Denier Déjà Vu: Conspiracy Theories In The Blogosphere In Response To Research On Conspiracy Theories

The results of {the study “NASA faked the moon landing — Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax”} implied that conspiratorial thinking is linked to climate denial, and hence might emerge in turn to defend climate denial against cognitive analysis – and that’s what happened, as we document in “Recursive Fury.”

by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky via Skeptical Science

Our paper Recursive fury: conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation has been published. The paper analyzed the public discourse in response to an earlier article by Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac (LOG12 for short from here on), which has led to some discussion on this blog earlier.

Refreshingly, the journal Frontiers makes all papers available for free with no paywall. Another unique feature of this journal is that readers can post comments directly beneath the abstract. Unfortunately this has led to the posting of a number of misrepresentations of the paper.

In this post, I’ll be addressing some of these misconceptions (but being careful to practise what I preach, will adopt the principles of the Debunking Handbook when I debunk the misconceptions). So here are some key facts about the Recursive Fury paper:

Conspiracy theorists are those who display the characteristics of conspiracy ideation

Yep, just stating the obvious, right? Recursive Fury establishes, from the peer-reviewed literature, the traits of conspiracist ideation, which is the technical term for a cognitive style commonly known as “conspiratorial thinking”. Our paper featured 6 criteria for conspiratorial thinking:

  1. Nefarious Intent: Assuming that the presumed conspirators have nefarious intentions. For example, if person X assumes that blogger Y colluded with the New York Times to publish a paper damaging to X, then X presumes nefarious intent on the part of Y.
  2. Persecuted Victim: Self-identifying as the victim of an organised persecution.
  3. Nihilistic Skepticism: Refusing to believe anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory. Note that “conspiracy theory” here is a fairly broad term and need not involve a global conspiracy (e.g., that NASA faked the moon landing) but can refer to small-scale events and hypotheses.
  4. Nothing occurs by Accident: Weaving any small random event into the conspiracy narrative.
  5. Something Must be Wrong: Switching liberally between different, even contradictory conspiracy theories that have in common only the presumption that there is something wrong in the official account by the alleged conspirators. Thus, people may simultaneously believe that Princess Diana faked her own death and that she was assassinated by MI5.
  6. Self-Sealing reasoning: Interpreting any evidence against the conspiracy as evidence for the conspiracy. For example, when climate scientists are exonerated of any wrong-doing 9 times over by different investigations, this is reinterpreted to imply that the climate-change conspiracy involves not just the world’s climate scientists but also the investigating bodies and associated governments.

We then went on to identify responses to LOG12 that exhibited these criteria. Our analysis was entirely based on whether or not public statements conformed to the criteria just listed—we made no comment on the merit of any criticism (except in cases where speculations were plain wrong).

A common misrepresentation of Recursive Fury is articulated by one commenter who says “conspiratorial ideation is defined in such a way that any criticism of LOG12, whether true or false, comes under that heading.” Actually, our criteria for conspiracist ideation come from a number of peer-reviewed examinations of conspiratorial thinking and have nothing to do with the substance of any criticism of LOG12. Our objective in Recursive Fury was to demonstrate that some of those criteria arguably applied to the public discourse surrounding LOG12. It does not follow that any criticism of LOG12 involves conspiratorial thinking. Of course not. But if some (not all) critics of a paper on the role of conspiratorial thinking in science denial engage in, well, conspiratorial thinking in response, that’s of scholarly interest.

The criteria for conspiracist ideation are applicable without regard to a statement’s truth or falsity. Recursive Fury is not about defending LOG12. On the contrary, this latest paper puts on the scholarly record many criticisms of LOG12 that had previously been limited to blogs, and it did so without evaluating or rebutting the substance of those criticisms. Some defence!

A few critics have complained that we didn’t include their methodological critiques of LOG12. Such critiques do not fit the conspiracist criteria, which is why they weren’t included. Those critics are welcome to submit rejoinders or comments on LOG12 to the journal in question.

A range of different conspiracy theories are posted in Recursive Fury

Recursive Fury reports and analyzes a number of conspiracy theories regarding LOG12. These range from “global climate activist operation” to “ringleader for conspiratorial activities by the green climate bloggers,” to Stephan Lewandowsky receiving millions of dollars to run The Conversation.

Some folk are able to overlook these many documented instances and insist that “There is no ‘conspiracy’ Mr. Lewandowsky – no matter how many times you try to manufacture one.” Recursive Fury documents a whole spectrum of conspiracy theories. As you get further into the paper, the conspiracy theories become broader and more extreme until you get to my personal favourite – maths professor Kevin Judd being the grand poobah of the “global climate activist operation” at the University of Western Australia. Somehow, those who insist “there are no conspiracies” manage to skip over entire sections of the paper.

