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For Psychology Research, Climate Denial is the Gift that Keeps on Giving

Posted on 5 February 2013 by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook

This is a re-post from Shaping Tomorrow's World.

There is growing evidence that conspiratorial thinking, also known as conspiracist ideation, is often involved in the rejection of scientific propositions. Conspiracist ideations tend to invoke alternative explanations for the nature or source of the scientific evidence. For example, among people who reject the link between HIV and AIDS, common ideations involve the beliefs that AIDS was created by the U.S. Government.

My colleagues and I published a paper recently that found evidence for the involvement of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of scientific propositions—from climate change to the link between tobacco and lung cancer, and between HIV and AIDS—among visitors to climate blogs. This was a fairly unsurprising result because it meshed well with previous research and the existing literature on the rejection of science. Indeed, it would have been far more surprising, from a scientific perspective, if the article had not found a link between conspiracist ideation and rejection of science.

Nonetheless, as some readers of this blog may remember, this article engendered considerable controversy.

The article also generated data.

Data, because for social scientists, public statements and publically-expressed ideas constitute data for further research. Cognitive scientists sometimes apply something called “narrative analysis” to understand how people, groups, or societies are organized and how they think.

In the case of the response to our earlier paper, we were struck by the way in which some of the accusations leveled against our paper were, well, somewhat conspiratorial in nature. We therefore decided to analyze the public response to our first paper with the hypothesis in mind that this response might also involve conspiracist ideation. We systematically collected utterances by bloggers and commenters, and we sought to classify them into various hypotheses leveled against our earlier paper. For each hypothesis, we then compared the public statements against a list of criteria for conspiracist ideation that was taken from the previous literature.

This follow-up paper was accepted a few days ago by Frontiers in Psychology, and a preliminary version of the paper is already available, for open access, here.

The title of the paper is Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation, and it is authored by myself, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, and Michael Marriott.

I enclose the abstract below:

Conspiracist ideation has been repeatedly implicated in the rejection of scientific propositions, although empirical evidence to date has been sparse. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scientific propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper's conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere's response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.

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Comments 1 to 30:

  1. I can already hear the Anthony's and the like of the world scream, "Fly my pretties fly!"

    Interesting article and I suspect this follow-up could in turn yield similar results as well down the take.

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    Moderator Response: (Rob P) All caps changed to bold text.
  2. mothincarnate, to view the fun already unfolding, see WUWT with its guest post of Tom Fuller (who clearly hasn't read the papers, as neither claims most pseudoskeptics are conspiracy theorists).

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  3. Well done John

    I have avoided WUWT ands similar sites like the plague as I feel that they are a complete waste of my time (generating loads of heat and virtually no if any light) and they simply get me annoyed. Using data from such blogosphere sites recursively is a masterstroke.

    Can such sites suffer from a stack overflow?

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  4. Applogies for the terrible html.


    My aim was to highlight that Pfizer withdrew it's support for Heartland in December 2012 (which is still good news) and to express concern that labelling some people conspiracy theorists may not help them develop objectivity.

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  5. Cornelius,

    Well done:

    express concern that labelling some people conspiracy theorists may not help them develop objectivity

    Don't label them (who cares who they are) or put them in boxes - just do the science and continue. Stop the name calling - that's their game - work on the science and the science links only.

    Objectivity - ???? Just do the work and the truth.

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  6. Another interesting thing in the paper, discovered by the wise bunny: Lewandowsky and his co-authors have submitted another paper on the same topic, but with a different dataset (footnote 5 of the article, if I remember corretly - rabbett has the details).

    The popcorn will become really short on supply, especially if we consider that this article will attract lots of comments, which will be used for another study, and that all these studies will call for a synthesis article, which will etc.

    This is pure genius.

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  7. The psychology of those in denial and fake skeptics is fascinating.  What is even more fascinating (and perhaps sad too) is that they seem wholly incapable of being aware of their extreme bias and propensity to enage and perpetuate conspiracies.  They seem unabe to help themselves.

