The lamest, grudgingest, non-retraction retraction ever

December 16, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

In politics we’re familiar with the non-apology apology (well described in Wikipedia as “a statement that has the form of an apology but does not express the expected contrition”). Here’s the scientific equivalent: the non-retraction retraction.

Sanjay Srivastava points to an amusing yet barfable story of a pair of researchers who (inadvertently, I assume) made a data coding error and were eventually moved to issue a correction notice, but even then refused to fully admit their error. As Srivastava puts it, the story “ended up with Lew [Goldberg] and colleagues [Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton] publishing a comment on an erratum – the only time I’ve ever heard of that happening in a scientific journal.”

From the comment on the erratum:

In their “erratum and addendum,” Anderson and Ones (this issue) explained that we had brought their attention to the “potential” of a “possible” misalignment and described the results computed from re-aligned data as being based on a “post-hoc” analysis of a “proposed” data shift. That is, Anderson and Ones did not plainly describe the mismatch problem as an error; instead they presented the new results merely as an alternative, supplementary reanalysis.

And here’s the unusual rejoinder to the comment on the correction. It’s pretty annoying that, even to the end, they refuse to admit their mistake, instead referring to “clerical errors as those alleged by Goldberg et al.” and concluding:

When any call is made for the retraction of two peer-reviewed and published articles, the onus of proof is on the claimant and the duty of scientific care and caution is manifestly high. Yet, Goldberg et al. (2008) have offered only circumstantial and superficial explanations . . . As detailed above, Goldberg et al. do not and cannot provide irrefutable proof of the alleged clerical errors. To call for the retraction of peer-reviewed, published papers on the basis of alleged clerical errors in data handling is sanctimoniously misguided. We continue to stand by the analyses, findings and conclusions reported in our earlier publications.

That’s the best they can do: “no irrefutable proof”?? That’s like something the killer says in the last act of a Columbo episode, right before the detective tricks him into giving himself away. Once you say “no irrefutable proof,” you’ve already effectively admitted that you did it. And in science, that should be enough.

By the way, here’s the “sanctimonious” graph from Goldberg et al. featuring the “no irrefutable proof”:

It’s unscientific behavior not to admit error.

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