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Conspiracy Theorists Respond to Evidence They're Conspiracy Theorists With More Conspiracy Theories

Posted on 26 February 2013 by John Cook

This is a partial re-post from The Huffington Post.  For the full article, click the link below.

In 2012, cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 climate blog readers and observed a link between science denial and conspiracy theorizing. People who denied scientific propositions such as the link between AIDS and HIV or climate change and human activity were more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories like Princess Diana was murdered or AIDS was created by the government. How did climate deniers respond to evidence associating science denial with conspiracy theorizing? With more conspiracy theories, of course!

The conspiracy theories directed toward the "moon landing paper" began small-scale, but grew in scope and intricacy. Now to social scientists, such a public response can mean only one thing. Data! I collaborated with Lewandowsky in documenting the various conspiracy theories and tracking their evolution over time. The analysis has now been published in the paper "Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation."

Conspiracy theorists exhibit a number of tell-tale characteristics. Almost ubiquitous is the accusation of nefarious intent. After all, people never conspire with benevolent intent (unless planning a surprise party). One theory promoted by climate deniers focused on the experiment design used for the "moon landing paper." The scientists emailed survey invitations to a range of climate blogs -- some endorsing the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming and others denying the consensus.

Climate deniers accused the scientists of lying about contacting denial blogs. A flood of bloggers came forward to say they hadn't received the invitation. Amusingly, five of those bloggers were the five who had actually been contacted. Irony overload was reached when one of those contacted went so far as to provide the email address of the lead author's university, encouraging readers to send allegations of misconduct.

Another trait of conspiracy theorists is the mentality that "something must be wrong." If a theory is shown to be demonstrably false, the conspiracy theorist can smoothly shift to another theory while maintaining an unshaken belief that "the official account must be wrong." After the names of the five contacted bloggers were released, conspiracy theorists transitioned to a spin-off theory: "obviously they never intended for the skeptic blogs to respond." New theory, same accusation of nefarious intent.

Click here for the rest of the story.

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Comments 51 to 54 out of 54:

  1. Shollenberger now claims to have discussed Lewandowski 2013 "with several different people" and to have "spent a fair amount of time examining it".  The later may well be true.  On Feb 7th he asked for and recieved a link for the paper.  That request, however, is the only comment by him on the paper that turns up an a google search for "Lewandowski" and "Shollenberger", or on a search for "Recursive", "Fury", and "Shollenberger".  The second search, however, turns up three examples of his first chewbacca defence on this topic - here, at The Blackboard, and of course at WUWT.

    So, it appears that while Shollenberger may have discussed the paper in private among those who will not be too critical of his views, there is no evidence of his being willing to discuss it with those who will show the intellectual bankruptcy of his ideas.  Instead he bring up off topic points one after the other to fill the comment threads with criticizing irrelevancies so as to distract from the fact that the main post is substantive and shows the bizzarre nature of the response by so-called "skeptics" to Lewandowski 2012.

    In other words, his sole tactic here is to spread Uncertainty and Doubt.

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  2. Shollenberger now presents us with the novel argument that "An element is a part of something."  As an example of logic chopping evasion, that response certainly takes the cake.  At best it means he has pointed out that my mentioning "six independent elements" was an oxymoron, and that I should have chosen a different word (perhaps, following Lewandowski, "criteria").  As a response to the thrust of what I said, however, his response was entirely non-responsive.  (Surprise, surprise.)

    He is, however, also wrong in his logic chopping.  An element is always a part of a set; but that does not mean that it cannot be independent of the other elements of the set.  Toraunce (my daughters Labrador), is an element of the set {Toraunce, William, Lollipop} (ie, the set of the familly pets).  That in no way implies that's toraunce's survival is dependent of the two cats.

    What is more, the term "independent element" is common usage, as for example in Zimmerman et al, so it is difficult to imagine how Shollenberger arrives at is bizzare, and irrelevant, misinterpretation.

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  3. willard @40, well named.

