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From conspiracy theories to climate change denial, a cognitive psychologist explains

Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, answered questions posed by the public on Reddit. The Conversation has curated the highlights. Conspiracy theories Under…

Facts don’t matter. dlytle, CC BY-NC-SA

Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, answered questions posed by the public on Reddit. The Conversation has curated the highlights.


Conspiracy theories

Under what conditions do conspiracies spread? What can one do to convince people to be more sceptical of extraordinary claims in conspiracy theories?

In societies that are not transparent and less democratic, conspiracy theories flourish because the government cannot be trusted. In general, the people who believe in conspiracy theories are low on trust and feel that they have been treated badly by life or society.

Countering this is very difficult, but education and reducing inequality will go a long way.

Can you name one conspiracy theory that turned out to be true?

The tobacco industry is now known to have “conspired” against the public in their efforts to undermine the well-established scientific evidence linking smoking to ill health. One of the US judges famously said: “The US tobacco industry has engaged in a criminal conspiracy for more than 50 years.”

What kind of cognitive traits does conspiratorial thinking exhibit?

There are some researchers who have linked conspiracy beliefs to personality variables. So yes, it is quite possibly a stable characteristic of some sort. The most striking thing is that conspiratorial thinking can be self-contradictory, for example people think MI6 killed Princess Diana while also thinking that she faked her own death.

To what extent do you see climate conspiracists denying climate change science as opposed to denying the feasibility of providing an economically acceptable solution to reversing its effects?

Very interesting question. I cannot be certain because I do not have data that speak to this issue directly. However, in general, conspiracism is just one form of “motivated cognition”. There are others, such as worldview defence. The reason worldviews are inflamed by climate change is because of the threat of government interference with the free market that might result from mitigation efforts. It is for this reason that people who cherish free markets are less inclined to oppose mitigation when it is framed as providing an opportunity for the nuclear industry than when it is framed as pollution cuts.

Bottom line: It is pretty clear that fear of the solutions drives much opposition to the science. This manifests itself in motivated cognition, and one form of that is conspiracism. That said, it is notable that other science denial – for instance HIV-AIDS – also involves conspiracism, and the links to worldviews are less clear there.


Climate change denial

How important are political ideologies in understanding the rejection of climate science?

I can ask people four questions about the free market and I have roughly 67% “confidence” (that is, variance) in their attitudes towards climate change.

As a conservative, I find myself in the frustrating position of being one of the few among my inner circle who is not a dogmatic climate change sceptic. It’s happening and humanity is contributing in a major way. Something that does frustrate me, however, is misinformation about exactly what steps would need to be taken to seriously combat global warming effects. What are your thoughts on this?

Recycling is largely a farce. Yes, it is better to recycle that soda bottle than to throw it out. But what is far better is to reuse it or not use it in the first place. But there’s no political will to move the needle on the economic to support such a system. (I do try to recycle anyway, by the way. I just don’t pretend that it makes any significant difference.)

Gasoline use is even worse. The fact is that, without abundant sources of non-fossil-fuel power, we are going to burn every last bit of carbon we can pull out of the earth’s crust. Me driving an electric vehicle (which I don’t, by the way) just makes it that much easier for someone on the other side of the world to fill up their gas tank.

I think there is, however, some utility in the example that it sets. If my vegan friends make a dinner that is fantastic and satisfying, maybe their decreased resource consumption gives me some ideas how to reduce my consumption of meat. My neighbour’s electric vehicle might convince me that I don’t need to drive a gas-guzzling SUV, and might help incrementally advance the technology to make a wholesale change in power for transportation possible.

Overall, the micro-level stuff is small potatoes, and won’t make a difference without the macro stuff. But I think the micro stuff can help sell the macro stuff, and that’s the reason it matters.

Do you think that people with same views (no matter how absurd) will easily find each other and gather around somewhere?

Yes, there are cyberghettos and clusterings. This is a problem all in itself already, but to make matters worse, it creates an incentive for politicians to engage in more extremist dialogue. Work by economists has shown that it is advantageous for politicians to be extreme if messages to their followers remained inside an echo chamber. As a consequence, whereas politicians used to compete for the “median voter”, it is now advantageous to be extremist. This has undesirable consequences for us all.

