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When scientists take to the streets it’s time to listen up

Posted on 20 June 2011 by John Cook

Reposted from The Conversation. This is the seventh part in a two-week series Clearing up the Climate Debate.

CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Dr Michael Brown exposes the tactics used by purveyors of “non-science” to attack climate change research.

It takes a lot to get scientists out of their offices and marching on Parliament.

But in recent weeks that’s exactly what some of Australia’s top researchers have taken to doing.

Former Governor of Victoria and scientist David de Kretser brought an open letter to Parliament House last week and just today the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies (FASTS) has launched its Respect the Science campaign from the same location.

The Federation claims that attacks on climate scientists are “undermining the national building work of all scientists.”

The Conversation has also hosted an open letter from dozens of concerned scientists trying to get the message across that human-induced climate change is a real threat.

So what is it that has got our science community so riled up?

It might be something to do with the death threats many climate scientists have been receiving. CEO of FASTS Anna Maria Arabia was on the wrong end of one just this morning.

But for many, it’s simply the tactics of “the other side” of the climate change debate that has spurred on their public demonstrations.

When the forces of non-science are this strong, it’s time for scientists to respond.

Cherries and missing ingredients

Those denying the science of climate change present arguments that appear scientific, with measurements, theories, statistics and jargon.

But many of those denying climate change are not truly doing science.

Science tries to provide the simplest explanation for a wealth of measurements in the natural world.

Non-science, on the other hand, cherry-picks evidence. A classic example is only plotting a few years of temperature records, rather than the past 150 years.

When non-science tries to describe all the observations, it requires contrived explanations as it attempts to avoid the simplest scientific explanation. Ian Plimer invokes underwater volcanoes to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the numbers required are vast compared to the actual number of volcanoes.

Purveyors of non-science charge that thousands of scientists are ignorant of basic science.

This would be shocking, if it were not patently false.

A central claim of climate change denial is that the physics of thermodynamics is in conflict with climate models. Even a quick Google search reveals that this claim has been refuted many times.

So why is this false claim continually repeated?

I can only speculate. Perhaps it is now a negative political catchphrase, which is repeated often so it can be confused with truth.

Practitioners of non-science loudly proclaim that climate models cannot be trusted, as they are missing key components.

When subjected to scrutiny, these supposed key ingredients are often speculative and not backed by robust evidence. To include speculative theories in climate models would only make the models less trustworthy, not more so.

The medium, message and messenger

The practitioners of non-science claim peer review is used to enforce groupthink. This is not the case.

Most scientists review as thoroughly and impartially as possible because peer review is central to the health of science.

Many scientists will recall reviewing papers where they doubted the conclusions but accepted the paper, as there were no obvious flaws in the method, data and theory used.

Both sides of the climate debate communicate to the public via the media, and this is at the crux of recent activism on the part of Australian scientists.

Science uses media to communicate results from science journals to the public and policy makers. Non-science uses the media as its principal means of communicating its conclusions. But often, both get equal play.

Press releases, popular articles, books, letters, websites and think tank reports do not undergo peer review. Conclusions may not be backed up by sound methodology, accurate data and appropriate use of theories.

Personal attacks, rhetorical flourishes, witticisms and point scoring make good copy, but do not alter the basic science.

If the media is the only means being used to present supposed scientific results, there are good reasons to be suspicious.

Letters signed by esteemed scientists can highlight that an issue is important. But there are millions of scientists, so it is not surprising each side can muster hundreds of signatories.

Think tanks are often present in the climate debate, but these organisations are often ideologically driven and associated with particular political beliefs.

At best, think tanks present science that is consistent with their political beliefs. At worst, think tanks commission reports and books that are politically motivated non-science.

A sceptical view of think tanks is probably better justified than a sceptical view of climate science.

It’s all a mistake

Non-science claims science is not to be trusted.

To back this claim they provide examples of where there have been paradigm shifts in science; relativity, dinosaur extinction, plate tectonics and the causes of ulcers.

