence for what strategies can optimize performance in detection dogs,” she said.

She added that many dog training operations told her they were aware  that her findings uncovered a real problem in canine detection, but that their own methods were designed to protect against those unconscious cues.

“My standard response is, ‘Great, let’s collect the data looking at your method. This would provide valuable evidence for the industry.’”

Legal Drama

Psychological scientists find themselves particularly subject to intimidation campaigns in the legal arena. Loftus’s memory studies involving tens of thousands of subjects are classics, and have been replicated hundreds of times. She has forever toppled the concept of memory as an accurate recorder of life experience. Over the past 40 years, she has demonstrated that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, and that false memories can be triggered in individuals merely through the power of suggestion.

But her research pursuits didn’t come without peril. She endured numerous attacks on her credibility. Prosecutors excoriated her when they lost cases after she testified that eyewitness accounts were fallible. Alleged abuse victims who claimed they had recovered memories of the trauma scorned Loftus when she testified for the people they accused. Clinical psychologists ostracized her. A stranger on a plane once slapped her with a newspaper.

More recently, APS Fellow Saul Kassin of Williams College, who studies the factors that lead criminal suspects to make false confessions, found himself the focus of intimidating emails and disparaging blog posts. In Kassin’s case, the criticism was aimed not at his research per se, but at the application of it. The trouble began after Kassin authored a paper titled “Why Confessions Trump Innocence” published in 2012 in The American Psychologist.  In that paper, he argued that a false confession can cascade into other evidence.

“Studies (as well as real-life cases in the United States) also specifically show that the presence of a confession, because it creates a strong belief, can contaminate latent fingerprint judgments, eyewitness identifications, and interpretations of other types of evidence,” he wrote.

But what particularly inflamed the blogosphere was Kassin’s use of a headline-grabbing example — the case of Amanda Knox, an American college student who was convicted of murder. Kassin had provided a pro bono analysis of Knox’s case in her appeal to the Italian court, recommending that her confession be treated with caution. He noted that Knox had been immediately identified as a suspect and presumed guilty, confessed after three days of denials and interrogations, and did not have any attorney present when undergoing questioning. In addition, Kassin pointed out, her statements were not recorded.

“I used it as an example, not realizing the depth of a couple of Amanda Knox hate groups that track professionals who support Amanda Knox,” he said.

Kassin said the hate emails he received, and the blog posts criticizing him, didn’t focus on the science itself, but on his motives for analyzing Knox’s case. In essence, the attacks were personal. Some of the messages he received felt threatening, he said, and included statements such as: “We know where you work.” A few bloggers also wrote posts lambasting Kassin’s integrity, in one case even calling him a “shill.”

Safeguarding Scientists

Scientists who have been subjected to these tactics say universities, journal editors, professional organizations and others need to support scholars who face these threats to their academic work. In an essay that appears online on the Observer web page this month, Lewandowsky, Loftus, and other researchers raise particular concerns about the tactics used to intimidate journal editors to keep them from publishing articles. Lewandowsky says that over the past year, his work has been subject to numerous requests for correspondence and other documents under freedom-of-information laws, which apply to public universities.  He and his co-authors raise particular concern about efforts by critics who have no experience in psychological research injecting themselves into the peer-review process — in some cases sending bullying emails to journal editors — “to prevent the publication of findings they deem inconvenient.”

“Knowledge of the common techniques by which scientists are attacked, irrespective of their discipline and research area, is essential so that institutions can support their work against attempts to thwart their academic freedom,” they write. “This information is also essential to enable lawmakers to improve the balance between academic freedom and confidentiality of peer review on the one hand, and the public’s right to access information on the other. Finally, this knowledge is particularly important for journal editors and professional organizations to muster the required resilience against illegitimate insertions into the scientific process.”

Kassin said that scientists also need support because
opponents can be particularly powerful or influential — and often obscure or anonymous.

“Part of what is unnerving about harassment like this is you don’t know who your adversary is,” he said. “The people who come at us are nameless and faceless, and sometimes they have resources. It’s hard to fight that.”

References and Further Reading

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, G. E. (2013). NASA faked the moon landing — Therefore (climate) science is a hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science. Psychological Science, 24, 622–633.

Lewandowsky, S., Gignac G. E., Oberauer, K. (2013). The role of conspiracist ideation and worldviews in predicting rejection of science. PLoS ONE 8(10): e75637. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075637.

Loftus, E. F. (2003). On science under legal assault. Daedalus, 132, 84–86.

Lit, L., Schweitzer, J. B. & Oberbauer, A. M. (2011). Handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes. Animal Cognition, 14, 387–394.

Kassin, S. (2012). Why confessions trump innocence. American Psychologist, 67, 431–445.

Observer Vol.26, No.9 November, 2013

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.


