Research misconduct in fish ecology and what it means for those who dare to challenge experts

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This has nothing to do with polar bears but everything to do with the scientific shenanigans that blight virtually all the fields that purport to support the human-caused climate change rhetoric, including polar bear research. The parallels of this example (published in Science Magazine yesterday) with my experience challenging the polar bear cabal is obvious, as it is with Dr. Peter Ridd’s battles with colleagues over the state of Great Barrier Reef corals, recently shown to be in spectacularly good condition.

Dr. Roger Pielke Jr., who’s had more than his fair share of trouble challenging climate change rhetorictweeted about this development yesterday but today he’s published a comprehensive essay explaining the whole sordid story, called ‚Fish and Foul: Three lessons from a massive research misconduct case in marine science‚. It’s well worth a read all the way through but I’ve provided a few excerpts below.

From Roger’s essay (10 August 2022):

Yesterday, Science magazine reported that the University of Delaware “found one of its star scientists guilty of research misconduct.” This is a big deal. Science reports that the university

has accepted an investigative panel’s conclusion that marine ecologist Danielle Dixson committed fabrication and falsification in work on fish behavior and coral reefs. The university is seeking the retraction of three of Dixson’s papers and “has notified the appropriate federal agencies,” a spokesperson says.

In response, Science retracted one of the three papers which last February was placed under an “editorial expression of concern.” The University of Delaware report and associated call to retract three papers is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg, as dozens of other studies may be implicated. In response, Prof. Dixson’s lawyer says, ““Dr. Dixson adamantly denies any and all allegations of wrongdoing, and will vigorously appeal any finding of research misconduct.”

In a nutshell, the controversy here involves research into the supposed effects of increased carbon dioxide levels on the behavior of tropical fish — and yes, that means there is a direct climate change connection. Professor Dixson and her collaborators, including her PhD supervisor Philip Munday of James Cook University (now retired) in Townsville, Australia, have published dozens of papers suggesting very large and ecologically harmful effects of increasing carbon dioxide on fish behavior. Not surprisingly, this research has been published in major journals, cited widely in the media and resulted in considerable public funding of subsequent studies.

One might think that uncovering and exposing scientific misconduct would be rewarded in the scientific community. Sometimes it is, but in many cases scientists themselves oppose the exposure of bad science. Such resistance is often political — including the small politics of academia and the big politics of how research plays in real world politics. In my experience, bringing into the picture climate change (or any hyper-politicized issue) dramatically increases the stakes and the magnitude of opposition.

Consider how Hans-Otto Pörtner of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany — a co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — responded to allegations of misconduct in this case:

“Building a career on judging what other people did is not right. If such a controversy gets outside of the community, it’s harmful because the whole community loses credibility.”

This statement gives me chills every time I read it.

An interesting side note here is that the allegations of fish research misconduct reach to James Cook University (where Prof. Dixson’s PhD supervisor recently retired from). You may have heard of James Cook University in another controversy — that involving marine researcher Peter Ridd, who lost his university job as a consequence of questioning the scientific merit of research suggesting that the Great Barrier Reef was in terminal decline (see this Twitter thread for more details). The Australian government just announced that the Great Barrier Reef has seen a record recent recovery. People can argue over whether Ridd was right or wrong, but there can be no doubt his views were legitimate. For expressing them, he was pushed out of the academy.

Here as well, it is much easier to describe what should be done than it is to figure out how to do it.

  • We all, but especially us experts, need to exhibit a much greater degree of single-study-skepticism. The IPCC is generally pretty boring for most people because it assembles a vast literature and thus avoids the single-study hyperbole and biases that are endemic to media coverage of climate research.
  • Replication and robustness must become more central to research with policy or political implications. It is ridiculously easy to cherry-pick single studies in support of a favorite policy or political party. But that is not how robust science is produced.
  • And once again, we in the scientific community need to realign our professional and career incentive structures to support good scientific practices and to discourage the bad. We are arguably far from that right now.


Read the whole thing here.

And to complete the theme, video on the Great Barrier Reef story from 6 August 2022:

via polarbearscience

August 10, 2022