But there are stark differences between these paradigm shifts and the current climate debate.

When paradigm shifts have occurred, often the evidence for the prevailing theory had been weak.

Paradigm shifts have also been accompanied by robust evidence contrary to the prevailing theory. For example, relativity was preceded by precision measurements of the constant speed of light.

In contrast, those denying climate change only use weak evidence.

Classic non-science evidence includes plots where temperature appears to vary along with something other than carbon dioxide. Such plots can be suspect.

If one generates large numbers of plots, one can find apparent correlations between two unrelated quantities.

For example, the increasing number of HIV infections has been accompanied by an increasing number of personal computers. Only a fool would suggest one directly causes the other.

In contrast to randomly generating plots, climate science makes predictions for the relationship between carbon dioxide levels, air temperature and sea level rise.

Observations are then be used to test these predictions and significant discrepancies are always investigated.

This is how good science is done.

If it takes a march to the halls of government to highlight the different between good science and non-science, then that is what the scientific community must do.

Acknowledgement: I was inspired to write this article by the discussion threads that follow climate change articles in “The Conversation”, where many of the tactics of non-science are on display.

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Comments 1 to 28:

  1. I've just written the following on a thread on Carbon Brief. [I reference 'Svensmark' only because the commenter to whom I was replying brought up the name.]

    I'd be interested to know whether I could have expressed anything any better -- bearing in mind that the comment is aimed at the lay person rather than someone who understands the scientific process. I'm just trying to improve my ability to get across the message encapsulated above in the 'Conversation' article.

    "Please understand that I am not a climate scientist, so rather than come up with my own ideas I rely on the climate scientists to explain what's happening. I've read a lot of what they tell us and it pretty much all makes good sense. The sums stack up and it fits in with my understanding of science. Sure there are uncertainties, occasional errors and ideas will change over time, but the proper way the consensus is modified is by scientists discovering or recording new data which then persuades the mainstream to modify their views. This has been happening for the past 40 years or more as our understanding of Earth's climate has evolved. Whenever a 'maverick scientist' comes along and offers an alternative explanation for what is being observed, then other scientists will study it, test and then it will modify our collective understanding -- or not. I, personally, would be mad to go along with outlying ideas until scientists working in appropriate fields have processed and filtered them and as a result they have changed the consensus view. That's how science works.

    Believe me, if the Svensmark team come up with something valuable it will change ideas. But it seems to me that you are too anxious to prove that the consensus is wrong and are clutching at contrarian straws. The consensus accommodates the scientifically-strongest theories/beliefs that exist at any point in time. Rest assured; if the consensus proves to be wrong, it will change. Since science began, it always has and it always will. As they say, the truth will out. As non-scientists we have to believe that the consensus as it is at this moment is correct for this moment and behave accordingly. To do otherwise is just crazy. Surely you must see the logic in that?
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  2. John Russel Looks a sound approach to me. The Svensmark hypothesis is a good example in that Svensmark has been well funded to investigate his hypotheis (e.g. CLOUD project at CERN), and nobody was ridiculing Svensmarks basic hypothesis, the major critcism was of his lack of self-skepticism and tendancy to overstatement. This shows that the scientific community (who would have reviewed his grant proposals) are not afraid of having their paradigm overthrown, but they would require compelling evidence.
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  3. Taking to the streets is an emotional exercise.

    Science is an exercise of cold rationality.

    When scientists take to the streets, it is the activity ( which is not science ) to ignore.
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  4. ClimateWatcher Taking to the streets is not necessarily an emotional exercise, raising awareness of an issue by public demonstration is perfectly rational behaviour. Science is not the exercise of cold rationality, it has a large imaginative and creative component; oddly enough very few scientists are like Spock from Start Trek. When scientists take to the streets to raise awareness of an important issue, then ignoring it would be irrational. Who better to raise awareness of scientiffic issues in the general public than those who actually know something about the science. Apart from that, I am in complete agreement. ;o)
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  5. CW, it's an exercise of political will, just as the social production of scientific knowledge is an exercise of political will. There's not much difference between writing on a blog and taking it to the streets. The action in the streets is just a different type of expression, a type designed to put human faces and figures on the act of solidarity. Your appearance on this blog is also an "emotional exercise." What's the point, after all?