How much of an effect has science denial had on the progress of the science itself?

It is difficult to quantify, but there is some evidence to suggest that science denial has affected not just public discourse but also science itself. For example, an analysis of media coverage found that the IPCC reports in 2007 were more likely to underestimate than overestimate the risk from climate change. A more recent analysis expanded on this topic and argued that scientists' natural reticence biases them towards cautious estimates rather than alarmism, a tendency they call erring on the side of least drama.

Is it a waste of my time trying to convince those that don’t believe in climate change or should I just focus on helping those that do become more educated?

The answer is pretty nuanced: There are some people who are so entrenched in their contrarian views that there is little point in talking to them about anything other than solutions. In the end, it doesn’t matter what a person thinks about climate change if they put a solar panel on their roof – and who wouldn’t in Geraldton, Western Australia?

However, there are also people who really want to know more, and whose reticence to accept the science arises from lack of information. I would send those people to Skeptical Science. Differentiating between entrenched contrarians and those who are open to knowing more is challenging because sometimes it is difficult to know at the outset.

What kind of dialogue may perhaps serve to move the national discussion in a more productive direction, given your insights into the psychology of denial?

My views are: first, the public is currently being denied the right to be fully informed about the risks it is facing. Second, there are many reasons for this, from “doubt-mongering” to ideologically-motivated denial. Third, we know from much research on misinformation that people cannot dismiss “noise” or misinformation unless they are given a reason to do so. This is why it is important for the public to understand who the people are who oppose climate science.

In a nutshell: underscore the consensus which will move all but the hardcore, and identify who the hardcore contrarians are so the remainder of the population can make an educated choice about who to listen to.

I will graduate this year with an MSc in Climate Change. What should someone with my skills be doing in order to do a job which benefits the planet?

I think that scientists themselves could refine their messaging. Often they put the uncertainty first, without saying what we do know or without saying that uncertainty is a compelling reason to mitigate. That said, also remember that the problem is compounded by the role of worldviews. To overcome that, emphasising the consensus is only a partial tool.

Join the conversation

34 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Ennor

    Retired

    An interesting article on a difficult problem. When we have Govts that we expect to lead us for the better, entrenched in putting politics and their political survival before the national interest. In this 24hr media cycle the populace desperately need clear leadership that they can trust. All polls show that trust in politicians at an all time low. So the void left by lack of trustworthy leadership is filled by a void that is filled by noise. The most noise tends to sway public opinion, so even…

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  2. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Great article, premise and an excellent series of foresight questions.
    Climate change evidence is more concrete in 2014 and so is the dogmatism of denial tied to personal values of dying generations. Evolution through these values and generational change is central point in any answer to all the questions posed.
    Stephan Lewandowsky wrote; "I think that scientists themselves could refine their messaging."
    Agreed, the scientist themselves need to understand the value systems of others, level…

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  3. Hilary Sutcliffe

    Director

    I hadn't thought about the idea you say here "there is little point in talking to them about anything other than solutions'.

    Why do we feel that it is so important that sceptics have to be convinced of our way of thinking and 'know the truth'? Perhaps we spend far too much time trying to persuade people that we are right about climate change, with the view that if we managed it they would change. When in fact that's just a distraction. By spending our time and effort on that, we miss the opportunity to implement solutions for their own self-serving reasons - eg solar panels to save money, energy security etc. Which have the by product of achieving what we need them to do for climate reasons too.

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  4. Latimer Alder

    logged in via Twitter

    'I will graduate this year with an MSc in Climate Change. '

    Start practising: 'Will you have fries with that?'.

    You've timed your arrival into it just as the market in climate graduates is starting its downward spiral. The political will to do anything isn't there, nor ever likely to be so. And without political will, funding dries up over time. And there's a glut of people with your background

    Suggest you start retraining pronto.

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    1. Hilary Sutcliffe

      Director

      In reply to Latimer Alder

      Looking at your twitter heading 'sceptic about most things', allows the person making that statement to ignore what you say. As climate issues pervade every aspect of society there is plenty of room for thoughtful people prepared to get stuck in and help change things.

      For knee jerk, negative, unconstructive people perhaps less room.

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Latimer Alder

      Now there is a comment of the sort that you will read almost daily at the climate science denier blogs as the deniers reassure one another that, yes really, climate science is just a passing fad and the entire world is on the verge of rejecting the science.