It appears that “conspiracy denial” may be another phenomenon associated with climatedenial. One blogger cannot see that his claim that climate scientists “colluded with government officials to avoid the law” is conspiratorial. Similarly, another blogger thinks accusing the University of Western Australia of being “a base for this global climateactivism operation” is not a conspiratorial hypothesis because he didn’t use the word “conspiracy”.

The Supplementary Material is “raw data”

As well as the Recursive Fury paper, we also published Supplementary Material containing excerpts from blog posts and some comments relevant to the various observed recursive theories. In the paper, we characterise this as “raw data” – all the comments that we encountered that are relevant to the different theories. In contrast, the “processed data” are the excerpted quotes featured in the final paper, where we match the various recursive theories to the conspiracist criteria outlined above.

One misrepresentation of Recursive Fury is that we accuse Professor Richard Betts of the Met Office of being a conspiracy theorist because one of his quotes appears in our raw data. This inclusion of a relevant comment in the raw data of a Supplementary Material document was reported in hyperventilating fashion by one blogger as aspectacular carcrash. However, there is no mention of Professor Betts in our final paper and we are certainly not claiming that he is a conspiracy theorist. To claim otherwise is to ignore what we say about the online supplement in the paper itself. The presence of the comment in the supplementary material just attests to the thoroughness of our daily Google search.

Nevertheless, I can see how this misunderstanding arose. The Supplementary Material features the heading “Excerpt Espousing Conspiracy Theory” referring to the excerpted quotes that we pasted into the spreadsheet. In hindsight, the heading should have been  “Excerpt relevant to a recursive theory”, because the criterion for inclusion was simply whether or not they referred to one of the hypotheses. The analysis of conspiracist ideation occurred after that, and involved the criteria mentioned at the outset.

In this context, it is important to point out that one reason we made the raw data available is for other scholars to be able to cast an alternative interpretative light on the public discourse relating to LOG12. As we note explicitly in the abstract, it is possible that alternative scholarly interpretations can be put forward, and the peer-reviewed literature is the appropriate forum for such analysis.

LOG12 is in press

The original “Moon Landing” paper (referred to as LOG12) is still in press and due to be published soon. The fact that there was a long delay between acceptance and publication is one of the quirks of the peer-review publication process. Sometimes a paper can move from acceptance to publication with surprising speed (as was the case with Recursive Fury). Sometimes it can take months.

However, this random timing has been over-interpreted by many parties, consistent with the “Nothing occurs by Accident” criteria. For example, one commenter argues that“LOG12 was fundemenatlly [sic] flawed from the start, and throughout. It offered no valuable insight or understanding as a result. It is clear to any rational outside observer it had one purpose – to be used to promote the authors advocacy of catastrophicanthropogenic global warming – and to demean and denigrate those who do not believe as he does. The fact this paper has never been published, as Lewandowsky’s repeatedly claims, confirms this finding.” It will be interesting to see whether this commenter resists the “Something Must Be Wrong” urge when LOG12 is published or continue to assert that the research is “a fraud”.


Hindsight is always 20:20 but perhaps we should have anticipated the response to LOG12. The results of LOG12 implied that conspiratorial thinking is linked to climatedenial, and hence might emerge in turn to defend climate denial against cognitive analysis – and that’s what happened, as we document in Recursive Fury.

— John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, reprinted with permission from Skeptical Science


18 Responses to Denier Déjà Vu: Conspiracy Theories In The Blogosphere In Response To Research On Conspiracy Theories

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You have to marvel at the human mind in all it’s complexity and diversity but the one I find most infuriating to deal with is number 4. Imagine what they could achieve if all that creativity was put to good use, ME

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    While there is probably no definitive ‘denialist type’, almost all I have ever encountered are ‘on the Right’ politically and psychologically. A few deny it, out of self-delusion, perhaps. And the Rightwing Authoritarian Personality has numerous odious feature amongst which is paranoia, the root of much conspiracist mania. The comments of denialists, always preferenced by the Rightwing MSM ‘Free Press’, give one a sense of deja prevu, too, the eerie feeling that this experience will happen again in the future…and again and again…

  3. rpauli says:

    Shouldn’t that be called: “Vu ja de”?

  4. fj says:

    Regarding social change, what percentage is the conspiracy group?

    Accepted social change group profile is something like (not sure of the accepted stats)

    15% early adopters
    70% mainstream
    15% laggards

    Where it does not even make sense to try to change laggards since it is just a waste of time and energy.