    Note that you use the word "cold" with "rationality." The idea of "coldness" here is not simply "without emotion." Rather, its connotation is "with intentional disregard for the human condition." There is a suggestion of perverse pleasure in the disregard, as in "cold-blooded killer." Yet the social production of scientific knowledge is not an exercise in rationality--cold or otherwise. It certainly incorporates rationality, but what we choose to study, what we choose to focus on, what we choose to fund--those are questions that come from the answer to "What is important?" Upon what basis do you determine what is important? Propagation of the species? Whatever God(s) will? Social justice? Individual liberty?

    Why do we study global climate? If science were privatized, think about how science would change. How many areas of study would be abandoned? Parts of the scientific process (methodology/falsifiability, analysis) are intended to be strictly factual, but every scientific report begins with at least a hint of justification and ends with at least a hint of "this is why what we've done is important."

    Cold rationality . . . from a human? As someone once said of Ayn Rand, "she was perfectly rational, as long as you agreed with her understanding of the world."
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  6. ClimateWatcher @3 appears to make some bizarre assumptions.

    He describes science as an exercise in cold rationality. Personally, from what I know of the scientists that have impressed me most - Darwin, Einstein, and so on - it has been an exercise of passionate rationality, but never mind that.

    He also describes taking to the streets as an emotional exercise. Again I disagree. The protester in Egypt, despite the risks they took, where acting rationally and it was rationality that gave them reason to be their, even though it was emotion that gave them the courage to do so. So, like science, protesting can be an act of passionate rationality. But never mind that.

    What I object to is ClimateWatcher's assumption that a scientist is only ever a scientist. That is of course nonsense. Scientists are brothers and sisters, friends, and parents. Some are footballers, or debaters, or concert goers. Above all, they are citizens. And being a citizen must be a passionate thing, and a rational thing, if you are to truly be a citizen.

    Further, to the extent that ClimateWatcher allows that scientists are more than just automata in laboratories, he assumes that they cannot bring the rationality of their science into their public life.

    ClimateWatcher has to make these assumptions because if he did not, he would have to acknowledge that something is happening to make a large group of very intelligent, very rational people who are better informed on the topic than anyone else to become passionate as citizens about global warming.

    Because when scientists march, it is because their science is telling them something they cannot ignore as citizens. Something, indeed, that will be a matter of life and death for future generations.

    And who, in the world knows better than they?
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  7. Sometimes when scientists take to the streets they put themselves above the science. Mark Lynas as an interesting thread going about conflicts of interest:

    http://www.marklynas.org/2011/06/questions-the-ipcc-must-now-urgently-answer/
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  8. Eric the Red @7, I have read Lynas' ill informed rant. It turns out that he has a hate on for Greenpeace. Fair enough, I'm not that fond of them myself. What I don't accept, however, is that their scientific work should be rejected simply because I or anyone else dislike their politics. In this case the critique has been entirely centred on the fact of Greenpeace involvement (just one person) in an IPCC panel. It turns out that those aggrieved by this don't want to have anything to do with discussing the actual scientific merits of the report, or of the "controversial paper".

    So while in this case I agree with you that somebody is putting themselves above the science, it is those like Lynas and McIntyre who want to censure a report without discussing the merits, and who want to permanently disbar some people from scientific contribution because Lynas and McIntyre happen to dislike their politics.
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  9. Tom,
    Agreed. I have a similar problem with people who dismiss the merits of a scientific paper just because it is referenced on a particular website which they disdain.

