WTF

So, did you hear about the Tim Hunt story? A guy said something, it was reported and people decided he was an evil sexist pig so he should be crucified. Only, it turns out what the guy said was a joke nothing like how it was reported, meaning the reactions had no real basis in reality, all because the people reporting it behaved in an unethical manner ranging from failing to make any effort to verify claims to straight up lying.

Or at least, that's how Louise Mensch portrays the situation. I know nothing about her. Prior to yesterday, I knew nothing about the Tim Hunt story. I had been avoiding it like the plague because it sounded annoying and obnoxious like so many other "scandal" stories do. If Mensch's portrayal is correct, I was right to try to avoid it.

But yesterday that changed. You see, I had happened to hear Ivan Oransky, the man responsible for the respected site Retraction Watch was involved in the Tim Hunt affair. Having been a fan of that site for some time, I'll admit I was a bit curious as to why I was hearing Oransky be criticized. I wasn't curious enough to look into the story though.

Then there was some of that crazy timing life likes to have. As you may know, I've criticized work by Richard Tol claiming to show there will be benefits from moderate amounts of global warming. It's not that I'm a skeptic or warmist. His work is just garbage. I'm not going to go into that, but as a critic of that work, I was obviously interested when Retraction Watch ran a story about one of Tol's papers two days ago. Never would I have expected that reading it would make me think there might be merit in the people calling Oransky dishonest over the Tim Hunt affair.

That's not to say I learned anything about the Hunt affair from what followed. I didn't. What I learned, however, is I don't trust Oransky anymore. I've always liked Retraction Watch. I always just kind of assumed since the site was about integrity in the field of science, Oransky much be a man of integrity. I can't make that assumption anymore. You see, I submitted this comment on that post at Retraction Watch:

Unfortunately, the IPCC Report which the journal decided to rely on contains a number of errors, including a number introduced while claiming to fix errors that didn't exist. There's also the fact the calculations used in the IPCC Report don't match the results published in Richard Tol's previous work, or indeed, previous drafts of the IPCC Report - a fact which the IPCC failed to address, much less explain. This is particularly troubling as Tol had repeatedly refused to provide the calculations for those earlier results.

In other words, Tol produced results, refused to provide the calculations which produced those numbers, then when finally forced to provide calculations, provided ones which produced different results. And rather than demand an explanation, the IPCC allowed him to quietly change his results, and the JEP just let him kite-check the reference for the change.

I've written about all this and more, including worse things and more fundamental problems with Tol's work, but nobody seemed to care, so I've pretty much given up on it. Before I did though, I did file a formal complaint with the IPCC, but the IPCC completely ignored it (even though doing so violates their own explicit policy on such matters), including when I tried following on the matter.

You'd think at least some skeptics would care about the IPCC flagrantly violating its own policies, but apparently they just like Tol's conclusions too much to mind the fact his work is complete and utter dreck, propped up only by about as unscientific of behavior as you can find this side of fraud.

It landed in moderation. I didn't think anything of that. None of my other comments at Retraction Watch had ever landed in moderation before, but moderation filters can be finicky, and I had used the word "fraud." That's a word which commonly gets comments flagged. But then I received an e-mail:

Hi Brandon, thanks for the comment. We confirm all facts in our comments, so could you send backup for the information here? Thanks.

Ivan Oransky

I didn't know what to make of it. My first reaction was, "That's a lie. I've posted a number of comments at Retraction Watch which stated things as fact, and none of them had ever landed in moderation before. I've never received an e-mail asking me to verify anything before. And haven't I seen people post contradictory statement at Retraction Watch before?"

But after a little bit, I decided maybe the e-mail seemed weirder than it actually was. Maybe Retraction Watch usually verifies facts in comments after-the-fact rather than pre-moderating comments. Maybe they usually don't ask users to help them verify things. Maybe I'm wrong when I think I remember wrong facts having been posted there before. Maybe it's unreasonable for me to think providing that link was enough documentation of my claims.