    When the first paper came out the fake skeptics were warned that their knee-jerk reaction was simply reinforcing the original paper's findings.  They ignored that advice (offered in good faith) and now we have a second paper documenting their irrational behaviour.  It is all quite surreal, and to me at least, this exercise demonstrates again that for fake skeptics and those in denial anthropogenic global warming is not about science or uncertainty or dogma at all, but about their ideological and extreme leanings.

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  8. Albatross: you make a very interesting remark!: "The psychology of those in denial and fake skeptics is fascinating.  What is even more fascinating (and perhaps sad too) is that they seem wholly incapable of being aware of their extreme bias and propensity to enage and perpetuate conspiracies.  They seem unabe to help themselves."

    Don't you see, that this statement exactly fits to those who are in denial of the recent lack of warming for 17 years, and to those who call themselves 'skeptic about skeptic arguments'? And to those who still deny the existence of the Medieval Warm Period, contrary to historic facts? Or to those who insist that the sea level rise is accelerating, contrary to satellite measurements? 

    In the Netherlands we have an interesting TV game, in which three men all state that they have a special profession, but for only one of them it is true. The others are actors. They are interrogated by a panel. At the end of the game all panel members have to decide who is the real professional. And then the leader of the game asks: 'Will the real profssional now stand up?'

    We can ask the same question in the climate debate: 'will the real denialist now stand up?'

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  9. What lack of warming, fy?  Question: is the troposphere a good representative of the climate system's energy storage?

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  10. Who has "denied the existence" of the MWP?  Are you now going to claim that it was global?  Good grief, your post is Wegman-like in its irony.  

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  11. Maybe the next Lewandowsky-Cook offering on the psychological & sociological research on climate denial can look into the extent that pseudoskeptics engage in projection.

    Case in point, fydijkstra tries to throw back Albatross' comments at him - while engaging in a fair amount of "unable to help self" activity by resorting to a stale, reheated cabbage of easily-debunked false claims.

    Allow me to add some tasteful, classy commentary by pointing to an obvious analogue.

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  12. I read or skimmed through the pdf of the paper last night at the Frontiers of Psychology website.

    Now, I can't find the link to the paper. As I've aged, my eyesight has worsened but I didn't have any trouble last night.

    Heck, I even did a search for 'pdf' -- nothing came up.

    What am I doing wrong?

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  13. robert: The OP notes that the version available online at the journal's website was a preliminary (possibly pre-publication?) version.

    It may well be that the publisher has taken down that version if the final, published version is set to go online (at which point, sadly, it will most likely be behind a paywall).

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    Response: [JC] Happy to say the final version of the paper will be open-access - no paywall at Frontiers.
  14. Fy @8,

    You are projecting and taking this thread off topic.

    As for your analogy and may rise sir.

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  15. FYI,  the web blog "The Air Vent" is reporting that the Lewandowsky paper has been pulled off of the journal website. Is this true?

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    Moderator Response: [DB] The full paper is still available here.
  16. Jeff is complaining about a reference to a "conspiratorial" minded post on his website.  I checked out the link listed in the preprint and the post is accurately characterized.  Just another denialist attempt to throw a spanner in the wheels of science....

    I suspect the paper will be published as is when all is said and done.

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  17. Marco wrote: "...see WUWT with its guest post of Tom Fuller (who clearly hasn't read the papers, as neither claims most pseudoskeptics are conspiracy theorists)."

    Oi! Tom Fuller used to write AGW articles for with the 'evil climate scientist cabal' (aka "the Team") playing a major role in suppressing the Truth with their Fake science. He is, himself, heavily invested in conspiracy thinking despite his endless claims of 'neutrality' and 'reason'. On one occasion I actually got him to admit that the 'climate scientists claimed that sea level would rise 20 meters in 30 years' myth was false by tracking down the supposed source and showing that it stated no time frame. Yet only a few months later he was back to repeating the same myth... having completely blocked his memory of acknowledging that it wasn't true.

