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.