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Conspiracy theories about Skeptical Science

Posted on 27 July 2015 by John Cook

There is a growing body of research linking climate science denial and conspiratorial thinking. While Stephan Lewandowsky's Moon Landing paper has attracted most of the attention, another important paper from Yale University has flown somewhat under the radar. This research found that when those who deny climate change are asked to name the first thing that came to mind regarding climate change, the most common type of response involved conspiracy theories.


Conspiratorial thinking on denialist blogs surged in response to the stolen climategate emails in 2009 and has actually increased in subsequent years (despite the fact that mainstream attention in the stolen emails has waned). Over the years, a number of conspiracy theories have also sprung up about Skeptical Science. One excitable conspiracy theory endorsed by a Watts Up With That moderator argues that:

"...a well known billionaire is funding the pseudo science blog sceptical science. That billionaire is a multiple convicted felon who worked willingly for the Nazis in WWII. How is that not headline news?"

I often quote this comment in public talks as evidence of the powerful potential of volunteers and social media:

"I worked out recently it's impossible for one man to turn out a constantly updating and slick as grease website 'in his spare time'. I even went as far as to surmise he may just be a front for the IPCC or Globe International as it would need a team of professionals to create such a site and probably a few PR experts at the head."

When Lewandowsky published his Moon Landing paper, the conspiracy theorizing exploded, which is comprehensively (and entertainingly) documented in the recently published paper Recurrent Fury. The scope of the conspiracies grew to the point where they began to include Skeptical Science. For example, lumping together Skeptical Science and UWA, Anthony Watts claimed:

"That’s quite a little activist organization they have running out of the University of [W]estern Australia. I wonder if UWA officials realize the extent that UWA has become a base for this global climate activism operation and if they condone it?"

This conspiracy theory was endorsed by Judith Curry:

"SkepticalScience seems to becoming the ringleader for conspiratorial activities by the green climate bloggers."

Conspiracies about the 97% consensus

Since our study finding a 97% consensus among climate papers was published, there have been many conspiratorial accusations levelled at our research. Our favourite conspiracy theory by far is Christopher Monckton's suggestion that we created the journal Environmental Research Letters (this happens at the 2:40 mark). Incidentally, the journal began in 2006, one year before I started Skeptical Science. Apparently, I think long-term.

Latest conspiratorial accusations from Lubos Motl

The latest conspiratorial accusation levelled against Skeptical Science comes from Lubos Motl, who accuses me of identity theft. I recently posted my response on Facebook:

A number of peer-reviewed studies have observed a link between climate science denial and conspiratorial thinking. The most prominent examples are the conspiracy theories extrapolated from quote-mined excerpts of stolen private correspondance of climate scientists, in the episode known as climategate. A similar conspiratorial episode spun from quote-mined stolen private correspondence was published by Lubos Motl this week, and has been uncritically propagated by other online commenters.

The stolen private correspondence from 2011 involved Skeptical Science team members developing comment threads (both supporting and rejecting climate science) for use in a psychology experiment. In the private forum (only), I posted a few comments under the pseudonym Lubos_Motl (to signify that the comments were taking a contrarian stance). The username was changed to an anonymous name for the experiment. In other words, it was not used in the experiment and was never used outside of the private Skeptical Science forum. 

Consequently, Motl's accusations of identity theft are demonstrably false. Further, I find it extraordinary that Motl publicly posts comments about me being hanged, and allows public comments on his blog that approve of torturing and murdering me. I find it equally extraordinary that such misleading and venomous posts are uncritically endorsed by third parties such as Richard Tol, Anthony Watts and Roger Pielke Jr.

Motl takes private correspondence and spins it into an elaborate scheme of identity theft, with accusations of nefarious intent and criminal activity. To demonstrate the ease with which conspiracy theories propagate throughout denialist blogs, Motl's conspiratorial accusations were uncritically endorsed by Anthony Watts, Richard Tol and Roger Pielke Jr.

Practical consequences of conspiratorial thinking

The conspiratorial nature of climate science deniers has practical, societal consequences that we explore in week 6 of our online course, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. A number of studies have found that presenting scientific evidence to people whose worldview is threatened by that evidence can actually backfire. This is known as the Worldview Backfire Effect (as I explain in the lecture coincidentally titled Worldview Backfire Effect). Active distrust in science, or conspiratorial thinking, is one of the drivers of this backfire effect.

