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Climate denial linked to conspiratorial thinking in new study

Posted on 8 July 2015 by dana1981

A new study has examined the comments on climate science-denying blogs and found strong evidence of widespread conspiratorial thinking. The study looks at the comments made in response to a previous paper linking science denial and conspiracy theories.

Motivated rejection of science

Three years ago, social scientists Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac published a paper in the journal Psychological Science titled NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science

The paper detailed the evidence the scientists found that, using survey data provided by visitors to climate blogs, those exhibiting conspiratorial thinking are more likely to be skeptical of scientists’ conclusions about vaccinations, genetically modified foods, and climate change. This result was replicated in a follow-up study using a representative U.S. sample that obtained the same resultlinking conspiratorial thinking to climate denial.

Of course science denial and conspiracies go hand in hand

This shouldn’t be a terribly shocking result. When confronted with inconvenient science, those in denial often reject the evidence by accusing the experts of fraud or conspiracies. We saw a perfect example of this behavior just a few weeks ago. When scientists at NOAA published a paper finding that there was no ‘pause’ in global warming, one of the most common responses from those in denial involved the conspiratorial accusation that the scientists had somehow fudged the data at the behest of the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, nobody likes being characterized as a conspiracy theorist, and so those in the denial blogosphere reacted negatively to the research of Lewandowsky and colleagues. Ironically, many of the attacks on the study involved conspiratorial accusations, which simply provided more data for the social scientists to analyze. For example, the authors were accused of everything from faked data to collusion between Lewandowsky and the Australian government.

Recursive Fury

As a result, a year later Lewandowsky, Cook, Oberauer, and Marriott published Recursive fury: conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation. The paper analyzed blog comments that mentioned the Moon Landing paper. It became the most-read paper ever published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

However, the study was subsequently accused of being defamatory because the public blog comments had not been made anonymous in the paper. At the request of Frontiers, the authors anonymized the comments, but the journal still withdrew the paper out of fear of legal action. Its failure to stand behind sound scientific research led to the resignation of three of Frontiers’ editors: Ugo Bardi,Björn Brembs, and Colin Davis

Subsequent to the withdrawal of Recursive Fury, the journal Frontiers published an article that denied the link between HIV and AIDS. Despite widespread protest from the scientific community, the journal declined to withdraw the paper andinstead classified it as an “opinion” piece. More recently, Frontiers fired 31 Editors in the medical arena, who expressed concern that Frontiers’ publication practices are designed to maximize the company’s profits, not the quality of papers, and that this could harm patients.

The latest study: Recurrent Fury

Lewandowsky, Cook, Oberauer, Brophy, Lloyd, and Marriott have now publishedRecurrent fury: Conspiratorial discourse in the blogosphere triggered by research on the role of conspiracist ideation in climate denial in a different journal - the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

In this latest study, university undergraduate students (mainly psychology majors) were given the comments from denial blogs, together with genuine scientific critiques of the Moon Landing paper provided by 3 psychology PhD students at the University of Bristol. 

In order to make this a blind test, participants were told the comments related to an unnamed scientific paper. The participants were asked to classify the comments, for example as types of conspiratorial thinking (e.g. questioning the motives of the authors of the paper) or as reasonable scientific critiques.

In the end, the participants clearly identified the comments from science-denying blogs as conspiratorial in nature, and the comments from the 3 PhD students as genuine scientific critiques. In fact, the results were quite strong. 

Normally we might expect the data to have a shape similar to that of a Bell Curve, with some of the comments mentioning the Moon Landing paper exhibiting a moderate level conspiratorial thinking, but few to an extreme degree. On the contrary, the results were heavily skewed, with most denial blog comments about the paper being heavily suspicious and questioning the motives of the authors.

Lewandowsky figure

Distribution of the blind categorizations of the comments from 3 psychology PhD students (dashed line) and science-denying blogs (grey boxes). From Lewandowsky et al. (2015).

Lead author Stephen Lewandowsky told me,

I do not recall ever having seen such a strong effect in 30 years of behavioural research, and I have certainly never encountered ratings that favoured the extreme end of the scale to the extent observed here.