    I will admit that I am not particularly fond of greenpeace either, but is largely due to their tactics rather than their stances. I do not think anyone could convince that greenpeace would be a reliable entity to reference about future energy, any more than Exxon would be, which I thought was an excellent analogy put forth by Mark. I know some people do not like Lynas because of his unorthodox environmentalism, but sometimes I feel he says things that need to be said.
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  10. Eric the Red wrote: "I have a similar problem with people who dismiss the merits of a scientific paper just because it is referenced on a particular website which they disdain."

    Frankly, that formulation seems implausible. Many of the worst denial sites reference valid peer-reviewed papers all the time... to deny them. I don't see people running around saying that suddenly makes those papers incorrect.

    In my experience, denial sites most commonly provide made up nonsense rather than material from scientific papers and thus it is indeed common for things appearing on these sites to be dismissed based on their track record. The few scientific papers touted on denial sites tend to be misrepresented or dismissed for being really really bad science, rather than because of where they were mentioned.
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  11. Having worked among scientists for quite some time I know it takes a lot to get them to take collective action.

    Something weird is going on in society these days. It's as if people are oblivious to the world we live in - the natural world and the scientific advances that have made modern living possible.

    I bet a lot of the anti-science crowd take their vitamins and blood pressure pills every morning, pick up their mobile phone, log into their computer - check their mining and pharma shares, listen to the radio - for the world news (arriving via satellite or undersea fibre optic cable) - and the local weather forecast (using satellites), get their pasteurised milk - from the refrigerator, cook an egg in a teflon pan, jump in their car, and don't even think of the irony of their contempt for science.

    There have always been people who are afraid of knowledge and learning, mostly those who've never tried it.

    I applaud the action scientists are taking. I am hopeful it will make every one wake up a bit more and do their bit to stop anti-science in its tracks and make sure we lower carbon emissions enough soon enough.
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  12. I do not think anyone could convince that greenpeace would be a reliable entity to reference about future energy, any more than Exxon would be, which I thought was an excellent analogy put forth by Mark.


    Not really. The paper involved was peer-reviewed, not part of the "grey literature" as claimed by Lynas (he actually pointed it that it's a peer-reviewed journal but, as arbiter of all that's Right and Good decided on his own authority that it's "grey", which is crap). The greenpeace employee was only one author of the paper. He was one of several lead authors for the IPCC chapter - another worked for a petroleum institute but Lynas and you haven't twisted your panties in a knot over that, strangely.

    There are people from Exxon and other fossil fuel companies and organizations involved in the IPCC process, and actually you don't see the reaction that would lend Lynas' analogy credibility ...

    And, of course, the IPCC report in question took four scenarios from the literature, ranging from the most optimistic (the one that so upset's McI and Lynas) to the most pessimistic.

    Lynas is most upset, it appears, because someone dared publish research that shows significant decarbonization that doesn't include his pet tech solution, nuclear power ...
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  13. CB,
    It happens all the time. Denier sites reference alarmist papers and alarmist sites reference denier papers. Mostly to do just as you propose. Most of the time, the sites will reference the original work.

    What happens next is that someone will reference the paper from that site (oftentimes because they do not have access to the original work, or refuse to pay), and be accused of misuse of the author's work because it was referenced from a site which they oppose.

    I have seen that happen repeatedly here.
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  14. Eric the Red wrote : "What happens next is that someone will reference the paper from that site (oftentimes because they do not have access to the original work, or refuse to pay), and be accused of misuse of the author's work because it was referenced from a site which they oppose."


    Some examples would be nice. Not more of your suspicions, is it ?
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  15. Eric @9,

    "I thought was an excellent analogy put forth by Mark.."

    Actually is was a lousy "analogy", because it does not fairly represent what actually happened in this case. It was an analogy designed to appeal to people's emotion, and it was not based in the facts at hand, so it was an unrealistic comparison. Additionally, even though it was a hypothetical scenario(compared to the reality of what has transpired) it sadly worked beautifully at inciting the masses, just read the comment thread, it work beautifully.