The practical consequence of this research is that it is more effective to concentrate climate communication efforts on the large, undecided majority who are open to scientific evidence. It is ineffective, or even counter-effective, trying to present evidence to those who deny climate science. I explore this further in the week 6 video Inoculation Theory, which explores scientific research in how to reduce the influence of misinformation by exposing people to weak forms of misinformation: 

To make sense of the conspiracy theories promoted by climate science deniers, it's important to understand the scientific research investigating the link between science denial and conspiratorial thinking. This research should inform how we approach engagement with those who deny the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming.

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Comments 1 to 20:

  1. I donate to SkS. But I did not know I was a billionaire. If I find that money on my accounts, I will donate much more than the 100$ per year, thanks for the hint! These denial people seem not to know charitable engagement in their neighborhood: billions of people worldwide work many billions of unpaid hours, daily. In fact, large parts of global work in families and for the elderly are unpaid. SkS is work for the families and the future elderly alike, simply on a more basic level than direct caring.

    I consider myself a value driven conservative: the difference is: I care about preserving nature/the climate and not about preserving the profits of fossil oil/gas/coal millionaires and billionaires and I like to think about about this (religiously and non religiously grounded) value of solidarity, globally and intergenerationally. Freedom is not the right to destroy the world or harm other people, but to thrive in the boundaries given by our world (and god, if you like) and all other humans and beings.

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  2. John C...

    You will note that one of the more active deniers on the CNN article decided that I (jgnfld there too) am a John Cook sock puppet.  :-o

    I guess that was a pretty nice compliment!

    Oddly, I have a PhD in cognitive psych with a large stats emphasis. From the late 70's, however.

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  3. The "...surmise he may just be a front for the IPCC or Globe International..." link is dead, climatechangedispatch apparently doesn't have the page up anymore.

    The archived link for it works, though, and you might want to use that instead. 

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  4. It may be a good idea to use web archives such as the WayBack machine or for such links. 

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  5. It seems there are conspiracy theorists on both sides of the debate:

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  6. Langham - Note that Dr. Wadhams has complained to the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) regarding that article, saying that "I did not make any of the statements enclosed in quotation marks by the reporter."

    Seems like the Times (not to mention the Telegraph, and Mail) continues with the (ahem) fine non-journalistic tradition of junk stories. Wrapping garbage with that paper would insult the garbage. 

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  7. jgnfld: But I have a PhD in cog sci with heavy emphasis on stat, and I have been commenting on that CNN thread!  This consipiracy goes really deep! Apparently I've been posting as you without knowing it, so I guess I'm really John Cook but I've been masquerading so long that I've lost track of who I really am. Did I eat lunch yet today?

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  8. "I consider myself a value driven conservative: ...."

    I'm old enough to remember a time when you didn't have to add a qualifier before Conservative to explain you were different from the rest. That's why I called Republicans Fictional Conservatives to point out how far off track they've gone since Reagan and the NeoCons

    "I feel very definitely that the administration is absolutely correct in cracking down on companies and corporations and municipalities that continue to pollute the nation's air and water. While I am a great believer in the free competitive enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment.

    To this end, it is my belief that when pollution is found, it should be halted at the source, even if this requires stringent government action against important segments of our national economy."

     - Barry Goldwater, 1969 

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  9. Suprised that Pielke was so eager to promote the Lubos nonsense. He must of had an inkling there was an explanation. He still can't admit it and instead is talking about Nazis. *sigh*

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  10. Suggested supplementary reading...

    Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories? by Christopher French*, Scientific American, June 11, 2015

    *Professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London

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  11. I have just been emailed by Scott Gates (who I do not remember, and certainly have had no correspondence with under that name) making scurrilous accusations relating to Lubos Motl's accusations.  I consider his accusations libelous, and will not repost them, but I will post my response:

    "I don't know you from a bar of soap, and do not appreciate being mail bombed with your scurrilous and false accusations.

    The facts are:

    1) John Cook used the pseudonym "Lubos Motl" only on a private forum, where all other members were aware that it was a pseudonym. Ergo it was no more identity theft than using somebodies name to perform a parody, or manufacturing fake quotes in somebodies name in a cartoon (as is regularly done by Josh in cartoons published on WUWT). If any pseudoskeptic has a problem with the practice, they should first take it up with Anthony Watts and Josh.

    2) The use of the pseudonym was not in anyway related to the 97% consensus paper, nor in Recursive Fury or Recurrent Fury (the follow on papers to the Moonlanding paper by Lewandowsky). Nor has it been used as data for any published scientific paper by John Cook. This point is made in an update to the link you provide on the story.