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  18. I am certainly not a conspiracy theorist.  The smoking-cancer, and HIV-AIDS links are obvious. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and humans have caused the levels in the atmosphere to rise.  That and other human activities have contributed to an increase in temperature.  I disagree with most of you on here on the amount of that contribution and what the future may hold.  

    What label do I get?

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  19. Albatross: you make some v interesting comments here which I agree with entirely. Speaking as on old Psychology graduate, I was fascinated to read this research and find it gels with my own personal experience of the skeptics/denialists/contrarian (whatever label you want to use here). Ironically, my interest in whole field of climate change, since it was pretty much outside field of my own expertise, was sparked off by a friend who turned out to be one of the skeptics. At first, I found his views interesting if not unusual - at the time (around about 2008 or thereabouts when the first big climate change conference @ Copenhagen was going on), there was a lot of media activity in UK about subject - which the BBC usefully synthesised into a kind of rough 'beginners' guide' for non-scientists if you like-which put people like me in the picture. Even then the science that was being reported seemed pretty comprehensive and, most importantly, settled. So, following the links in this guide to various scientific journals & publications, I tried to pass these on to my friend - only to be greeted by the ugly head of the conspiracy theory. eg you can't believe  a word of the article in ..New Scientist, Nature, National Geographic - or any of a thousand other scientific peer reviewed journals or popular science magazines, websites, reports from learned scientific research institutes etc - because the scientists are all part of the global conspiracy which Climategate proved to be true..etc etc etc. Further attempts followed to try to persuade my friend of the merits of the science - only to be dashed by reference to the same conspiracy theory. In the early stages of this 'debate', while I was fascinated by the volumes of scientific 'data' which my friend reproduced, there was 1 nagging doubt I had which became impossible to reconcile - for as a social science graduate trained in some of the basic philosophical schools of thought I was familiar and had some sympathy for the 'skeptical' approach - and the doubt was this. All other things being equal, and following the application of even the most basic law of averages, it is possible that a particular scientist or group of scientists, especially when grappling with a discipline as complex as climate change science which, on some levels, is still evolving and developing, may, in relation to a particular question or problem, reach a conclusion which is later found, in the light of newer research, to be incorrect. It may also be possible, in the extreme, that such scientists may simply have got the science wrong. Both of these potential outcomes are possible through the application of the skeptical approach. But how do we move, if we are being rational, objective investigators, from the position of 'scientist X got the science wrong' to  'scientist X is systematically lying to the world and fabricating his data in order to make vast sums of money and get rich very quickly by redirecting the focus of international research into the renewables industry' which is a basic precis of the Climategate 'scandal'? This is not a possible outcome of the genuine skeptical approach. At this point I started to consider, as this research shows, that there may well be a psychological dimension to all of this focused more on ideology than the rigorous evauation of empirical data (a.k.a. science).

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  20. @Terranova, I'm not sure why labels are important, it is the behaviour that is interesting.  Perhaps you could post on an appropriate thread the reasons why you consider the GHG contibution to be overstated, I'm sure there are many here who would be happy to discuss the science.

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  21. Terranova, labels work better for groups than individuals. If you are accurately reporting your views, then you are just someone who rejects the weight of evidence and expert opinion.

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  22. Terranova:

    Labels are a shorthand for observed behaviour, whether virtuous or vicious. IMO if the label accurately describes the behaviour, it can be applied. One would not shy away from labelling, say, a purveyor of Ponzi schemes as a fraud, nor from labelling, say, the person who - at risk to own life or health - rescues another person from drowning as a hero.

    Someone earning the label "pseudoskeptic" (my personal favourite label) earns it on account of engaging in what this new Lewandowsky et al paper defines as 'nihilistic skepticism' (*) on the one hand, and unskeptical credulity on the other.