    That is very poor journalism. So is making serious accusations, running an article with a misleading and pejorative headline before actually fact checking.

    Ironically, those are tactics well used by the likes of McIntyre-- make loud pronouncements of wrong doing or allegations of nefarious goings on, which are then happily amplified in the echo chamber (i.e., internet) and then refuse to concede or correct errors when pointed out to you. Actually this is very much an example of Lynas, McI et al falsely accusing others of exactly what you are doing, in this case propaganda, appealing to emotion and not correcting mistakes.

    The sad part is that this has now, thanks to Lynas and Watts and Curry and Romm jumping on board degenerated into a mud fight, with one objective only-- to score points, and in the case of the "skeptics" to further their agenda against the IPCC and scientists.

    And for the record, I am OK with FF groups being involved in the IPCC, so long as they are not there to obfuscate, delay and be obstructionist. I believe that they can and must make a positive contribution to the process. So Mark's analogy fails again...

    Lynas needs to come clean as to the real reason for his "outrage", is it really the exclusion of nuclear. I suspect that we will never know.

    Now with that all said, the IPCC have to get much, much better at media and public relations. Because it they screw that up, the science underpinning AGW also suffers (it is amazing how easily conflate adaptation and mitigation with the core science). Wholly unacceptable.

    The problem is that to do so governments need to spend more money on the IPCC. I think most people perceive them as a huge organization with unlimited resources, when in reality they are really run by a skeleton staff, and the reports are written and reviewed by scientists who volunteer their time. And unfortunately, from time-to-time the fact that they lack resources and experience in PR and media relations (unlike the denial spin ma and disinformation machine)shows.
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  16. Eric the Red wrote: "I have seen that happen repeatedly here."

    Excellent. Then it should be easy to cite examples from this very site.

    I do note that you have changed from saying that people dismiss the scientific papers to dismissing descriptions of them on particular websites... which is a very different thing. You also discount the apparently stated reason ("misuse of the author's work") in favor of your own interpretation ("just because it is referenced on a particular website"). Have you actually looked to verify that those websites AREN'T misrepresenting the scientific paper(s)?
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  17. CB,

    Oftentimes the websites do misrepresent the paper. However, the link to the paper is still valid. Whatever the website says about the paper does not change the original work.
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    Response:

    [DB] We're still waiting on those examples you mentioned from this site...

  18. Eric the Red:

    "I have seen that happen repeatedly here."
    "Oftentimes the websites do misrepresent the paper."

    Do you have examples from this site? If so, please cite them.
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  19. Climate Watcher succinctly summarises the denier approach. It is fine for the denial industry to use every resource available - massive media support, energy company funding of "think tanks" and denier groups, members of parliament, production of bots to infect threads, shock jocks manufacturing outrage - but they don't want any opposition to that very successful campaign, so scientists should just stay in their laboratories quietly and objectively. Not seen and not heard. Hey, they might not even exist.

    The Lynas thing is a confluence of two forces. One is the same as the CW approach. Any time we can find any group with environmental concern involved in any way with the IPCC process, why, we will protest loudly.Groups concerned with the environment obviously have no business being concerned with the environment. So we will kick any head that emerges, that will make people wary of using people with environmental concern in any capacity at all. Job done.

    The second strain is the nuclear one. The nuclear promoters have seen in the climate change concern the ideal vehicle to ram home nuclear power as a solution overcoming all the concerns that people have about it. if you don't want nuclear power then you can't, obviously, be seriously concerned about climate change, goes the line. But simultaneously they have to block any attempt by people supporting renewable energy to put the case. pretend that there is no possible way renewable energy can do the job. Especially "80%". So shoot the messenger.
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  20. "Science is an exercise of cold rationality."