      Definitely conspiratorial.

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  5. Paul Matthews

    Mathematics lecturer

    The total humiliation of Stephan Lewandowsky by the journal Frontiers in Psychology must be quite a blow to his ego.

    Not only did they retract his paper, they went on to add two further statements explaining why.
    In the first statement (April 4) they said that they received some complaints about his paper and that "Some of those complaints were well argued and cogent and, as a responsible publisher, our policy is to take such issues seriously." Contrary to the claims of Lewandowsky's hangers-on…

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    1. Barry Woods

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Paul Matthews

      Indeed: the co-founder of Frontiers added this later:

      "They made a monumental mistake, refused to fix it and that rightfully disqualified the study. "

      Henry Markram
      "My own personal opinion: The authors of the retracted paper and their followers are doing the climate change crisis a tragic disservice by attacking people personally and saying that it is ethically ok to identify them in a scientific study.

      They made a monumental mistake, refused to fix it and that rightfully disqualified…

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Paul Matthews

      Articles from Stephan documenting the Frontiers retraction can be found here.
      http://shapingtomorrowsworld.org

      This article contains some more links to the media coverage.
      http://shapingtomorrowsworld.org/rfmedia.html

      The University of Western Australia has not been intimidated and hosts the paper here
      http://uwa.edu.au/recursivefury

      From the University of Western Australia's legal counsel
      "...‘I’m entirely comfortable with you publishing the paper on the UWA web site. You and the…

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    3. Paul Matthews

      Mathematics lecturer

      In reply to Akshat Rathi

      Oh, who should we pay attention to, a climate activist journalist student, who has not even seen the complaints, or a team of professional psychologist editors of a journal who spent a year studying the complaints?

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    4. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Paul Matthews

      "who should we pay attention to" - How about the retraction notice before the butt covering started.

      "In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical, and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors."
      http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00293/full

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    5. Paul Matthews

      Mathematics lecturer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      That was the first statement, written in conjunction with Lewandowsky himself!

      The second statement by the journal editors, linked above, made it clear that "we also must uphold the rights and privacy of the subjects included in a study or paper."

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Barry Woods

      "If only people were as easy to delete as inconvenient comments?"

      You make essentially the same points in comments at Lewandowsky's blog here
      http://shapingtomorrowsworld.org/rfSpeech.html
      and here
      http://shapingtomorrowsworld.org/rfmedia.html

      In this conspiracy, why were the perpetrators so lousy at their task that they only deleted one of your no doubt devastating comments while leaving comments from other science deniers determined to attack Lewandowsky.

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  6. Leopard Basement

    Carnivore

    The above article addresses Climate Change Denial and Conspiracy theories in two separate sections with some cross over in this question:

    "To what extent do you see climate conspiracists denying climate change science as opposed to denying the feasibility of providing an economically acceptable solution to reversing its effects?"

    This is followed by this question:

    "How important are political ideologies in understanding the rejection of climate science?"

    Stephan Lewandowsky in his work…

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  7. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    Lewandowsky's error-filled defamatory article on the psychology of climate deniers has just been withdrawn by the editors of “Frontiers in Psychology”, and Lewandowsky's colleague Dana Nuccitelli has been busy at the Guardian accusing the editors of being cowards and liars. You won't find out anything about that from the Reddit conversation though, since all awkward questions (e.g. from Barry Woods) were simply erased.

    Your charter offers to provide “a trusted platform that values and promotes…

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    1. Akshat Rathi

      Science and Data Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Geoff Chambers

      Thank you for your suggestion, Geoff. We have often published articles critical of other academics. Just search for aliens, myths or such on the website. However, you are right that only academic experts can write for this website. We believe in doing our best in the model that was used to found this website. There was dire need for such a platform on the internet. There are many others, with a bigger audience, where you can publish your own views.

      I wish you all the luck.

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    2. Paul Matthews

      Mathematics lecturer

      In reply to Akshat Rathi

      Geoff, as a University academic I could write an article setting the record straight, but the control-freaks and activists behind the so-called "conversation" would not publish it.

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Paul Matthews

      This is a variation of Godwin's Law which I call Lewandowsky's Law .