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  4. In my comment @47, I showed Rob Honeycutt was completely wrong about what Anthony Watts did.  @48 Honeycutt responded by saying if things were the exact opposite of what he said... he was still exactly right.  I can't help but see some similarity to what this paper described where "contrary evidence is often interpreted as evidence for a conspiracy." I know it isn't actually the same, but there's something to be said for finding out you got everything exactly backwards and responding by saying it doesn't change your conclusion.

    As for what Tom Curtis says @51, the simple truth is I don't remember seeing a topic on any site I visit regularly that had a discussion of the contents of this paper.  That's why I haven't discussed it publicly.  The only times such a discussion seemed relevant (prior to seeing Michael Mann's Facebook post) to me has been in personal communication.  I don't think that fact merits an entire comment devoted solely to personal attacks and accusations of dishonesty.

    As for what he says @52, he claims my discussion of his wording was a non-substantive response, but he ignores the fact I followed that discussion by saying, "I'll assume that was a mistake" and explaining why the interpretation he intended is wrong.  In other words, I disagreed with his wording then clarified what I thought he meant.  I then responded based upon that clarification.

    Tom Curtis ignored that response.  He portrays my clarification as the entirety of my response.  Based upon that misrepresentation, he says my "response was entirely non-responsive."  He completely ignored the primary point of my response then claimed the response was non-responsive. 

    I don't agree with the defense of the wording Tom Curtis offered @52, but we both seem to agree it is irrelevant.  As such, I won't discuss it.  I'll merely point out it what I said was not offered as a rebuttal, but a clarification.  It is ridiculous to say my post was non-responsive by focusing on a clarification and ignoring the actual rebuttal.

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    Moderator Response: [JH] Given the repetitive and meandering nature of your posts, you are now skating on the thin ice of sloganeering. You are hereby advised to change course, or get off of the ice.
  5. Thank you for the kind words, Tom.

    You say:

    > [I]t is difficult to imagine how [Chewbacca] arrives at is bizzare, and irrelevant, misinterpretation.

    Most exercises in "parsomatic" (a term borrowed from Eli Rabett, see [1]) seem to make sure what your opponent says makes no sense.  

    I call this the Chewbacca conjecture [2].



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  6. Please note how many indefinite descriptions Chewbacca's 54 contain.

    Not that Chewbacca makes no sense, mind us.

    Auditors may think of spit balls, quod vide:


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  7. Brandon...  You're just not getting it.

    You obviously can not comprehend what is being discussed in terms of conspiracy ideation.  

    McIntyre went off on a completely irrational tanget on his site.  He did exactly what I've repeatedly described as "conspiracy ideation."  He looked for what he believed we inconsistencies, connected his own dots, and claimed something was going on.  All based only on his imagination, having asked no one involved if they could explain.

    Anthony Watts did exactly the same thing.  He made a post on his site and also made comments on Lucia's site claiming that SkS must be getting paid by Al Gore, even giving dollar figures, for the work.  All before ever asking John Cook.  And even when John answered honestly, made only the thinnest reference on his site.  No mea culpa.

    These are acts of conspiracy ideation.  I'm sorry if you don't get it.

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  8. Shollenberger points out that I missed his claim that:

    "In that case, I'll stress the work this post is about says its criteria are for classifying hypotheses "as potentially conspiracist."  Potentially.  As in, it may or may not be conspiratorial.  Curtis portrays the fact something meets one (or more) of the six criteria as making it conspiratorial, but that relies on misrepresenting the paper.  Meeting one or more criteria is necessary but not sufficient."

    Indeed, it deserves a response, and the obvious response.  He has merely shifted the subject to avoid refuation.

    My original claim, which he disputes was:

    "As noted by Rob Honeycutt, Lewandowski's theory is about the presence of conspiracy theory ideation, ie, the types of thought patterns typically found in conspiracy theories, rather than the presence of conspiracy theories themselves.  McIntyre's post on Mann's AGU adress certainly contains conspiracy theory ideation, regardless of whether it contains an actual conspiracy theory.  In this case the conspiracy theory ideation consists of attributing to malice what should properly be attributed to laziness, or carelessness."

