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