Conspiracies and skepticism don’t mix

Given that those denying a 97% consensus among scientific experts must find a reason to reject that consensus, it’s not at all surprising that conspiratorial thinking is common among those who deny climate science. Conspiracy theories have even become a prime argument against climate policy among some top Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz, who said in a recent interview,

I think the data is driven by politicians who have always supported more government control.

However, Lewandowsky explains why he believes the results of his study are important, if not surprising,

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 51 to 55 out of 55:

  1. I would have thought that discussion about a conspiracy theory that relies on science for its validity by someone who believes in it, yet is far from being a climate change denier, would be ideally suited to the comments section of an item on a science site linking conspiratorial thinking to climate change denial . Sorry for any offence that might have been caused.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Your prior comment was deleted because it was argumentative and inflamatory. Make your points in a civil manner and all will go well.

    [RH] Lew's paper on conspiracy ideation on climate denial blogs is not license to hash through other conspiracy theories.

  2. Up thread ryland identified himself as "a scientist with a PhD from the University of Western Australia who rose to become a Professor at Curtin University in Perth" whose "own field of interest, [is] the study of prostate cancer using molecular biological techniques"

    Which means ryland's views and pronouncements on climate science are no more valid than any other layman's. He is not even part of the 3%, full stop.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] It would be preferable to stick to any scientific points that Ryland has raised rather than offering opportunities for further trolling.

  3. He would tell you he's part of "a lot of other scientists." Without, of course, getting anywhere near exactly how many is "a lot" and why that des not prevent every major scientific organization in the world to acknowledge AGW and its dangers. It doesn't really matter, since none of this wouldhave any bearing on the validity of his argument, if there was some clearly defined argument there whose validity could be assessed. Oh well...

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  4. Paul Sheehan on smh commented on Lewandowsky 2012:

    Distorted universities need a reality check

    quoting the critique by Dr Lee Jussim from Rutgers University. Apparently Jessim "checked the data, he found that of the 1145 participants in the study, only 10 thought the moon landing was a hoax. Of those who thought climate science was a hoax, almost all of them, 97.8 per cent, did NOT think the moon landing was a hoax".

    See also here. Jussim talks about "left-wing bias in social psychology". Anyone cares to shed light on that talk by Jussim? How credible are his claims?

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  5. chriskoz @54, Sheehan writes:

    "The paper was entitled "NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax". The abstract of the study states: "Endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories [...] predicts rejection of climate science … This provides confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science."

    Note the term "conspiracist ideation". The English language is being brutalised in the social sciences to create a false sense of rigour.

    When Jussim checked the data, he found that of the 1145 participants in the study, only 10 thought the moon landing was a hoax. Of those who thought climate science was a hoax, almost all of them, 97.8 per cent, did NOT think the moon landing was a hoax."

    (Emphasis mine, elipsis in square brackets mine)

    If you look at the underlined sentence, what is claimed by the Lewandowski paper is that:

    1)  If you are a conspiracy theorist, you are more likely to be a climate change denier.

    It does not claim that:

    2)  If you are a climate change denier, you are more likely to be a conspiracy theorist.

    The two claims are quite distinct.  One is a particular claim about the population of conspiracy theorists, and makes no particular claim about the population of climate change deniers.  The other is a particular claim about the population of climate change deniers and makes no claim about the population of conspiracy theorists.

    However, when we look at the evidence presented by Sheehan, it is a statistic about the population of climate change deniers, not about the population of conspiracy theorists.  That is, it shows that the data for the Lewandowski "moon landing" paper does not support proposition (2) above.  (Actually, it only shows it for a restricted version of proposition (2), as there were a total of 10 conspiracy theories considered by Lewandowski et al.)

    For some strange reason, the logician in me wants to insist that refuting 'if B then A' does not refute 'if A then B'.  It really does not.  Ony those who do not understand the meaning of the word "if" could think otherwise.

    So the best that can be said of Sheehan's critique (which he copied of McIntyre, JoNova and a host of other 'skeptical' luminaries) is that he is incompetent at either at logic, or at reading comprehension, or both.

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