    (Emphasis added).

    When he responded that, "Malice is only one part of such ideation." and that,

    "I said malice is only one part of conspitorial ideation.  That means you need more than just attributions of malice to exhibit such ideation."

    he appeared to be talking about the same topic.  But now, all of a sudden, he is talking about conspiracist hypotheses.  Just to make this plain, all conspiracist hypotheses exhibit conspiracist ideation; but not all conspiracist ideation is part of a conspiracist hypothesis (just as not all suicidal ideation constitutes an actual suicide).

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  9. Tom Curtis attempts to draw an interesting distinction between conspiracist hypotheses and consparicist ideation.  Curtis seems to argue meeting any of the six criteria listed in this paper shows conspiracist ideation.  However, Stephan Lewandosky and co-authors have defined conspiracist ideation as conspiratorial thinking. Does assuming nefarious intent in people you disagree with mean you're engaging in conspiratorial thinking?  Of course not.  Does assuming maliceful deception rather than accidental mistakes in people mean you're engaging in conspiratorial thinking?  Of course not.

    Conspiracist ideation is conspiratorial thinking.  It requires you think there is a conspiracy.  If you don't think there is a conspiracy, you aren't engaging in conspiratorial thinking.  You aren't showing a conspiracist ideation.

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  10. Attributing something to deception rather than accident is not itself evidence of conspiratorial thinking, even when two parties are involved.

    For instance, When Watts posts a contrarian climate change post by another author, are members of the climate science community engaging in conspiracist ideation by attributing the post to two cases of wilful disinformation, rather than two cases of poor scientific understanding?


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  11. The very fact that Watts felt compelled to ask the question that he did demonstrates that he was entertaining thoughts of conspiracy between the parties he mentioned. 

    Like I said before Watts is welcome to make a fool of himself, and so are those who try to defend his ridiculous actions.  

    How about those who are trying to defend Watts go and ask him publicly if he honestly thinks that there is no conspiring going on between SkS and Gore? If no, then ask him to tell that to his readership.

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  12. Tristan @60, I'd say no.

    Albatross @61, are you acknowledging Watts wasn't "trying to insinuate that there is something nefarious and secret going on behind the scenes between Gore, Al Jazeera and SkS"?  It seems like it, but I'm not sure.  Whatever he may have been saying about Gore and SKS, I hope we can all agree he wasn't saying Al Jazeera was involved.

    As for your suggestion, I've submitted a post to WUWT due to Tom Curtis's comments about me.  If it gets published, I will ask Anthony that question as my first comment.  I suspect his answer will be something like, "No, I don't think there is any conspiring between the two.  I think they worked together to some extent."  I hope that will satisfy you.

    By the way, Watts is certainly welcome to make a fool of himself.  I think he's managed to do that a number of times without ever discussing conspiracies!

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  13. For what it's worth:

    > Ideation is the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas, where an idea is understood as a basic element of thought that can be either visual, concrete, or abstract.   Ideation is all stages of a thought cycle, from innovation, to development, to actualization.  As such, it is an essential part of the design process, both in education and practice.

    There's no need to posit that Tony sincerely entertains the torrent of theories he's dogwhistling day in, day out.  One only has to look at what's being produced at Tony's day in, day out to see how the mindframing operates.  

    Incidentally, Chewbacca might contemplate the possibility that Tony's smear, to work out as a joke, relies on contextual cues, the main one being conspirational ideation.


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  14. It turn's out that Shollenberger has had his post published at WUWT, and asked his question (with no reply).  His article takes exception to three quotes in Lewandowsky et al 2013.  Just three!  Out of thirty-two!  Here we where hoping for criticism on substantive issues, but as we expected, given Shollenburger's form, he focussed on trivial weak points because he knows any attempt at substantive critique will fail.  Indeed, so unsure is he of the possibility of substantive critique that when alluding to the possibility substantive critique, he merely mentions that others "have taken issue" with aspects of the paper - no link, and no endorsement.  It is like criticizing AGW by noting that the skydragon crowd "have taken issue" with the greenhouse effect while firmly believing that the skydragon crowd are wrong.

