Climate change conspiracy theories

Photo credit: CORBIS/Joseph Sohm; ChromoSohm Inc.

In 2010, politicians from the Utah House of Representatives urged the United States Environmental Protection Agency to immediately suspend policies aiming to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Why? Global climate change, the politicians argued, is a fraud. According to the Utah Representatives, the apparent scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate warming is the product of  a consortium of scientists who manipulate data, subvert the peer-review process, and attempt to bully the small minority of dissenting scientists into silence. Faking empirical support for global warming allows these “climate change alarmists” to ride “the climate change ‘gravy train'”. And so, rather than take steps to protect public health and the future of the planet by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the Utah politicians called instead for an “investigation of the climate data conspiracy.”

This is not an isolated incident. In the U.S., many Republican politicians refuse to accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Potential 2016 Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio has expressed doubts about the scientific consensus. In 2012, a U.S. Senator published a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. It is particularly worrying when people in power deny science and espouse conspiracist ideas. When climate change conspiracy theories affect political policy, it can have consequences for all of us – not just those who believe the theories.

But of course, it isn’t just politicians who think that climate change might be a hoax; there is a substantial minority of the public who doubt that climate change is real or caused by humans. Recent psychological research suggests that the people who tend to reject the reality of anthropogenic climate change are likely to endorse other, entirely unrelated conspiracy theories as well. Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues at the University of Western Australia ran a survey asking visitors to climate blogs their views on climate change. Respondents were asked, for example, the extent to which they agreed with the statement “I believe that burning fossil fuels increases atmospheric temperature to some measurable degree.” In addition, participants in the study were asked their beliefs on a number of conspiracy theories, such as “A powerful and secretive group known as the New World Order are planning to eventually rule the world through an autonomous world government which would replace sovereign governments.” 

The survey results showed a small but reliable relationship between climate change denial and belief in the various conspiracy theories: people who rejected the scientific consensus on climate change were more likely to believe that 9/11 was an inside job, the moon landing was faked, and the New World Order are taking over.

It would be hard to reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of climate change without postulating a conspiracy among researchers to mislead the public. Thus, it is not surprising that someone who engages with this particular conspiracy theory will engage with other, unrelated conspiracy theories. As we’ve mentioned here on the blog, several studies reveal that people rarely believe just one conspiracy theory. Rather someone who strongly believes one conspiracy theory is likely to strongly endorse many others. By the same token, a person who completely rejects one conspiracy theory will likely reject all others. Most people are somewhere in between these two extremes, entertaining the possibility of conspiracy theories to greater or lesser extent, but treating all theories as equally plausible or implausible.

Lewandowsky’s study demonstrated this tendency to see everything through the lens of conspiracy in another unintended but entirely predictable way. Immediately after the study was published, some climate change deniers began generating conspiracy theories about the research itself. Some accused Lewandowsky and his colleagues of manufacturing the data in order to make climate change deniers look foolish. Some went even farther, postulating an insidious conspiracy involving not only the authors of the study, but also the university administration, the media, and the Australian government. Seeing an opportunity to make hay while the sun shone, Lewandowsky analysed the conspiracist allegations and has published the findings in a new paper titled Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation. 

Judging by the comments left beneath the paper’s abstract and elsewhere, it seems that the cycle of research and conspiracy theorising could go on indefinitely.

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About Rob Brotherton

Rob is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, and assistant editor of The Skeptic [www.skeptic.org.uk]. Follow Rob on Twitter: @rob_brotherton
This entry was posted in Personality, What's the harm and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Climate change conspiracy theories

  1. Richard says:

    One wonders why the conspiracy theorists prefer the idea of a conspiracy to make them believe in climate change, over a conspiracy to make them doubt it!

  2. Kevin says:

    Do you ever investigate these theories? Do any of you “skeptics” ever review the evidence put forth by the “crazy conspiracy theorists.” When I read something like this I can’t help but wonder. I actually read the book mentioned in this article. I thought Inhofe made a lot of really strong points. It’s not like he doesn’t back up his claims. If at any point in your life you’re able to get over the left/right paradigm and actually have respect for people with differing ideologies, I would encourage you to actually read the book.

    • That’s a fairly huge leap of assumption you made that the authors of this article haven’t read the book. I would encourage you to avoid making such assertions without any evidence.

  3. jps says:

    Conspiracy theorists tend to fall in a big mistake when they start to “research”: they find the answers before and search for questions that match those answers, after. Exactly the opposite of what should be. To find the truth of something, one must project shadow over, instead of light over. Conspiracy fellows do the contrary. When they see the light nothing else matters. They never put the contradictory questions like this: why would some entity to put in jeopardize a huge operation (naturaly involving so many people – all in silence, no regrets!!!) like 9/11, by “dressing” the columns of Building 7(!) with Thermite & Nano-thernite? I can imagine the conspirers (in a sitcom, of course): “The Twin Towers are not enough to shock people, they are only over 100 flat each… Let’s make the 40 flat Building #7 fall down. THAT, will shock the World!”

    • hybridrogue1 says:

      JPS has obviously never studied logic, and deductive reasoning. The only knowledge he pretends at is psychological rhetoric.