    Someone earning the label "conspiracy theorist" earns it on account of engaging in conspiratorial ideation. Typically such ideation is also unwarranted on the basis of the available evidence.

    Someone earning the label "denialist" earns it on account of engaging in the techniques of denialism - appeal to fake experts, conspiratorial ideation, cherry-picking, logical fallacies, and impossible expectations/shifting goalposts.

    Hard as it may be to believe, the motives of the person so labelled do not need to nefarious for the label to be applied accurately. I for one am convinced the vast majority of people who would earn the above labels are entirely sincere. But, at the end of the day, the labels stick because of their actions, not their motives.

    If you're looking to be assigned a label, I for one would go with "made incorrect inferences from available data" based on your comment.

    (*) The specific passage from this paper is:

    Third, during its questioning of an official account, conspiracist ideation is characterized by "... an almost nihilistic degree of skepticism" (Keeley, 1999, p. 125); and the conspiracy theorist refuses to believe anything that does not fit into the conspiracy theory. Thus, nothing is at it seems, and all evidence points to hidden agendas or some other meaning that only the conspiracy theorist is aware of. Accordingly, low trust (Goertzel, 1994) and paranoid ideation (Darwin, Neave, & Holmes, 2011) feature prominently among personality and attitudinal variables known to be associated with conspiracist ideation. The short label for this criterion is NS (for nihilistic skepticism).

    I would characterize nihilstic skepticism, outside the context of conspiracist ideation, as doubt or skepticism of a claim that (a) is unwarranted based on the evidence available to support the claim, and (b) can be clearly or easily shown to be unwarranted.

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  23. Leedsjon - an interesting post and description of your experience.

    I too wish I had a dollar - no, a dime, that'd still make me rich - for every time I have read that climate scientists are all in it together for the money, or as some lower tier of a planned future world government. However, the question I ask, and have done over years, to people advancing such ideas, is how do you organise such a thing? There are very many countries, with a great diversity of cultures, belief systems, political systems and so on. To coordinate the thousands of climate scientists distributed around these diverse places, even if one wanted to, in such a fashion would be.... let's just put it this way. It would be easier to line up a thousand sheep and get them to do a Mexican Wave!

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  24. "Conspiracist ideation" seems not so different from resorting to "magic" as a cognitive substitute for factual information. Here in the case of climate change, if we can't or more often appears the case won't confront facts, we invent a form of magic as an alternative explanation.

    Considering that physical evidence overwhelmingly contradicts "scientists and politicians are working in cahoots," perhaps instead this wishful thinking is magical interpretation of facts, a way of deriving comfort or absolution in a situation where we're reluctant to take on full responsibility. Is a magic conspiracy so different from saying it was "God's will" that a dozen people were killed when a bridge collapsed even when we know it was defective gussets that caused the collapse, that closer supervision of the bridge's constuction would have saved those lives?   

    The magical explanation (or "conspiracist ideation") seems the final refuge against personal responsibility, ineluctable in the case of climate change. 

    As the paper in question comprehensively explains, the great thing about magic for people seeking to duck ownership of their problems is that magic is a product of our imaginations and hence is entirely elastic and inexhaustible; magic can be adapted and grown to wave away any accountability whatsoever.  

    Great stuff, magic. 

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  25. Oops, I forgot to make my main point w/regard to magical thinking. Considering Terranova's question about labels, it seems reasonable to say that if one does not have to resort to magic (a conspiracy) to explain climage change then one isn't suffering from conspiracist ideation. Presumably that's true for the term "denier" as well; an alternative explanation grounded in and fully consistent with the world of facts isn't "denial." 

