Denial River: Conspiracy Thinking In The Climate Blogosphere In Response To Research On Conspiracy Thinking

By Prof. Stephan Lewandowsky via 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.

Stephan Lewandowskyos Winthrop Professor at the School of Psychology, University of Western Australia. He has published nearly 140 papers, chapters, and scholarly books on how people remember and think. He received a “Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award” from the Australian Research Council in 2011.

24 Responses to Denial River: Conspiracy Thinking In The Climate Blogosphere In Response To Research On Conspiracy Thinking

  1. Mike Arney says:

    Hey, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not out to get me! :-)

  2. Niall says:

    It might be interesting to investigate how this ties in to cultural cognition and cognitive dissonance (see, for example, )

    This might have implications, of course, for tackling the problem of denial.

  3. Dale left coast says:

    Interesting piece . . . but . . .
    It would still be nice if you actually posted the Real, Provable Science that supports Anthropogenic Gorebull Warming . . . .
    Since all articles I have read . . . always say “Scientists Believe” . . . and after many requests for over 20 years now I have asked for the “Science” . . . do you have it?
    After all “Belief” is a religious experience . . .

  4. SecularAnimist says:

    Dale left coast wrote: “for over 20 years now I have asked for the ‘Science’ . . . do you have it?”

    Wow, 20 years. It must be really, really hard work to remain so willfully ignorant for so long, assiduously and diligently ignoring the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles on anthropogenic global warming that have been published during all that time, and all the reports published by every national scientific academy in the world, and every international organization that has anything to do with climatology.

    I’m impressed.

  5. Niall says:

    There are others – plenty of others – but this is one place to start.

    Now, please take your head out of the sand.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Even paranoiacs have real enemies’.

  7. John McCormick says:

    What a bald faced troll. Waiting 20 years for proof that the climate ins approaching chaos.

    Have you been asleep for 20 years? what awakened you? A check form big oil, maybe?

    Join the world of the thinking folk.

  8. kermit says:

    “Belief” has two common uses in English:
    1. To think that something is true, e.g. “I believe that China has more citizens than India”.
    2. To embrace a value or set of values, e.g. “I believe in a scholar’s mind in an athlete’s body.”

    Scientists believe some things are true – such as anthropogenic global warming – based on verifiable evidence. The evidence has been offered freely for over twenty years, so I have my doubts about your claim. You haven’t offered any supporting evidence, and your story seems untenable on the face of it.

    What, for example, would you consider reasonable evidence if AGW were true?

  9. Mike Roddy says:

    The professor is showing us something that Climate Progress readers already know, that the deniers are crazy.

    Exhibit A: Dale left coast.

  10. Ozonator says:

    I had to call my insurance company earlier today. The nice lady asked me what was my state of residence. I said denial. After no review for ~6 years, I was told that I had been paying too much for this time period with the same company. Good article.

  11. Omega Centauri says:

    So this is a common mode of human thought? Another hypothesis would be (at least for politically salient topics like climate change), that conspiracies are actively pedaled among and to the denialist community. Perhaps some or all of the observed effect is due to aggressive marketing of conspiracies.

  12. t_p_hamilton says:

    So, what climate science textbooks have you studied and worked the problems to?

  13. Charles says:

    Crazy? Well, perhaps. But they sure are in denial! No physical evidence of planetary warming due to increased CO2 emissions? That’s laughable.

  14. bill says:

    Dale’s a poe, surely? If not, thanks, mate!

    What’s struck me is that this time the Deniers aren’t leaping all over Lewandowsky’s post, claiming he and some putative cabal of fellow-travellers have got it in for them!

    Perhaps they are capable of learning, after all… ;-)

  15. Pythagoras says:

    And this years’ winner of the Ig Nobel prize goes to…..

  16. skyman says:

    Fantastic trolling!

    Please do continue. Mulga needs to hear from you – would you please drop him a line or two?

  17. red-diaper baby 1942 says:

    This is quite interesting in that in principle the process is infinitely recursive: you can analyze the response to this column, and write it up as “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation in response to research on conspiracist ideation.” The fact is that this type of conspiracist mentality — also apparent in the birther universe — will never change; any evidence adduced to disprove the conspiracy actually becomes further evidence that it exists. In the meantime, we’re rapidly reaching the tipping point in AGW, and at least in Congress there’s no political will to confront the issue, in part because of pandering to these denialists.

  18. SecularAnimist says:

    Kermit wrote: “‘Belief’ has two common uses in English: 1. To think that something is true … 2. To embrace a value or set of values, e.g. ‘I believe in a scholar’s mind in an athlete’s body’.”

    The second use is actually an incorrect use of “believe” which is indeed common, and causes much confusion.

    The correct verb for “to embrace a value” is not “to believe” but “to value”. As in, “I value a scholar’s mind in an athlete’s body”.

    “Beliefs” are statements that you accept as true, and the nature of beliefs is that they may or may not be true. Science, of course, has a well-defined standard of “truth”, which is to test beliefs (or predictions arising from beliefs) against the results of empirical observation.

    “Values”, on the other hand, are preferences: that which you like or dislike, desire or detest, love or hate. They are of a nature that they are neither “true” nor “false”. To ask a hungry person, for example, whether his hunger is true or false, makes no sense.

    In the example you gave, there is not really any “belief” expressed — no statement about “a scholar’s mind in an athlete’s body” that might be true or false — rather, what is expressed is the speaker’s preference for, admiration of, or perhaps aspiration towards “a scholar’s mind in an athlete’s body” as a desirable state.

    Many interminable, intractable arguments arise because people mistake their subjective preferences — their values — for “beliefs” about how things are.

  19. Jeff says:

    Come on, conspiratorialists, we really need you to weave *this latest research* into your web of conspiracy thinking. You’ve done such a grand job so far — don’t let us down now! We know you can do it! Go! Go! Go! Show us what you’ve got!

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You see, no thought is involved, or even considered necessary. Their thinking is done for them by the plethora of hard Right brainwashers who dominate the MSM. These creatures are simply regurgitators.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It comes down to whether you have the nous, and the courage, to question all your beliefs, and reject even the most precious, if you ‘see’ evidence to the contrary. The ‘seeing’ is the difficult bit. ‘There are none so blind as will not see’, or, perhaps, ‘Believing is seeing’. ‘I will see it when I believe it’. Most denialists are ignorant, intellectually ill-equipped and credulous, and, hence, easy meat for conscienceless manipulators. The genius of climate destabilisation denialism was to paint it as a ‘Right versus Left’ question, thereby recruiting all the fanatic Rightwing zealots, who believe everything that their Thought Controllers tell them. Then you just let the entire menagerie of Rightist hatemongers in the MSM loose, and, fearing no insurgency of morality or conscience from those creatures, you can just go on ramping up the agit-prop.

  22. John Hollenberg says:

    For a moment I thought this was a sly tongue-in-cheek comment proving the authors point. Silly me.

  23. Mulga,

    People who follow Rush Limbaugh call themselves, “ditto heads.” There are actually people driving around the U.S. with Ditto Head bumper stickers on the back of their trucks.

    Now think on this. If you were going to let someone do your thinking for you…would it be Rush?

    (Answer: Yes, because intelligent people, people who are not demagogues, encourage you to think for yourself. Only authoritarian types like Rush need “followers.”)

  24. Can you read? Or, did you have somebody write this for you?