      "On any article by Lewandowsky that mentions conspiracy ideation, the probability of someone invoking a conspiracy approaches 1"

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    4. Geoff Chambers

      retired

      In reply to Akshat Rathi

      Thanks for the reply. Who's saying I'm not an academic expert? Since I retired I no longer have a university email, that's all.

      Lewandowsky wrote an article about climate denialists that was so bad that the editors of the journal retracted it. Since I was one of the people named in the article who was identified as a paranoid fruitcake, I'd like I'd like the opportunity to explain why Lewandowsky's views on climate scepticism should be treated with, well, scepticism, particularly when they come from a Q&A session at Reddit, where any question not to Professor Lewandowsky's liking was ruthlessly expunged. This was Conversation in the North Korean style.

      (My area of academic expertise is in the sociology of élites, particularly the tendency of university academics to see themselves as a superior caste whose contact with the rest of society is limited to explaining stuff to them).

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    5. Barry Woods

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Akshat Rathi

      Reddit - deleted this question of Prof Lewandowsky:

      In this case will you be providing the data that was requested for – NASA faked the Moon Landing, therefore [climate science] is a hoax, Lewandowsky et al, Psychological Science

      The Vice Chancellor of UWA has refused to release it.

      From: Paul Johnson
      Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 8:08 AM
      To: Barry Woods
      Cc: Murray Maybery ; Kimberley Heitman
      Subject: request for access to data

      Mr B. Woods

      Dear Mr Woods,

      I refer to your emails…

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  8. Paul Matthews

    Mathematics lecturer

    Here is a good example of a conspiracy theory:

    "Most of these attacks have been pursued by defamation on the internet, but they have also involved activities beneath the surface hidden from public view."

    Can anyone guess who wrote that, without googling it?

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    1. Brad Keyes

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Paul Matthews

      My answer has been deleted for some strange reason, no doubt involving nefarious intent [NI].

      I guess Lewandowsky as the source of that quote. Why?

      1. It's a conspiracist idea, and Lewandowsky is an expert in such ideation—he's a leading theorist of conspiracies. It was Lewandowsky who first intuited that "a number of commenters" on Alene Composta's blog were "orchestrated" aliases, for example—even before he'd figured out that <i>Composta herself </i> was also a fake character contrived to…

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  9. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    Lewandowsky says:
    “... there are … people who really want to know more, and whose reticence to accept the science arises from lack of information. I would send those people to Skeptical Science.”

    I've been to SkepticalScience. I asked them whether it was true, as Lewandowsky claimed, that his “Moon Hoax” survey had been linked at SkepticalScience, and if so, why couldn't it be found on the Google Wayback machine?. They told me rather rudely to go away, and that blog owner John Cook was far too…

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  10. Geoff Chambers

    retired

    Lewandowsky says:
    “There are some researchers who have linked conspiracy beliefs to personality variables. So yes, it is quite possibly a stable characteristic of some sort. The most striking thing is that conspiratorial thinking can be self-contradictory, for example people think MI6 killed Princess Diana while also thinking that she faked her own death.”

    This strange finding comes from a paper by Michael Wood cited by Lewandowsky in his own retracted paper.
    http://www.academia.edu/1207098/Dead_and_alive_Beliefs_in_contradictory_conspiracy_theories

    As Steve McIntyre pointed out at ClimateAudit last year, this “finding” was based on a sample size of zero. It's just not true. But as long as Wood hasn't retracted his absurd claim, it's in the peer-reviewed literature, and people like Lewandowsky will go on quoting it with a straight face.

    What do academics propose to do about this absurd situation?

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  11. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. In reply to Brad Keyes

      Comment removed by moderator.

  12. Alistair McDhui

    Retired

    Nearly 18 years with no statistically-significant Global Warming, yet 16% more CO2 by volume suggests there is near zero CO2-AGW.

    Furthermore, no professional scientist or engineer trained in standard physics accepts the key premise of IPCC pseudo-science, that the Earth's surface emits to the atmosphere a net IR energy flux at the same rate as it would to a sink at absolute zero.

    13 mistakes in the physics means the IPCC GCMs have no climate predictive capability.

    No doubt this comment will be removed because it defies the imaginary 'consensus': I believe in facts and science.

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