As a scientist recently under attack for an “unpopular finding” I am so glad to see attention called to this issue. I would add that there is a particularly challenging problem in research on sexuality as it is socially (federally!) encouraged to attack our science for political or religious reasons (Epstein, 2006). Sex offers fantastic research models in physiological specificity and reward systems, yet the fear of attacks make many good scientists shy from pursuing this area (anecdotal, but I’ve heard it too many times). I will be citing and following this one…thank you APS!

The acceptance of erroneous data that supports one’s views (e.g. “Pygmalion in the Classroom”)is just as bad as denying good data which is contrary to those beliefs. Replication is the best cure.
-Ed Klemmer PhD Columbia 1953

You describe Leandowsky’s critics as “primarily … people who deny that humans are the major cause of climatic changes, or who deny that the climate is changing at all..”
I challenge you to name anyone – anyone at all – who
a) believes that humans are the major cause of climatic changes, or
b) denies that the climate is changing at all.

You say:
“The critics were invited to submit a commentary for publication in Psychological Science, but never acted on that invitation.”
This is untrue in my case. All I received was this letter from Professor Eich, Editor-in-Chief at Psychological Science back in April:
“Dear Mr. Chambers
Your email to the Sage central office has been relayed to me, and in turn I have sent it to Dr. Lewandowsky and asked that he respond to your criticisms. I’ll write to you again once I receive his response, but please note that may be quite a while: my understanding is that Dr. Lewandowsky is in transit from Australia to England, and he will need time to settle into his new surroundings.
Eric Eich”
Lewandowsky has settled in very well it seems, and has found the time to give interviews and write articles on three continents, plus this paper and the replication one. But apparently he has not found the time to reply to our criticisms.

Dear Mr. Sleet,

This commentary seems to be an attempt to whitewash APS lack of response to clear evidence of academic lying in one of their published papers. Part of the evidence can been seen at .

This issue is not a rejection of climate science or any other science, but rather upholding the highest standards of science.

With regards to one of your many unsubstantiated comments, I personally know of no one who denies ” that the climate is changing at all”. However, there are scientists who point out that the current batch of climate models (CIMP5) overstate warming 95% of the time for the period 1993-2012, and that for the period 1998-2012 warming has been “not statistically different from zero”). Are these the ravings of some anti-science fanatic? Well no, they are the findings of Dr. Francis Zwiers who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the American Meteorological Society. He was a coordinating lead author for the IPCC 4th assessment report. The paper, published in Nature Climate Change can be found at

These are the kind of inconvenient truths that are being ignored by APS and Lewandowsky.

Apparently even writing about inconvenient truth-tellers will get you flak from the crazies. Wow!

Excellent points. I would hasten to add that such criticisms and attempts to influence journal editors are not restricted to those outside the scientific community. I have also seen several cases where such tactics were used by “colleagues” and those who claim to be scientists.

Someone once said “To err is to be human” or words to that effect.
To have healthy debate on any issue is commonsense.

This issue of the psychology aspects of “denialists” is hardly more than rhetoric and playing word and mind games, an excercise unlikely to have a satisfactory conclusion.

Most of the commentary is far from the truth, and irrelevant to the real issues.

In the case of the ‘global warming’ debate, there are genuine reasons for strictly scientific arguments to be applied and those who challenge the science of the “warmists” (who blame CO2 levels for threatening climate changes), are in no more need of psychoanalysis than are the “warmists”.

In fact, there is a case for the reverse.

So-called “denialists” have offered scientific evidence and argument and the “warmists” have responded with emotion, vitriol and irrational statements. If their science is valid, conclusive and “settled” they have no need to make any response except to prove that their science is valid.
Being unable to do that, they are the ones behaving badly and exhibiting irrational attacks.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

Interesting article. I find many attackers are those who are not educated in the science behind the topic of debate and feel threatened by their insecurity or inability to understand the reasonings for the unpopular findings.

Perhaps if Saul Kassin didn’t make things up about the Amanda Knox case, he would still have some respect. Amanda Knox did not confess after three days of interrogation, per Amanda herself. It was actually her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito who was called into the station the night Amanda gave a ‘confession’. And it was Sollecito who quickly (within 2 hours) retracted corroborating the alibi for Amanda Knox.

Interesting, thoughtful article. The accusations against Knox & Sollecito defy logic and common sense perhaps more than any other case in recent memory with the sole exception of the mass child abuse cases of the ’80s & 90’s where small children were cajoled and coerced into testifying, resulting in false memories and trauma, not from actual abuse but by memories formed after repeated inappropriate interrogations. The authorities in these cases, like the Knox/Sollecoto case acted in bad faith. Elizabeth Loftus and Saul Kassin are heroes for coming forth with well founded research that though unpopular, yielded vital truths.

This is an excellent article.