    When your fellow citizen's would rather believe in fairies than see a problem coming, then the rational thing to do might well be hit the streets. Imagine predicting an earthquake and keeping it a learned journal without telling the citizens. When the earthquake struck, how would the citizens feel? In this case, the scientist can at least say "well we tried but you were too deep in your political shell to listen".
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  21. I've been searching for it, but cannot find it - a cartoon that speaks to this topic:

    A man in a lab coat, looking a lot like Einstein, comes out into the hall with a horrified expression and a sign saying "The End Is Near!".

    Two other lab-coated men in the foreground look at this, one remarking "I don't like the looks of this..."

    When those scientists who actually know the subject under consideration take to political demonstrations, that means they have something to worry about!
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  22. @3, ClimateWatcher:

    "Cold rationality" - clearly you are not a scientist, and have never participated in a "vigorous" scientific debate !

    I also dislike your attitude of "Scientists should be seen and not heard", and find it rather patronizing.

    Getting back to the article itself, and attacks on scientists in general, what we are witnessing now is comparable to the Catholic church's attacks on heliocentrism, and to the Nazi's campaign against "Jewish Science". Fortunately, it has not reached the intensity of those attacks, but with trillions of dollars and political power at stake, I fear for the safety of all working scientists, particularly those with a high media profile.
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  23. ClimateWatcher @3
    "Taking to the streets is an emotional exercise."

    Actually it is a political exercise - an attempt to draw public attention to an issue. That issue is the campaign by vested interests and certain political blocs to obscure or misdirect the message that AGW is real.

    The current denialist line is that the science is not consistant or conclusive. Doubt is cast over every detail the business as usual advocates can find but no consistant alternative thesis is put forward. Scientists are frustrated that their work so far is not being fairly reported.

    They've done (and continue to do) their work with regard to the science. The new task is to get the message out to the public because media and political policy makers have laregely failed to do so.

    Your comment suggests that scientists are not entitled to the same political rights as other members of the community.
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  24. Stevo, I think you hit the nail on the head with your last sentence.

    It's a common political tactic. Scream your side of the argument to the heavens, and then shut down your opponent so they can't present their side.

    Alan Jones did just that to David Karoly in that recent radio inquisition. I've seen other 'sceptics' use exactly the same tactic on mainstream TV (much to the shame of the so-called moderators of the discussions).

    It seems the scientists have just about run out of patience, and might even think about being a little bit rude to get their point across (certain rap videos notwithstanding! :-)
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  25. 'Eric the Red wrote: "I have seen that happen repeatedly here."'

    Waiting, waiting ... particularly for an example that isn't an own goal for denialists, because we are subject to the occasional flooding of posts pointing to papers that contradict the contrarian points a poster attempts to make...

    Oh, wait! Maybe that's what you're trying to say! You've seen *denialists* repeatedly fail here ...
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  26. Oh yes, I often witness deniers making up stuff and qualifying it with 'it's just my opinion' - or 'I seem to recall' - and never backing up the falsehood with evidence, obviously, because they can't. (I've been the target of such attacks myself for being an 'alarmist'.)

    It's a widely used tactic and I usually make the effort to counter it, because it's worth it even though it's tedious. (Same thing happens with gossipers - it's a tried and true technique throughout time immemorial probably, to start a rumour and then say 'no smoke without fire' - even though the gossiper was the one that made the smoke in the first place.)
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  27. dhogaza,

    You must have missed it. Maybe KR say it before it was deleted.
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  28. Eric the Red - While a few "test" posts appear to have been deleted, I don't see any of your posts with content that have been removed.

    Certainly there don't seem to be any posts containing examples of misrepresented papers (as you claimed earlier), as per dhogaza's or my questions, that have been deleted. But I'm not a moderator, perhaps I've missed something.

    I would suggest (re)posting your examples, paying attention to the Comments Policy while doing so.
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    Response:

    [DB] You are correct, on all counts.  You haven't missed anything, O' Sharp of Eye.

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