    3) The non-accidental uses of the pseudonym was intended for research that was not published. For that research, the posts were used under a different pseudonym not associated with any person known (and certainly not with any well known scientists, a category that does not include Motl). It is less than ideal to use manufactured samples in research of that category because of the possibility of unconscious biases being introduced to the writing style. It does not, however, constitute scientific fraud unless the fact that the examples of "pseudoskeptic arguments" were written by non-pseudoskeptics is concealed in the published work. It is an arguable point as to whether failure to explicitly acknowledge the manufactured samples in the published work constitutes fraud, but there is no doubt that explicitly mentioning it is best practice. These same points apply also to manufactured examples of "consensus" arguments by people who accept the consensus, even if writing in their own name; because again, the contrived situation may lead to subtle biases in the samples (perhaps making the arguments more cogent than is typical of pro-consensus comments). (I should note that the use of non-manufactured samples also raises ethical issues relating to consent, so despite the issues discussed in this paragraph, the use of manufactured samples, properly acknowledged as such, may in fact be the best scientific practice for this type of research once all considerations are taken into account.)

    4) Regardless of the considerations in (4), to my certain knowledge, John Cook has not intentionally practiced scientific fraud in any of his research, published or unpublished. Suggesting otherwise constitutes libel, and is considerably more unethical than anything John Cook has done."

    The link provided, and mentioned in point (2) above, was to WUWT.

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  12. KR @6 In the link you gave regarding Professor Wadhams this comment is made:

    "A spokesperson for The Times said: “We have a recording of Professor Wadhams making these statements. Another newspaper [the Telegraph] subsequently reported that he had made similar comments to their journalist. We stand by the story.”

    In view of the wiilingness to sue news outlets at what seems to be the drop of a hat, it would seem Professot Wadhams may have made the claims he now denies or that the Times is being extremely foolhardy in publishing the piece. But even if he did make the remarks does it really make that much difference to the debate on Climate Change?

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  13. ryland - Did you actually read the linked text? Because Wadham bracketed what he characterizes a brief suspicion (one prompted by the reporter) with statements that the climate researchers deaths were clearly coincidence, context that the Times did not include. And he stated he "...did not make any of the statements enclosed in quotation marks by the reporter." Out of context characterizations, with manufactured quotes???

    I view the Times article, and the denial blogosphere fuss about it, simply as a Tu quoque fallacy - an attempt to distract from the well recognized and currently well publicized conspiracy ideation of climate denialists. Does it affect the substance of the science on climate change? No, of course not. Does it reflect poorly on the journalistic integrity of the Times? Yes, yes it does, and if Wadhams statement holds up the Times may be liable. 

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  14. ryland - As an addendum, I find your willingness to believe conspiratorial thinking on the part of a single climate researcher quite interesting in contrast with your comments on the "Recurrent Fury" thread - where you spent quite some time arguing about (non-existent) ethical issues in an apparent attempt to denigrate a paper on climate denialist conspiratorial thinking. Most curious. 

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  15. KR Yes I did read the text

    I don't recall I said I believed anything.  What I stated was that Professor Wadhams may have made the claims he now denies or the Times is being extremely foolhardy in publishing the piece. I cannot see where this is expressing a belief one way or another,.  And would you point out where I showed any willingness to believe conspiratorial thinking as I said "and even if he did"  which is a long way from saying "he did". 

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  16. And BTW your comment "Does it affect the substance of the science on climate change? No, of course not." is expressing very similar sentiments to those in the comment I made "But even if he did make the remarks does it really make that much difference to the debate on Climate Change?"  Perhaps that had escaped your attention as indeed it did mine until I re-read the comments.

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  17. Let's assume that Wadhams really did say everything claimed without any qualifiers or exceptions. We would then be talking about a single person, with a single conspiracy, having nothing to do with the actual science. The 'skeptic' rush to highlight this as a counter to their many conspiracy theories, in and of itself, is a perfect demonstration of just how absurdly pathetic their position is.

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  18. No! I am Sparti... er, John Cook! :-)

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  19. No! I am SpartaCook!

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  20. This comment by Yvette Cooper, one of the four candidates for leader of the UK Labour Party published in today's Independent is, I think, appropriate for this thread.  On the subject of climate change she said  “It is a serious threat to our world and to social progress and the Tories are taking us backwards. They don't believe in global leadership on climate change and their new minister [Amber Rudd, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary] has bought into conspiracy theories that action to stop climate change can be ‘cover for anti-growth, anti-capitalist, proto-socialism’. This sort of nonsense will be the norm if Labour keeps losing elections and condemns future generations to a Tory future. David Cameron’s hug-a-husky but scrap a wind farm’ hypocrisy is setting us back years.”

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    Moderator Response:

    Sarah changed to Yvette as per request.

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