    Shollenberger, it you have a substantive critique to make - make it!  The longer you dance around the issue the clearer it becomes that you know that the paper is substantively correct.

    But am I being unfair?  Shollenberger certainly begins by suggesting the three alleged misquotes are substantive issues.  He (or Watts) provides an abstract for his post which reads:

    "Fabricated quotes and gross distortions are used to paint skeptics as conspiracy nuts.  The question is, is it a conspiracy, or is it just incompetence?"

    Later, he writes,

    "People have taken issue with a number of aspects of the paper, but to my knowledge, nobody has noticed Lewandowsky and Cook fabricate things in their paper.  That’s right.  They make things up."

    Being generous, it appears to have escaped Shollenberger's attention that he has already answered the question in the abstract.  Specifically, to "fabricate" something is always an intentional act - by definition.  By saying that Lewandowsky et al "fabricated" things, he says they acted deliberately to construct them.  That is odd, of course, because Shollenberger later disavows the possibility that the "fabrication" and "deception" could be deliberate, so he contradicts himself.

    Shollenberger, therefore, owes Lewandowsky, and Cook, and their fellow authors an apology - and he needs to delete any refference to fabrication from his article.

    Indeed, I would go further.  There is no suggestion by Shollenberger that the alleged misquotes may not be willful deception (apart from the dog whistle in the abstract).  On the contrary, he continuously reffers to Lewandowsky et al's acts in active terms, strongly suggesting willful acts.  Only in the final paragraph does he finally say,

    "And for the record, I don’t think any of this was intentional."

    It is almost as though he is aware of the "familiarity backfire effect" and is taking deliberate advantage of it to spread FUD, while maintaining plausible deniability.  If that was his intention, it certainly workd at WUWT with a number of commentors finding it utterly unbelievable that the alleged misquotes where not deliberate (giving us yet anothe recursion on AGW skeptics love of conspiratorial tropes).  Perhaps, however, it was not deliberate and Shollenberger was merely incompetent.

    What, however, of the alleged misquotes.  In the first, a quote from Foxgoose is presented as alleging that no humans took the survey for Lewandowsky et al, 2012, whereas he actually alleged that no "skeptical" bloggers where contacted by Lewandowsky.  This is actually a misquote.  However, the meaning of Foxgoose is far  from clear, even in context.  Indeed, Shollenberger, having quoted Foxgoose in full, finds it necessary to refer to the original discussion for further context to show that it is a misquote.  Even that further context, involving as it does a comment by Eli Rabbet, is far from clear.  The most probable cause of the misquote is simple misunderstanding of Foxgoose's intentions.  That, however, is portrayed in terms only appropriate when discussing deliberate deception, despite, purportedly, Shollenberger believing it was no such thing.

    (As an aside, I do remember some coments to the effect that the survey results for Lewandowsky 2012 were entirely manufactured, so while few "skeptics" where that extreme, it was not (contrary to Shollenberger) a "fabricated" belief.)

    The second alleged misquote is an example of quotation out of context.  Lewandowsky 2013 discuss a conspiracy theory that "Shaping Tommorrow's World" (Lewandowsky's blog) had selectively barred access to the site to certain people, with the intention of then permitting access when the purported selective barring was commented on to "prove" the conspiracist thinking.  As it happens, nobody was selectively barred and the conspiracist thinking was self generated.  Nathan Kurz applauds the machiavelian ellegance of such a device, if true; but then goes on to disagree with the theory.