In other words, I decided to try not to read anything into the e-mail. I responded:

Would you be able to clarify what facts you want me to backup? I would be happy to provide whatever references you need, but given how vague the word "facts" is, I'm not sure what I would be expected to provide. That's especially true given the link I provided contains a complaint I drafted to collect a number of the issues with Tol's work and behavior, complete with details and references to allow verification. Unless I am mistaken, every fact I alleged in my comment at your site is documented in that complaint. I am happy to provide the information separately, but again, I would need to know what information is desired.

Cheers,
Brandon Shollenberger

There were a couple more e-mails with nothing of note, I submitted another comment responding to a new one I saw posted, and today while I was out of the house I thought things were resolved when I saw this e-mail on my phone:

Thanks, Brandon. I reviewed the material and approved your comment, sans the last line. It does seem like mind-reading to say what someone likes if we can't see the evidence for that. I approved your other comment, too, but also without the last line, since I think it's better (and more valuable) to stick to specific and verifiable criticism, and let it speak for itself, than to call all of a person's work "bad."

Best,
Ivan

I went to the website to verify. I saw one comment still had a note saying it was awaiting moderation and sent Oransky and e-mail:

The first comment still appears with a note saying it is awaiting moderation when I visit the page.

But I didn't think anything more of it. I wasn't thrilled Oransky had removed one sentence from each comment, but I didn't think much of it. He didn't remove substantive points, so if he wants to remove my editorializing, whatever. I don't get why he would, but... eh.

So I went back to the site to look to make sure both comments were out of moderation, thinking that'd be the end of it. I was shocked. You see, there was something I hadn't noticed on my phone's little screen. Let's see if you notice it in this screenshot:

7_22_Oransky_1

Do you see it there? Right at the end of the comment? If not, try this screenshot:

7_22_Oransky_2

Nope. It's not there either.

I'm, of course, talking about the moderator note informing people part of the comment was removed. It's not there. Nobody reading my comments at Retraction Watch could possibly tell they've been edited.

Oransky edited what I wrote then posted for people to see as though it was unedited. That's completely dishonest.

And you know what the worst part of this is? It's only chance Oransky cut the last sentences of these comments. Well, not so much chance as rhetorical style. When making comments to provide information, I usually try to lead with my substantive points then end with any rhetorical flourishes I make. That leaves my editoralization at the end of the comment.

But the point is, Oransky could have cut out any part of my comment. Or any other comment. Without noting he did so. He can apparently remove any part of any comment he wants, and just not leave any record of it. Heck, he didn't even ask me about my second comment. If he hadn't already been in communication with me, would he have even told me he edited it? I don't know. I wouldn't count on it.

This is not okay. Site owners can moderate how they please, sure, but they can't just change people's comments without leaving a trace. Except, apparently Oransky does. How often? Who knows.

It sure does cast a new light on the Tim Hunt affair for me though. Quoting one of the more atrocious articles on the story:

Though his comments were not recorded, several science journalists created a “post-hoc transcript,” Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the Retraction Watch blog and editorial director of MedPage Today, told BuzzFeed News by email. Another journalist who was there, Connie St Louis, who directs the science journalism program at City University, London, then tweeted the unofficial transcript:

Nobel scientist Tim Hunt FRS @royalsociety says at Korean women lunch “I’m a chauvinist and keep ‘girls’ single lab
— Connie St Louis (@connie_stlouis)

“I was gobsmacked,” Oransky said. “I wouldn’t treat them as quotes, per se, given the circumstances, but they’re the words he used.”

Yeah, I'm sure they're the words Tim Hunt used Oransky. How many did you secretly edit out? Or do you do more than secretly edit out whatever portions of material you don't feel like letting people see? Do you also add words in? Do you change words too?

I don't know. I'm rambling. I'm doing something I normally don't let myself do - posting while angry. So I'm just going to stop now, without any proper conclusion or insightful last remarks. Instead, I'll just copy the e-mail I sent to Oransky:

Dear Ivan,

I'm happy to report both of my comments now appear on your site properly, but I need to apologize. That last e-mail was sent from my phone, and I hadn't checked your site very closely before sending it. Because of that, I need to now say... What?!

Leaving aside the reasoning you provide, are you really saying you just edited the comments I submitted without leaving any indication? That is not okay. You cannot simply remove portions of a comment and pretend they were never there. That is completely dishonest.

