Study Finds Free-Market Ideologues Doubt Climate Science, Yet Buy Conspiracy Theories

Why do a determined minority — often in positions of power — refuse to accept that climate change is happening despite the overwhelming scientific evidence?

A new study may provide a clue. Researchers at the University of Western Australia found that people who expressed faith in free-market ideology were also likely to reject scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that burning fossil fuels helps to cause it.

Free market philosophy makes the case that the market operates best when the government gets out of the way, but otherwise has no obvious connection to denying climate science. However, this scientific denial is not just limited to climate change:

Our findings parallel those of previous work and show that endorsement of free-market economics predicted rejection of climate science. Endorsement of free markets also predicted the rejection of other established scientific findings, such as the facts that HIV causes AIDS and that smoking causes lung cancer.

HIV and cigarettes do not have anything to do with climate change, yet those who placed their faith in the free market were skeptical of decades of research finding they caused AIDS and lung cancer, respectively. Laissez-faire doctrinarians also were not too sure about the causal role of CFCs in eroding the ozone layer.

The results go beyond scientific consensus. The researchers found that free market adherents tend to give more support to conspiracy theories about: a “world government,” the attacks of September 11 being an “inside job,” SARS being a government plot, the U.S. knowing about Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor, the Apollo moon landings taking place on a soundstage, Area 51 being home to alien bodies, and Lee Harvey Oswald not being a lone gunman, among other things.

Because this only tested correlation, it is impossible to say if free market ideology leads people to deny climate change, or if skepticism about scientific consensus leads to a belief that the government should stay out of the market, or if there is a third factor that leads to both beliefs. However, the third factor — more likely belief in conspiracy theories — lends the results added legitimacy.

The authors go on to state (behind paywall) the problem of climate denial in academic, yet clear terms:

The prominence of conspiracist ideation in people who espouse climate denial is not entirely surprising because if an overwhelming scientific consensus cannot be accepted as the result of researchers independently converging on the same evidence-based view, then the very existence of the consensus calls for an alternative explanation.

If the scientific results are not acceptable, the system used to arrive at them must be scrapped. Free-market fans tended to be skeptical of scientific findings that implied government action would be a positive remedy. They were supportive of theories — no matter how far out on the fringe — that put the government in a negative light. This was possibly to delegitimize it, or because their skepticism of the government means they are more likely to believe negative stories about it. Climate deniers often tie climate change into both a conspiracy theory and a scientific discovery to be denied.

This speaks to a larger point about the argument for action on climate change, gun control, economic activity, housing policy, or really anything that concerns government and the public at large. One side is perfectly happy with government inaction. In fact, obstruction and gridlock serve their ideological and practical goals. They win if nothing happens. The other side sees problems that require collective action and try to achieve policy goals through the American political system, which seems more daunting each day. This conflict is asymmetrical — the anti-government side can play out the clock through inaction, while those trying to solve the problem need to use current system to achieve reform.

So if free-market ideology is a central factor in accepting scientific consensus, it seems the real argument on climate change is over the importance of externalities.

13 Responses to Study Finds Free-Market Ideologues Doubt Climate Science, Yet Buy Conspiracy Theories

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    The cartoon says it for me. We have a systemic problem, and not just in the US. Humans are the product of bad wiring and a formative stage of cultural evolution. Right wingers just express it more often.

  2. Mark Haag says:

    For a minute, lets stop worrying about the psychology of non-believers. If all believers were in the streets this summer, the non-believers wouldn’t matter. So, what is wrong with us? Who has done the study on us?

  3. PeterM says:

    This alone shows you that a nation (the USA) has long passed the boundary of fair play and decency into the land of utter contempt and depravity over profits and boundless greed.

  4. SecularAnimist says:

    Ryan wrote: “Because this only tested correlation, it is impossible to say if free market ideology leads people to deny climate change …”

    The same propaganda leads to both.

    The American people are hammered 24×7 with an endless onslaught of corporate propaganda, that uses the most insidious brainwashing techniques and the most powerful mass media ever conceived to promote the corporate agenda, which includes both the so-called “free market ideology” and denial of climate change. And those who are tuned in to the so-called “conservative” media get hammered ten times worse than everyone else.

    And the same propaganda channels promote conspiracy theory thinking in general, because it is a very effective way to attack people’s cognitive capabilities and critical thinking skills, rendering them much more gullible and vulnerable to corporate propaganda than they otherwise would be.

    That’s the cause. These attitudes don’t arise spontaneously for mysterious reasons. They are the result of very deliberate, very calculated, very sophisticated propaganda campaigns.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree, Secular. Corporations, especially the fossil type, spend millions not just on disinformation, but on manipulation. Just about every word or phrase in a key document is road tested with focus groups.

    We’re being outgunned. There is no money for countering them, or putting together a well broadcasted message of our own.

  6. John Schwarzmann says:

    I have a simple explanation for results of this study. People who deny global warming and buy into conspiracy theories are just plain stupid.

  7. M Tucker says:

    That is because a “free market” without government intervention is also a complete fantasy. Governments have always worked to protect markets. The US is not willing to open her markets to unregulated completion with other countries. The US openly subsidizes the coal and petroleum industry. The automobile industry is highly regulated. Just look into the regulations that exist to protect dealerships. Protection is everywhere yet no one challenges the often proclaimed belief in a laissez-faire free market.

    Once that piece of BS is widely believed and goes unchallenged those who believe it are then free to adopt other unsupported beliefs. It is the central belief of so call conservatives and libertarians. If you asked the average guy on the street who identifies as a conservative what is the core conservative issue it would be “free market capitalism.”

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Broadcasting ‘messages’ is not the only way of making change and is, anyway, often ineffective. Well organized, coordinated mobilization of people can be achieved with little by way of funds. It is most effective when it is built around small local networks that spread ideas through their own people, ME

  9. Exactly so. Let’s not fall prey to the same categorical thinking that allows climate denial to thrive.

    There is such a think as a conspiracy; there is such a thing as tacit collusion. Without a doubt, the tobacco companies conspired to keep cancer science out of the debate. And it is exceedingly difficult to look at the Zapruder film, and understand that Oswald had a highly inaccurate, single-shot, bolt-action weapon, and conclude that he acted alone. Single bullet theory, indeed.

    Ideology is self-defining. It excludes evidence that doesn’t comport. That’s why the word “ideology” exists–to be distinguished from science.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And don’t forget advertising, that inculcates greedy, reflex, materialism and greed, that promotes psychological stress and feelings of personal inadequacy and envy, and which these days targets children and adolescents in particular.

  11. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    If a Democrat were to pose that cheese is made by hanging a bucket of milk in the shithouse, a Republican would argue it the other way around. The little Amish cheese maker in Shipshewana knows both to be wrong.

  12. herm says:

    Brings new meaning to the the phrase “thoroughly debunked”!

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Just as I said…once upon a day ago.