    Lewandowsky et al only quote Kurz as applauding the elegance of the alleged strategy.  They do not say that Kurz actually agrees with the quote.  Indeed, there primary point may be the point curiously not stated by Kurz.  If, as Kurz states, "there is no way for anyone to complain [about the alleged strategy] without matching the stereotypical conspiracist of the study"; and the allegations of strategy where false as Kurz maintained, and people were complaining, then they were acting just like the "the stereotypical conspiracist of the study".  That logic was, of course, the key point of Lewandowsky et al's discussion of the allegations of deliberate blocking.

    Because of this, I was at first unsure whether I should even call this a misquote.  But the cardinal rule of quotation is that if the quote without context could lead to mistaken beliefs about the quoted persons beliefs, a clarrification is in order.  Regardless of whether or not Lewandowsky et al intended people to believe that Kurz agreed with the alleged conspiracy (and it is highly dubious that they did), they should have included a simple disclaimer indicating that he did not.

    This is then IMO, an example of inadvertent quotation out of context.  It is not, and contrary to Shollenberger a "blatant" distortion of the quote.  It is only such a distortion if Lewandowsky et al intended for people to believe that Kurz himself agreed with the conspiracy theory.

    In the third case, Lewandowsky et al do not distinguish between words quoted by the person they are quoting, and those he wrote himself.  This is unquestionably a misquote, apparently brought about by dropping formating.  (The quote was only indicated in the original source by indentation, and not, as it should be, enclosed in inverted commas.  Geoff Chambers, the person quoted by Lewandowsky et al, did indicate the source of his quote, but in a manner indistinguishable from the standard method of indicating the person to whom you are repplying in non-nested comments.)

    Shollenberger finds something far worse here.  He accuses Lewandowsky et al of fabricating the quote, whereas, all that happened was an indent was dropped.  He further accuses them of siting an inaccessible source, saying:

    "As though that wasn’t bad enough, neither comment can be viewed by readers of the paper as the comments were both edited/deleted by moderators of the site associated with two primary authors of this paper!" 

    In fact, the post quoted by Chambers has been deleted from the site, and hence is inaccessible, except, possibly to moderators of the site.  Chamber's post has also been moderated, but it took me 5 seconds to find the full quote on the linked site and to identify that all the words quoted from Chamber's post came from that post without alteration, but with a html block quote command dropped.  And, I do not have any privileged access to that site.

    To sum up, Shollenberger does identify three genuine misquotes.  As such, the authors of Lewandowsky 2013 should issue a correction for the paper to avoid inadvertently misleading people.  Ideally they should also explain how the misquotes occurred so that we can be reassured they will not reccure in the future.  But Shollenberger has still not identified any substantive issue.  The first quote is a side reference and has no relevance to the substance of the paper.  The second quote, if the context is established, merely shows the logic of their argument at that point was transparent and agreed to by a (presumed) AGW "skeptic".  The third misquote, if corrected, merely shows that, not one, but two people found plausible an utterly inplausible conspiracy theory about Lewandowsky 2012.  In identifying the misquotes, Shollenberger in no way builds towards a substantive critique of the paper.  He merely resorts, yet again, to the chewbacca defense.

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  15. For good measures, here's another bit the authors of Lew13 could edit:

    > Conspiracist ideation is arguably particularly prominent on climate blogs, such as when expressing the belief that temperature records show warming only because of systematic adjustments (e.g., Condon, 2009) [...]

    Jeff Id's emphasis:


    I believe this does not represent Id's position, which is:

    > Conspiracist ideation is arguably particularly prominent on climate blogs, such as when expressing the belief that temperature records show warming mostly because of systematic adjustments (e.g., Condon, 2009).


    My emphasis.




    In exchange to this edit, Lewandowsky has another episode of Climateball at Jeff's to analyze.  Carrick's comments are a thing of beauty.  They must be cherished.

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  16. Shollenberger has noticed my critique, and responded at WUWT, saying:

    "Over at Skeptical Science, Tom Curtis responded to this post by saying this post is a non-substantive response. All I have to say to that is… wow. It’s already been established the authors grossly misrepresented the views of Jeff Id in their paper, and now it’s been established they misquoted multiple people.

