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Climate Change

Published on December 10th, 2017 | by Michael Barnard


Conspiracy Theorists, Climate Change Deniers, & The Rejection of Science

December 10th, 2017 by  

Research and publications about conspiracy ideation from 2012 and 2013 are newly relevant in today’s political climate. The US is led by a Denier in Chief who rose to power in part based on his strident trumpeting of conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth. He’s appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars, conspiracy theory central in 2017. His followers believe things which boggle the imagination, including that some of the most respected news agencies in the world are leftist providers of fake news.

The focus of CleanTechnica, of course, is on the climate change angle. Cleantech is a major part of the solution to the problem, and climate change denial is a major reason why we haven’t made more progress on this critical issue.

The research shows a strong overlap between climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists, and many of them are happy about it. Not all climate change “skeptics” are conspiracy theorists, but belief in one or more conspiracy theories is a very strong predictor of denial of climate science, and denial of climate science is a decent predictor of belief in conspiracy theories.

The pre-eminent researcher on this topic is Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, PhD, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in the UK. Professor Lewandowsky has published over 20 studies on the phenomenon of climate change denial. It’s directly in his area of expertise as a cognitive scientist, someone who studies how the mind processes information and assesses data.

In 2012, when he was still teaching and researching at the University of Western Australia, Professor Lewandowsky and his colleagues contacted five blog owners whose blogs prominently featured climate change denialism. They requested permission to perform a survey of the blogs’ participants. They then surveyed over 1,100 of the blogs’ participants.

Their published study “NASA faked the moon landing—Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science” is well worth reading. Their initial finding was a confirmation of previous studies, which found that endorsement of laissez-faire free market economics was a predictor of rejection of climate science, HIV causing AIDs, and smoking causing cancer.

For their primary finding, I’ll let Lewandowsky et al. speak for themselves:

“endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings, above and beyond endorsement of laissez-faire free markets. This provides empirical confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science. Acceptance of science, by contrast, was strongly associated with the perception of a consensus among scientists.”

The emphasis is mine. Conspiracy ideation, which invents patterns and relationships which are not supported by any evidence and which rejects evidence which would refute the conspiracy, is unsurprisingly linked to a refusal to accept scientific results in general.

This publication led to fury in the blogosphere of conspiracy theorists, with innumerable attacks on Professor Lewandowsky’s reputation and threats on his person. This fury was documented by Lewandowsky, Cook, et al. in their paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.”

Cook, of course, is Professor John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University researching cognitive science. He’s the founder of the multiply awarded Skeptical Science website which documents and debunks almost all of the arguments made by climate change “skeptics,” a list currently 196 entries long. At present, the list doesn’t include the emerging gravito-thermal nonsense currently emerging or the recent statement I saw by a “skeptic” that climate models don’t include photosynthesis and were therefore wrong. There’s always work to be done refuting BS. As a side note, while Skeptical Science is a nonprofit volunteer organization, I’ve seen “skeptics” claim that Cook is enriching himself from it, a claim as free of evidence and reality as their beliefs about the climate.

What did Cook, Lewandowsky et al. observe? I’ll quote Cook’s words in his HuffPost gloss on the study selectively:

“Conspiracy theorists exhibit a number of tell-tale characteristics. Almost ubiquitous is the accusation of nefarious intent. […]

“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.’ […]

“Conspiracy theorists invariably consider themselves persecuted victims. […]

“Conspiracy theorists think nothing happens by accident. […]

“Finally, conspiracy theories are self-sealing and immune to contrary evidence.”

For their excellent work in helping determine how conspiracy theorists and climate change deniers share overlapping traits and behaviours, Cook and Lewandowsky of course have been subject to vicious attacks of a variety of sorts.

“Stealing data, hacking servers, dressing up as ‘computer technicians’ to infiltrate scientific institutions, threatening scientists with death, and intimidation of scientific journals through internet trolling and threats of legal action. All in a day’s work for the anti-science movement.

Part of that intimidation of professional journals saw the temporary retraction of “Recursive Fury.” The process around it continues with re-publication still pending. The conspiracy theorists won a reprieve of sort, but it will be short lived. Reality can be ignored for only so long.

These attacks are part and parcel of the increasing anger of climate change deniers as they are forced off position after position, with their tissue-thin intellectual pretensions becoming apparent even to them. It’s part and parcel of the increasing violence seen among anti-wind protestors.

The USA especially is in a challenging place right now. A significant portion of the populace, although not a majority, believes a variety of things which are provably false and appear immune to reason and fact. They are supported by a president who has ridden their willful ignorance to a powerful position, and in turn he continues to feed their warped world view. The USA was built as much on engineering and science as on capitalism. Rejecting it will only hurt a great country, and by extension, the world.

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About the Author

Mike works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth in the transforming low-carbon economy. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, with some of his work included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He’s available for consultation, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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