  5. As Joe Dimaggio said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

  6. Listen folks: just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    Rather than focusing on Conspiracy Theories in general i believe to focus just on the conspiracy at hand (orchestrated campaigns to undermine the science) is more fruitful.

    Each story is different and just branding people conspiracy theorist is not enough. You have to debunk each single point. Which brings us back to the start. However, most denier arguments stand unbunked. You either have to delete the nonsense or link to a wiki which contains the debunk. This process could and should be made automated.

  8. Sasparilla says:

    That was great Philip.

  9. Ray Duray says:

    Fashions certainly change over time. Five years ago and we’d have been batting around the topic of 9/11/01 as a false flag operation. That research seems to have dried up due to acute disinformation campaigns, more distracting conspiracies like how the banks could bankrupt themselves only to find they are richer than ever while the public debt has skyrocketed and the ineffable ability of the military-industrial complex to continuously and parasitically feed itself at the expense of the rest of society.

    One of the classics in the literature is Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style In American Politics”. It was written just after Barry Goldwater won the GOP nomination in 1964. And discusses paranoia in America from colonial days.

  10. Ray Duray says:

    Let me add that Harper’s Monthly blogger Scott Horton has an excellent article on Hofstadter’s essay. The date of Horton’s entry is August 16, 2007 on the “No Comment” blog.

    I’ll let you Google this and I’ll avoid the automatic censor at work here by not providing you a URL. :)

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Or as Kissinger said, ‘Even paranoiacs have real enemies’.

  12. Millicent says:

    Conspiracy theories are far more attractive when you have a billion dollar industry encouraging any nonsense that will protect their profits. I wonder if it will ever be possible to distinguish between the efforts of paid disinformers and the natural fantasists.

  13. DarthVader says:

    Conspiracy theories are first and foremost attractive when they are denying a reality that is not very pleasant. For example those who think climate change is not happening, deny (or question if you want) that mankind will face a grim future, therefore it is immensely popular to think that global warming is just bullshit, or at least that the politicians are exaggerating the problem. However if you take a theory that deny a fact that most people find pleasant, such as the theories that say man never was on the moon, then you will find that they have very little public support because most people want to belive that we landed on the moon.

    Money is of course an important factor, but it is first and foremost the fact that those who deny global warming also deny a grim future, that is making this theory popular.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    The list doesn’t mention psychological projection.

    I have only a tiny sample on which to bring up that possibility.

    Over the last thirteen years, I encountered four men who believed in conspiracy theories, two for 9-11-01 and two for other circumstances, despite their being presented with evidence to the contrary.

    What I found really bizarre about the 9-11-01 conspiracy theorists in particular is that they clung to their own ideas about who were the ‘real’ conspirators long after the evidence of the Al Qaeda operation showed that, yes there was a conspiracy, just not the one that the theorists had in mind.

    What my minimal sample of four suggests to me is that the believers “project” onto the situations something of themselves; the believers were/are individuals who themselves laid plans to manipulate situations and who expected a loyal secrecy from those around them that was almost clannish. All four had a high opinion of their own intellect (and some credentials to bolster that) and yet their arguments didn’t stand up to critical thinking.

    One piled heavily inked magazines on me, supposing I’d be convinced.

    One of the two who had an alternate conspiracy theory for 9-11-01 (he claimed the Israelis did it) later began serving a sentence in federal prison, convicted of conspiring to commit fraud. That one takes the cake, the others haven’t proved quite so dramatic.

    I don’t know how widespread the psychological projection pattern is, and four-out-of-four could be just coincidence.

  15. Paul Klinkman says:

    In theory, there are human beings other than oil moguls and their hirelings who believe that climate change is made up. In practice, these people are listening to the hirelings for whatever political reason.

    There’s always somebody in the U.S. who hates somebody else enough that, if you sidle up to them and say, “I hate those people too, and by the way, climate change is a hoax,” they’ll believe you.

  16. Paul Klinkman says:

    These people are just begging to be taken in by an April Fools joke, “I hate these people too, and by the way, if you take off your clothes in public a unicorn will appear and you can ride him,” but cruel jokes aren’t good.

  17. kermit says:

    Edna St. Vincent Millay said
    “Life isn’t one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over”

  18. James W. Crissman says:

    Could not get past the abstract of the Frontiers article. Did not see a button to view the whole article. Do I have to register on the site? It was not clear.

    The deniers remind me of the old saw about happy and unhappy families: the former all alike, the latter each unhappy in their own way. Climate science tells one clear story, deniers have a million of them.