    How much deception has to be shown before it matters?"

    First, if the misquotes were inadvertent (as Shollenberger purports to believe), they were not deception.  Shollenberger's continued use of over the top descriptions and dog whistle words makes clear that his purpose is to vilify Lewandowsky and his co-authors, and by so doing to avoid the need for substantive criticism while giving the appearance to those who do not think critically that Lewandowsky 2013 has been rebutted.

    Second, a substantive criticism of a paper is one which shows that its conclusions do not follow from the  evidence presented.  As Shollenberger himself acknowledges (ironically in the comment immediately preceding his response to me),

    "The fabricated[sic] quote doesn’t even help their case much so why take the risk?"

    If the quotes do not help their case, then removing them does not weaken their case.  Ergo, criticizing these quotes does not contribute to showing that the evidence presented overall is faulty; or that the conclusions drawn do not follow from the evidence.

    A thorough critique should indeed include criticism of the misquotes; but they cannot be the substance of the criticism because if that is all there is to criticize, the paper still stands unrefuted.

    Put another way, if Shollenberger had done all that was needed to refute Lewandowsky 2013, then I can as easilly refute AGW "skepticism" by noting that Watts has  "managed to do that [make a fool of himself] a number of times".

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  17. Oh, why do I ever click the WUWT links?  I've met a lot of people in my years but never have I run across such who are so self-unaware.  

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    At Tony's, the Auditor saith:

    > Other than Spencer, no one made categeorical statements that they’d not been contacted. [...] Contrary to Lewandowsky’s claim, none of us made “public” statements that we had not been contacted.

    Perhaps this might not be considered categorical enough:

    > He didn’t even bother contacting me, or apparently any serious skeptics, for their opinions.

    Or perhaps this does not count as a statement.

    Paying due diligence to the context where the Auditor denied having been contacted  should make one see what was implied at the time.  


    By the same token, notice the deflection [1], the excuse [2], and the red herring [3]:

    > [Jo's] blog post reported our information in more categorical terms than I or the others had expressed [1]. I wasn’t following her blog and didn’t notice this at the time [2]. Lewandowsky made no attempt to verify what we had told her with us [3].

    That [3] is a red herring is obvious, as Jo's post does not need to be verified to have been published.  The point of citing Jo's post does not rest on the truthfulness of her story.  The concept of ideation definitely deserves due diligence.

    I would have posted this at Tony's if I could.  But I can't post there.  Nor can I post at Steve's anymore.



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  19. Forgot the link to the Auditor's comment at Tony's:

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  20. I'm not sure the Auditor can argue that he was not following Lucia's:

    > Climate Audit was not contacted and grants permission to be “outed”.

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  21. Just a quick observation on the silliness going on over at WUWT arguing over which is their current conspiracy theory.  I see that Foxgoose was most put out because he reckons Lewandowsky et al got his conspiracy theory wrong.  Foxgoose seems to have clarified to all what his actual conspiracy theory was and is (I think); and is still sticking to it apparently, despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.  

    I bet he's thankful to Brandon for clearing that up :D 

    (Before tackling that thread, make sure you put your head in a vice!  Barmy is a good descriptor, if it's allowed.  Otherwise Rob Honeycutt's "never have I run across such who are so self-unaware" will do.)

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  22. We know that conspiracies can and do exist - like the conspiracy amongst fossil fuel miners and users to protect their business interests  by promoting misinformation, by using their money and influence and threats of economic harms to get elected representatives (who hold postions of responsibility and trust) to betray their constituents interests. I think it's a real conspiracy and, whilst not intended to control the world, it is a dangerous conspiracy that involves sacrificing our future security and prosperity to ensure their projected earnings are not affected by people trying to prevent permanant and irreversible loss of environmental capital that underpins civilisation.

    I think world leaders with investigative powers and strong motivation have failed to show that climate scientists have ever conspired to falsify data or conclusions. But those same investigative powers, if put to use, would show that the conspiracy above is not the result of crazed imaginings.

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