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  26. I consider myself both educated and well informed. On more than two occasions have the moderaters here explained to me the errors in my posts in both content and logic. I listened to what they said and worked out I was indeed either partially and or totally wrong. Now I know where I was wrong I have tried to understand why I was lacking in the knowledge that led to uninformed comments. Climate Science is inherently very complicated. This has changed my mind from where I was before. Changing your mind when real new evidence is presented and then digested and understood is called science. Rejecting any real new evidence and holding steadfast to preconceived beleifs is called denialism. Bert

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  27. Bert from Eltham@26,

    One thing where you might still be wrong is that according to you "Climate Science is inherently very complicated". I totally disagree.

    When I, still some 2yago, was thinking that the "debate was not settled" according to popular media, I appreciated the "skeptic arguments" as something complex, requiring high degree of expertise to grasp.

    Now, when I started looking at the discussions on this site, I figured out the occasional deniers' comments are so hard to understand, because they are simply illogical, often succumbing to various fallacies. On the other hand, the climate science concepts discussed here, filled in beautifully my knowledge of physics, chemistry, statistics. Because the information is logical, in accordance with everything I learned from primary school to uni, it is actually easy to assimilate. Much more easier than "skeptic arguments".

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  28. fydijkstra makes a very good point.  Each side in this issue sees the other as denying reality.  Of course we know that is just projection on their part :-)

    But its now impossible for "skeptics" to change their minds.  When you start from the position that scientists are lying and have falsified the temperature record, then no amount of information (just more lies) will change your mind.

    Scientists just need to keep trying to do the best they can to further our understanding of climate.  And their peers need to keep being tough on them, keeping them honest.

    The "skeptics" can be ignored.

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  29. This is truly a wonderful article and a hugely enjoyable set of responses in the comments section. It's refreshing when you live as a foreigner in the United States to see that critical thinking is alive and well elsewhere in the world.

    Which brings me to the bigger problem that I think is the root of the issue both with science in general and climate science in particular. That is the assault upon the impartiality and the credibility of science as a methodology and tool for problem solving. For me the origins of this issue go back to the tobacco 'debate' but I'm sure it's roots go much further. What was done in the name of free speech and the freedom to pursue corporate interests was that the tobacco industry was allowed to call into question the findings of the medical establishment vis a vis lung cancer, stroke, emphysema etc. By commissioning bogus or bad science for the express purpose of contradicting or casting doubt upon legitimate science and redirecting public policy in a direction that was more favorable to the industry. 

    Fast forward to the new millennium and the same successful tactic is rampant across the board for all areas of public policy and science, with the most critical being environmental protection, energy policy and obviously climate science. The honestly dishonest skeptics may be a thorn in your side but the mischief makers: those who are not skeptical at all merely hell bent on destroying the credibility of scientists and arguments that contravene a pre-existing agenda, are the greater issue.

    Conspiracy ideation in relation to lung cancer was created and actively fostered by an industry intent on avoiding regulation. Similar skuldugerry is now so widespread that the term 'astro turf' which is in common parlance describes a fake grass roots movement created solely to oppose genuine social unrest. It's great to be able to find a tool to rebuff the hysterical as well as the commentators, bloggers and climate deniers but these are simply zombies created to cast doubt where no doubt exists, to tie up resources and time in rebuffing what is nonsense and to sap the credibility of those rasing the alarm.

    It's one of the sadder aspects of the present climate debate that those on the side of science and truth hold themselves aloof to conspiracy regarding the other side as simply ignorant and misguided. Whilst they themselves remain hopelessly naive and blind to the real agenda of people who are anything but. 

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  30. [N.B.  A new arrival to this blog, driven by hoards of denialists and trolls pretty much everywhere.  Retired physics prof, mostly lurker, rarely comment.]

    Delighted to see the recursion infinite loop on CT/denialism explored quantitatively! Still in my own infinite loop with internal debate on (A) DNFTT vs. (B) responsible engagement with scientifically honest critiques.  My own discriminator between the two just isn't able to keep pace with the rapidly propagating rage.

    Greatly appreciate the calm, rational insights from most regular commenters.  Also grateful for the moderators!

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