As a student of the Amanda Knox case I can assure readers who are unfamiliar with the details that Dr. Kassin’s description of what happened to Amanda Knox is exactly and precisely accurate. At the time of her interrogation Ms. Knox was a girl barely out of her teens living in a foreign country. She had limited command of Italian and was unfamiliar with the culture of Italy or with her rights under the law. Police records entered into evidence show that in the three days between the murder of her roommate and her arrest Ms. Knox was required to be with the police for over 50 hours. She herself estimates that she was closely interrogated for over 40 of the those hours. This process culminated in an overnight session in which an exhausted and frightened Knox was interrogated by teams of officers who screamed at her, threatened her, lied to her an hit her. She did not have access to a lawyer or even a professional translator. Although there were initial reports that tapes or transcriptions of this last session would be forthcoming they mysteriously went missing, with the authorities then issuing (by my count) four or five different excuses. Of course her statements (not a confession) should be viewed with skepticism by any decent and rational court. This is a classic demonstration of why the right to counsel is so essential.

I would further add that the same anonymous critics who attacked and continue to attack Dr. Kassin, made similar assaults on other professionals whose “crime” was to proclaim a belief in Amanda Knox’s innocence. Those attacked include two former FBI agents, a Seattle judge, a professor at the University of Leeds, a professor at UNC-Wilmington, a professor at Boise State University, a private investigator, a high school teacher in Hawaii, and several journalists. These attacks were specifically designed to intimidate these people and damage their livelihoods.

It is time for this nonsense to stop. Thanks again for an excellent article.

While I do not wish to simplify this excellent analysis, two main points are very clear:
1. Ideologues are extremely hostile to anything that contracts their views, especially when it is supported by empirical evidence.
2. Close-minded people believe what they wish to, and find empirical evidence very inconvenient if it fails to support them.

While the Amanda Knox case is excellent evidence of this (there is no empirical evidence to show she is guilty), my own war was against the Behaviorists during the 1970’s and 80’s. This school of thought in psychology followed one dogmatic principle: All human behavior (including language) was due to external factors, and cognition played no role. Everything we did was the result of outside forces, and our thought processes played no role. Behaviorists refused to allow any cognitive research, whatsoever. They were utterly hostile to any empirical evidence involving cognition.

In the case of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, empirical evidence has long shown that people will say anything during an interrogation. Saul Kassin excellent work is based on an entire body of prior research showing how people will lose themselves. Even Stanly Milgram’s experiments are related to this.

This is a great analysis that boils down to one point: Ideologues and close-minded people are greatly inconvenienced by facts!

Please note I meant to say “contradicts”, not contracts. Outside influences caused that error.

Oh dear, the Amanda Knox crazies are showing up and making Saul’s point for him. What is written in the article is correct as I am sure Pat A is aware. After Meredith Kercher’s body was discovered, Amanda Knox spent most of her waking hours with the police until she was arrested. She was trying to help them find the killer. They were waiting for a special team of interrogators to arrive from Rome. They lied to both Knox and Sollecito and secured false statements from them. Saul Kassin understands exactly how this happens.

Actually, Pat A. got it wrong and Prof. Kassin got it right: Amanda Knox describes being interrogated on November 2, 3, and 4 in her book. She “confessed” to being at the crime scene during the night of November 5-6.

Kassin was not the only scientist involved in the case who has been harassed by the anti-Knox crowd. Prof. Greg Hampikian of Boise State, the head of Idaho’s Innocence Project, has also been attacked.

It’s even worse in Italy, where courts consider themselves competent to criticize reports by experienced scientists. The country’s supreme court attempted an attack on Prof. Carla Vecchiotti, the court-appointed forensic DNA expert who showed how and why the DNA evidence in the Knox-Sollecito case was flawed, and how the police lab broke numerous standards of good practice.

It’s hard to believe that any judge would be delusional enough to argue with an academic DNA researcher with 30 years of experience at a top university. But it’s even more amazing that Italy’s supreme court claimed in the same ruling that heroin does not impact “the lucidity of memory.” No kidding.

Bombarding facts regarding climate change does nothing more than release hot air .

Amanda Knox case , If you were not there how can you possibly comment ?

I doubt anyone is readying this tread anymore, but on the off chance that some future historian will be researching the undermining of science that took place in the late 20th and early 21st century, it may be helpful to note that a published social scientist has call for this paper to be withdrawn by the publishers, saying “This is fraud, at the headline level. The headline is false, declaring the exact opposite of the truth. It reverses the relationship given by the data” (see ). He goes on to say ” The reality of the data is heavily concealed by overly complex statistics and SEM models. The authors made claims they had no right to make, and slandered their participants and the political camps to which they belong”… and “We have no idea what happened in this study. We just know there’s no data pertaining to the headline or the key smears in the abstract”.

I do not believe that anyone who believes in scientific integrity can support the methods and analysis in the Lewandowsky paper. Why the APS would fail to withdraw this paper I leave for others to judge.

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