It’s a conspiracy!

semicontrolled_demolition
Source: http://www.xkcd.com/690/

I’ve finally finished reading Recursive Fury: a paper which studied blog comments written in response to the publication of NASA faked the moon landing-therefore (climate) science is a hoax. I’m not going to comment on the moon landing paper other than to say that it explored the connection between the endorsement of free-market economics and conspiratorial thinking.

The Recursive Fury paper followed the response in the blogosphere to the publication of the moon landing paper by collecting blog comments that questioned its validity. The authors were able to show that many of these comments met the criteria for conspiracist ideation.

No permission was sought from commenters to use their comments. Many comments are quoted in the paper but they’re quoted without names. However, it’s very easy to find out who said what just by typing the comment into Google and searching – I went in search of authors for some comments simply because I thought they were so unbelievable.

I think initially the paper was published with supplementary material which did include the names (or handles if people comment using a pseudonym), however this is no longer available with the paper. I have also read that some comments were incorrectly attributed, but the few I checked all matched up and it’s my understanding that these mistakes have been corrected.

Is it ethically acceptable to use comments made on a public blog in research? Here are my thoughts:

* Blog comments are in the public domain and when someone writes a comment on a public blog, there is implicit acceptance that this is public material and that it can be quoted by others and attributed to them.

* I don’t think academics need to get permission from blog commenters to study comments which are public.

BUT, there’s a big BUT here:

* The above two are on the proviso that the research does not harm the commenters themselves.

Many of the commenters complained that the research did cause them harm and it is because of complaints made to the publisher that this paper has now been retracted, a year after publication. One of the complaints I have seen is that by demonstrating conspiratorial content in comments, the authors are somehow attributing a mental illness to commenters. It is probably useful to define conspiracist ideation at this point. The authors define it as: “Conspiracist ideation generally refers to the propensity to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations (Sunstein and Vermeule, 2009)”.

Is conspiracist ideation a mental illness? Perhaps in some circumstances it could be a symptom of mental illness. In the examples I saw in Recursive Fury though, I did not think the comments could be regarded as enough to diagnose mental illness and nor did I feel the authors did so. The comments included things like accusations of scams and research misconduct, of deliberating skewing survey data, fabricating results and of cherry-picking. Pretty much all the usual defamatory stuff that can be found on “Skeptic” blogs.

I can’t pass judgement on the quality of the paper as I’m not qualified. I certainly found it interesting to read and I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of my own of conspiratorial thinking from climate science “Skeptics”. One interesting conclusion from the paper is that “a defining attribute of conspiracist ideation is its resistance to contrary evidence”. The authors argue that because of this, it is not worthwhile engaging directly with “Skeptics”.