I suppose I should count myself fortunate the sentences you removed were at the end of my comments so you merely truncated them. What would have happened had they not been? Would you have removed sentences from the middle of a paragraph and left no trace of your excision like you've done here?

This is beyond absurd. You demanded I provide verification of facts prior to allowing my comments to be seen, presumably on the grounds of some journalistic ethic, but then turned around and altered what I wrote without indicating such? That is obscene.

Brandon Shollenberger

17 comments

  1. Oransky has been editing my comments, too, on his most recent Lewandowsky post.

    http://retractionwatch.com/2015/07/08/recursive-recursiveness-retracted-lewandowsky-et-al-conspiracy-ideation-study-republished

    With the first comment, we discussed it a bit by email. But my second comment he just edited, leaving a comment there from me that appears to be just quoting Lewandowsky, which is not my style. Unfortunately I didn't keep a comment of the original, but I think it said something like 'we only have Lewandowsky's word for it...'

    It seems that comments criticising Lewandowsky get edited. But an off-topic comment from Rabett sneering at Markram is allowed.

    With regard to the Tim Hunt affair, the charge against Oransky (or perhaps one of the charges) is that he knew that claims that Hunt's speech was met with deathly silence, made and widely publicised a day or two after the event, were not true, but said nothing about this. An interview with him about it eventually came out, but only about a month after the event.

    Like you, I no longer trust Oransky, having previously regarded him as an upholder of integrity.

  2. Paul Matthews, it's good to know I'm not the only one this has happened to. Well, sort of good to know. My e-mail to Oransky was originally a little different, but I edited it to tone it down. I don't have a copy of the original original draft (which is probably for the best), but here's a line from the "original" draft I was going to send:

    I sincerely hope you don't make a habit of engaging in such dishonest behavior. I can't imagine anything more pathetic than a person presenting himself as a watchman for scientific integrity engaging in systematic fraud.

    I kind of wish I would have kept it in now as I obtained something of an official confirmation this sort of editing is official Retraction Watch policy about twenty minutes before your comment.

    As in, this is exactly what they mean to do. They knowingly edit people's comments without leaving leaving any indication, and they don't feel it necessary tell the person who left the comment. It's institutionalized dishonesty. It is outright fraud.

  3. While discussing this on Twitter, the user Shub Niggurath said he had a similar experience. He kindly forwarded me an e-mail chain with Ivan Oransky regarding the experience. Sadly, the chain doesn't have the original comment (like how Oransky didn't include the original version of my second comment he edited), but it still shows the exact same problem.

    In the post after this one I show Oransky admits this sort of practice is actually the standard policy for Retraction Watch, but it's good to confirm there have been other cases of it. This means there have been at least three people who have had comments edited without any indication of the edits being left. Who knows how many more there many more there may have been?

  4. Brandon, I have the same experience as Paul. Feel free to post my email exchange with him. I don't think emailing commenters and discussing issues with them is a bad idea. In fact, it is great. But in my case the discussion happened because I wrote a second comment protesting Oransky's actions. What if I was just a random commenter who'd said something and moved on? Onlookers would see my first comment and think that's what I wrote. Secondly, though the comment had been eventually edited with mutual discussion, which is a good thing, there is no public record that it was.

    Two strikes.

  5. I just wanted to post to say I've talked to Paul Matthews and confirmed his account. He asked me not to publish any of the communication between him and Ivan Oransky though, and I'll obviously respect that.

    I want to point something out though. After reviewing Oransky's e-mails, it's clear he doesn't just delete material from people's comments like he did mine. He edits them. He changes words, adds sentences, everything. In other words, Retraction Watch takes full editorial control over every comment published on their site. For all you know, any word written in any comment on Retraction Watch may have been written by Ivan Oransky himself, not the commenter whose name it is attached to.

    That might be the most disgusting thing I've ever seen on the internet.

  6. I admit I've sometimes fixed broken blockquotes or html. (Usually after being asked to do so.)

    Obviously, if someone has a policy of editing comments (for anything other than clearly broken html), they should have a companion policy of making the edits obvious. This include using things like & or [-- deleted--] and adding "edited" at the bottom of the quote.