      It will not do intellectually to make assumptions like “Let’s make the 40 flat Building #7 fall down. THAT, will shock the World!” – one must understand the physics in question. It seems that a lot of the “anti-conspiricist” theorists are light on their knowledge of the physical sciences.

      At any rate this assertion seems to be psychological projection:
      “Conspiracy theorists tend to fall in a big mistake when they start to “research”: they find the answers before and search for questions that match those answers, after.”
      As it is obvious that JPS has come to his conclusions sans any research at all, other than to buy the official narrative of 9/11 as an article of faith.
      See: http://truthandshadows.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/new-consensus-points-show-nist-ignored-critical-wtc-7-evidence-ae911truth-may-launch-suit/

      Also I am not sure what this person means by the term “flat”? Perhaps it is colloquial for “floors”? perhaps it is ‘British’? Or perhaps English is not the commentators original language?
      \\][//

  4. Barry Woods says:

    some accused Lewandowsky about lying that his survey (LOG12) was held at Skeptical Science…

    they were right..

    some also accused Lewandowsky’s work as being ethically compromised…

  5. You say:
    “According to the Utah Representatives, the apparent scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate warming is the product of  a consortium of scientists who manipulate data, subvert the peer-review process, and attempt to bully the small minority of dissenting scientists into silence.”
    The evidence for this claim is of course the famous Climategate emails exchanged by the scientists themselves, where they discuss in some detail how to “manipulate data, subvert the peer-review process, and attempt to bully the small minority of dissenting scientists into silence.”
    Is a conspiracy theory about an actual, existant conspiracy still a conspiracy theory? I’ve read several articles on this site, and I’m none the wiser.

    You say:
    “The survey results showed a small but reliable relationship between climate change denial and belief in the various conspiracy theories…”
    “Small” is the operative word here. Just ten out of 1100+ respondents thought that the Moon landing was a hoax; 6 of them were climate “believers” and 4 were sceptics. That is the entire statistical basis for the paper’s title: “NASA faked the moon landing: Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax”.
    As for “reliable”: Lewandowsky obtained his sample of climate sceptics by inviting responses to his survey from readers of seven mostly insignificant blogs devoted to countering climate scepticism. (He claimed to have posted an invitation at the much bigger anti-sceptic blog SkepticalScience, but this claim proved to be false).

    The second Lewandowsky paper you mention, “Recursive Fury”, has been removed from the journal’s website pending enquiries into complaints from myself and others mentioned in the paper. Your colleague Michael Woods withdrew as a reviewer of this paper. It would be interesting to know why.

  6. Pingback: The Great Psychological Conspiracy Theory Conspiracy | Geoffchambers's Blog

  7. jsam says:

    It’s reassuring to see a couple of the usual suspects protesting here. 🙂

  8. Barry Woods says:

    subsequently – an update

    the Recursive Fury paper was retracted – the founder of the journal publicly described Prof Lewandowsky’s actions as (in a personal comment) – “activism that abuses science as a weapon” and that they made huge mistakes that they refused to correct.

    http://www.frontiersin.org/blog/Rights_of_Human_Subjects_in_Scientific_Papers/830

    and from other senior editors
    http://www.frontiersin.org/blog/Retraction_of_Recursive_Fury_A_Statement/812

    Prof Lewandowsky republished another version of the paper as Recurrent Fury, an a more obscure journal. with at least 2 major issues ‘corrected’ –

    Though- ethically having a co-author that publicly stated he was at war, with the very people he was researching, is usually – a little bit of a conflict of interest.. that and that he was also being publicly abusive to the people he was researching, arguing with these same people about the topic of the research, whilst researching them (unbeknownst to the people he was researching)

    ethical car crash..(the ethics approval said no interaction, nor direct interaction with the research subjects of any sort.) yet a co-author was arguing with the people on the topic on Prof Lewandowsky’s own blog, and collecting comments. and the lead author was on twitter talking about outing people, that he had ‘ethical approval – to deceive.

    not a good look for psychology..?

    The conspiracy link has not sound, see comment to the journal.
    http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/03/26/0956797614566469.full

    “In this Commentary, we show, using nonparametric local regression, that this assumption does not hold for the relationship between conspiracist ideation and views on climate science, the relationship that produced one of the central claims of both articles and the majority of the press interest”

    Subsequently other psychologists are prepared to be harsh.Prof Lee Jussim describes the the conspiracy linkages – as a “myth essentially concocted by the researchers”

    published here:
    http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~jussim/Jussim%20et%20al,%202016,%20High%20Moral%20Purposes.pdf

    and
    http://quillette.com/2015/12/04/rebellious-scientist-surprising-truth-about-stereotypes/

    “Statistical techniques appeared to have been chosen that would hide the study’s true results.And it appeared that no peer reviewers, or journal editors, took the time, or went to the effort of scrutinizing the study in a way that was sufficient to identify the bold misrepresentations.

    While the authors’ political motivations for publishing the paper were obvious, it was the lax attitude on behalf of peer reviewers – Jussim suggested – that was at the heart of the problems within social psychology.”

    Dr Jose Duartes simply describes the Moon paper, as fraud, and is pursuing it’s retraction – I expect lots of papers soon,
    http://www.joseduarte.com/blog/more-fraud

    so which Professor s correct – Lewandowsky or Jussim – how should the public decide?

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