    It isn't right to leave up comments that suggest a person actually wrote that specific thing and change them.
    On the one hand, Oransky is tap-dancing on the egde because his comments policy does say he edits. But on the other hand: he should indicate when and where it has been done.

    Deleting is different. One can delete or moderate without leaving a [comment deleted] box.

  7. lucia, here's an interesting question to consider. Leaving aside all other issues, it's clear I am not happy with the edited versions of my comments being displayed under my name as though they are what I wrote, feeling that it is a misrepresentation. Ivan Oransky is clearly aware of my feelings on this matter. Despite that, he chooses to leave them as they are.

    That means Oransky is knowingly presenting material I created in a way which I feel misrepresents it. The question is what, if any, recourse do I have in this situation? If the answer is "none," then it may follow any comment on any site can be freely modified with the result falsely attributed to a user.

    I'd like to think that's not the case, but I don't know. What I do know is I should probably take a break from the internet for a few hours so I can stop thinking about all this. I still can't get past how absurd this is. I mean, even if the people at Retraction Watch believe they somehow have the moral right to do this, why would they do it? What kind of thought process leads to the conclusion, "I should rewrite that person's comment then pass it off as what he wrote?"

  8. Brandon

    That means Oransky is knowingly presenting material I created in a way which I feel misrepresents it. The question is what, if any, recourse do I have in this situation?

    I agree you have a legitimate gripe.

    What kind of thought process leads to the conclusion, “I should rewrite that person’s comment then pass it off as what he wrote?”

    No idea. Most people either delete or make the editing obvious-- by including things like [snip] or [deleted].
    The readers know that comment was edited.

    It's all well and good for a moderator to say its their policy to edit, snip and so on. But site visitors-- i.e. readers-- should expect to know when comments they are reading have been edited by staff. That appears not to be the case at retraction watch and their policy is wrong headed.

    In some cases I can imagine it could lead to liability if the edited comment harmed the person attributed to it in any way. That would likely be rarely-- but.... still....

  9. Oh, if the changes to my comments made me look bad, there would definitely be a liability issue. False light laws exist for a reason. Oransky's actions would easily support a lawsuit under them, save that I can't see that I aas actually harmed.

    But I think what he did was a copyright violation.

  10. I had almost exactly the same experience with my comments on RW. Earlier, I posted a lot of comments there related to authorship/plagiarism. I had a good opinion of I. Oranski because he never banned my link to my website http://www.universitytorontofraud.com while practically all other "respectable" blogs did, including Nature, see http://www.universitytorontofraud.com/nature.html
    However, Oranski, indeed, corrected some of my comments not acknowledging it. Finally, I quit because he banned my comment that was not exactly on the feminist lines: I just noted that among thousands of men painters there was only a handful of women, and never of the first class. He asked for proof. I gave the proof. Then he sent me several very long emails, with completely ridiculous and irrelevant arguments. I kept answering but then - quit posting there. It was unpleasant to continue.

    I believe it is very, very important to reveal all things about commenting on various blogs. I agree that Oranski has his "biases", but I never expected such thing as he did with Sir Tim. I think it will have an impact on how people read his blog.

  11. Michael Pyshnov, thanks for your comment. Do you happen to have any copies of your comments prior to them being modified? One maddening thing about this is how it seems none of us kept copies of our original comments. I know it never occurred to me I would have reason to at a site like Retraction Watch. I had assumed even if they edited a comment of mine, they would do so in an honest manner so I'd be okay with it. I have a full copy of my first comment largely by chance, but I don't have an unedited copy of my second comment.

    I think it would be interesting to have more examples of just what sort of changes Oransky makes to comments.

  12. Hi, Brandon,
    What I sometimes did was making graphic capture when my comment first appeared on the screen as "awaiting moderation". Some of this never appeared and were kept in this category. Sometimes, we exchanged emails, I just don't remember all this in the particular cases. Somewhere I have some of these images, but it's difficult to find them now, although indeed they were in a common folder. Well, it is searchable, but will take time, I cannot do it now. I remember a case when Oranski removed my ironic reference to twitter. Did you see my exchange with Nature? A few months ago Nature send me a notice of removal of my comment published several years ago. I had really terrible time with Times Higher Education blog; also took some images and/or HTMLs. Well, that is how the sci. establishment is fighting sci. fraud!

    I think there should be made a special blog devoted to the practice of censorship in blogs; I mean - collecting documents from people. I never ever tried to post any legitimately objectionable material anywhere. Usually, censorship was "explained" to me by the fear of a law suit for defamation. My reaction to this is expressed in the following comments (third from the end and the last in the thread):

    https://pubpeer.com/topics/1/C4521AE54A5DCF9FDB8E8D94D2FC10#fb21556

    And that's basically was my internet activity since about 1998, actually - earlier.

  13. Pingback: Timing | Izuru
  14. Brandon Shollenberger, I agree that it is not a good idea to make invisible edits in blog comments.

    The people behind Retraction Watch are journalists and in journalism it is allowed to change what someone wrote to make it more concise or better legible as long as it does not change the meaning. Thus I understand that they thought that what they did was okay.

    Given that bloggers are not professionals and sometimes behave dishonestly, it makes sense to have a zero-tolerance policy for changing blog comments.

    I have explained the difference between the two cultures in a friendly and emphatic mail to Retraction Watch. They have changed their moderation rules in response. In future they will delete comments where before they would have made an edit.

  15. Fun fact Victor Venema, newspapers invite readers to submit letters, explicitly informing them they reserve the right to edit the letters for various reasons (which they specify). Had Retraction Watch done the same, I would have had no issue, because there would have been nothing secret about it.

    As for people behaving dishonestly, I would suggest coming here and excusing blatantly dishonest behavior in any way, like you've just done, is at a minimum, rude. I would further suggest linking to a tweet of mine under the words "sometimes behave dishonestly," implicitly suggesting my words can be taken as a reference to dishonest behavior when they referenced a specific group, is certainly worse than rude.

    In fact, I'm not capable of being my normal civil self this week, so I'll just be blunt. You're being your typical, tribalistic, self right now. You're doing it to such an extent you are either being dishonest with yourself, or you're being dishonest with me and anyone reading these comments. You did much the same thing with the comments regarding BEST in the earlier thread a few days ago, but on a more minor scale. As for your claim to have caused Retraction Watch to change their moderation policy, I'm going to call BS on that. Their change in policy almost certainly had little to do with you or your actions. It is simply silly to believe a single e-mail from you would have a significant effect while the bad publicity they were receiving did not. This is especially true given the petulance of their response can be tied directly to their exchanges with me.

    So do us all a favor, and bugger off you pathetic glory hound. You have nothing of value to contribute anyway.

  16. I think Retraction Watch thought that they had also informed their readers that they could edit comments. The job of the editors of newspaper is to make invisible edits and then the piece is still published under the name of the journalist.

    Sorry for making that link to your tweet in such a stupid way. I included it to acknowledge that I had seen it and appreciate that you are an independent thinker. That is also why I put your blog on my blog feed.

    In this case I agree with you that those edits are a problem and was happy that we solved the problem together. Had I seen on your twitter feed that you are not too happy with the solution, I had formulated my comment differently. I thought you would also be happy that this problem is now solved. I will bugger off this week.

  17. The problem is that these blogs, most important and visited ones, and setting public opinion and setting the final interpretation and final decision on individual cases and on policies, are written and moderated not by scientists, but by the "journalists" who run the whole thing on political rails. In other words, they are run by crooks. Moreover, these crooks appear amazingly uniform in their "policies" and judgements. Can an individual scientist compete with, say, Nature? No, but moreover, these global forums not only misinterpret the events, but they also ban any individual scientist who dares to contradict - such is their FEAR OF TRUTH coming out in public.

    Now, why journalists instead of scientists? It's simple: a scientist would think about his reputation as a scientist before writing a garbage, while journalist has the only obligation to be liked by his boss. In addition, journalist has always an excuse of having no knowledge in a particular scientific area. Exactly the same picture exists within administration of science - it is run by... lawyers. This, of course, not to say that these "journalists" do not have a background in law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *