PsyPAG Quarterly special issue: The psychology of conspiracy theories

PsyPAGQsept The PsyPAG Quarterly is a publication which is distributed free of charge to all psychology postgraduates in the UK. As an editor of this publication, for the September ’13 edition, I put together a special issue on the psychology of conspiracy theories. You can find a link to the PDF of the full edition below.

You will see articles from the regular faces of this blog – Rob, Christopher, Mike and I, plus one new face – Anthony. We each cover a difference aspect of the psychology of conspiracy theories, and I feel we present an up-to-date overview of the field. The edition also includes some re-print blog posts from each of us.

Please leave us any comments you have about the special issue. It would be great to hear any thoughts.

Special issue: The psychology of conspiracy theories

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28 Responses to PsyPAG Quarterly special issue: The psychology of conspiracy theories

  1. In his article Towards a definition of ‘conspiracy theory’, Robert Brotherton states:
    “The general public is cast as the victim of organised persecution, and the motives of the alleged conspirators often verge on pure maniacal evil”
    and gives as his reference for this statement the paper “Recursive Fury” (Lewandowsky et al., 2013).
    This paper identified me and three other named individuals as “conspiracist ideationists” on the basis of our public criticisms of a previous paper by Professor Lewandowsky. However, neither I nor the three other individuals, nor the scores of people identified as conspiracist ideationists in quotes and references in the supplemental material to the paper, have ever accused Professor Lewandowsky of “pure maniacal evil”. Indeed, I have praised Professor Lewandowsky for his courageous stand on a separate matter. See
    http://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/category/stephan-lewandowsky/
    There are other problems with citing this paper in support of the above assertion.
    First, the paper has been twice revised, following accusations of defamation from two named individuals, and is currently officially “removed” from the publisher’s website (though still available in a previous version) pending investigations.
    Second, your colleague Michael Wood withdrew as a reviewer when the journal failed to act on his recommendations for revisions.
    Third, quoting a paper which identifies named individuals as conspiracists as a source for the claim that conspiracists are making accusations of “pure maniacal evil” is clearly defamatory.
    I suggest you remove all references to Professor Lewandowsky’s paper.

    • Hi Geoff, thanks for engaging with our work. In my definition article, I was citing the Lewandowsky et al. (2013) paper because it contains a nicely articulated working definition of ‘conspiracy theory’. Specifically, I was referring to their criterion of ‘Nefarious Intention’. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Lewandowsky et al’s definition is itself based on a wider literature – I cited their paper as shorthand for the several other sources I could have cited to make the same point.

      It seems that your primary issue is with how Lewandowsky et al. applied their definition to certain individuals. Yet, disagreeing with how the definition is applied does not necessarily invalidate the definition itself. As I mention in my own article, there is no objective definition, so the application is always going to be subjective. However, whatever your thoughts on the merits of Lewandowsky et al’s research, it’s clear from the context that there’s no sense in which by citing that paper I am implying anything about you personally, as your comment seems to allege.

      Speaking for the four authors of this blog – I can’t speak for Lewandowsky – our research doesn’t concern particular individuals. Rather, our findings speak to broad trends in the population. I think this is where a misunderstanding over the Wood et al. (2012) paper has arisen as well. Their analyses show a relationship between general levels of endorsement of conspiracy theories on a continuum from low to high – they don’t deal in individual cases of strict belief or disbelief. That said, obviously Mike is better qualified to comment on his own research, and, as you’re aware, he has already explained it at length.

      As a final point, I’m completely open to criticism of my definition – the definition is still far from a settled issue within the literature on the psychology of conspiracy theories (or even among the authors of this blog). I don’t think taking issue with Lewandowsky et al’s paper is relevant to the argument I put forward in my essay, but I would be interested to know if you (or any other readers) have any thoughts on its success as a definition of ‘conspiracy theory’ in general.

      • Rob Brotherton
        Thanks for your reply. No, my primary issue is not with how Lewandowsky et al. applied their definition to certain individuals. My prime issue is the way the authority of peer-reviewed science is being used to silence opposition from climate sceptics.

        Since the publicity surrounding the two Lewandowsky papers, it has become common to see climate sceptics labelled as conspiracy theorists, a term which is gradually remplacing “flat-earthers” and “Big Oil shills”. In the unlikely event of Ed Davey or anyone else being challenged about this, they will simply repeat the “science says..” mantra.

        Any attempt to point out errors on comment threads is inevitably met with the response “take it up with the author in an academic setting” as conspiracykiller suggests further down this thread. The problem with the “academic setting” approach is that it is wholly inappropriate to the elementary errors in “Recursive Fury” (misquoting, misattribution of quotes, errors in the criteria for choice of quotes etc). If a novel is full of spelling mistakes, you don’t write an article about it in the Times Literary Supplement. You send it back to the proof reader. These errors were pointed out to the journal “Frontiers in Psychological Science” seven months ago. They acted on two corrections where the complaint was accompanied by the threat of litigation, but not on the others. The article is currently “removed” from their site. In citing this article (which you do four times) you’re implicitly accepting its authority. When “Recursive Fury” is finally withdrawn, as it will have to be, you will have to rewrite your article.

        I’ve attempted to list the factual errors in “Recursive Fury” at
        http://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/lews-third-table/
        It’s very long and boring, and I don’t expect anyone here to be interested. I mentioned there the seven types of conspiracist ideation which Lewandowsky identifies, and said I’d analyse them another time, something I‘ve never got round to doing.
        You mention one of them, “Nefarious Intention” picking it out specifically as an example of Lewandowsky’s “nicely articulated working definition of ‘conspiracy theory’.” All Lewandowsky does is quote Keeley and Wood, two authors you’ve already cited, in support of the unobjectionable proposition that conspiracy theories inevitaby involve accusations of nefarious intent. He then goes on, bizarrely, to quote the humorous blogger James Delingpole on DDT, and to state “as a corollary”, that conspiracy theorists suffer from feelings of persecution.

        This comment is already too long, so I’ll finish my analysis of Lewandowsky’s criteria In Another Place.

        On your definition: as I’ve said elsewhere, it suffers from subtly smuggling in the argument from authority, however you word it. You are clearly aware of the problem, and are trying to resolve it. I hope to continue this discussion another time.

  2. “You will see articles from the regular faces of this blog – Rob, Christopher, Mike and I, plus one new face – Anthony.”

    Mike and *me*. Unless you’re doing an impression of a Somerset yokel – “You will see articles from I, just as soon as I’ve parked the combined harvester,” for example.

    • Ian Woolley
      There’s also a problem in the first article by Christopher Thresher-Andrews with “something more unique” . [So it weren’t the combine harvester arter all, it were that there Thresher o’ Andrew’s].

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

  4. You may be interested in the debate on your publication which is taking place at
    http://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/2013/11/11/the-great-psychological-conspiracy-theory-conspiracy/
    In the meantime, to quote a great Devon philosopher (whose name I’ve forgotten, alas) on the limits of empiricism and the poverty of historicism:
    “Don’t tell I, tell ‘e
    That’s my philosophy
    Fer I weren’t there, and I don’t care
    So don’t tell I, tell ‘e.”

    • We get it, you have a blog …congratulations !!!
      Now I don’t really think you need to post the same link for the fifth time on this particular blog entry, unless you think you haven’t quite spammed it on here enough ?

      • I pointed out where a discussion is happening about the subject of this article. I’d be perfectly happy to have the discussion here, but no one here seems interested.

      • That’s correct your perception about lack of interest from me about this topic at least isn’t in doubt. However, have you considered that your patience is too short, the blog writers could well have busier lives than you, and therefore don’t reply to your posts due to schedule. There is no need to post the link repeatedly as you have above, only pointing out a conversation requires a single link, you went way beyond that. Try waiting to be addressed, your concerns are probably low on the list of priorities to the authors.

      • conspiracykiller
        Good, since we’re both agreed that this subject isn’t interesting, let’s drop it. Now if you’ll excuse me, there are several interesting comments in another place I’d like to deal with.

      • Let me make a correction to your last comment: I am saying your particular comments are of no interest to me. Let’s be specific, after all that’s what you are demanding of the authors. Yes you are excused.

  5. conspiracykiller: “I am saying your particular comments are of no interest to me”

    Fine. So that puts paid to my theory that you might be Robert Brotherton or Michael Wood, but leaves open the possibility that you’re Christopher Thresher-Andrews or Daniel Jolley. We’ll see when I post a comment on their papers in a while.

    • I am not anyone of the authors or contributors to the blog, hopefully that puts end to your theorising who I am. I am just someone who visits this blog whenever my feed announces an updated comment. This subject of conspiracy theorism and theorists interests me greatly.

  6. conspiracykiller
    You say: “the blog writers could well have busier lives than you”. This is certainly true of Michael Wood, who has been very busy dealing with reactions to his paper “Dead and Alive” (Wood, Douglas and Sutton 2012) which claimed that some conspiracy theorists who thought that Diana had been assassinated also believed that she had faked her death.
    First he was busy fending off requests for his data, then, when he was forced to release it following a FOI request to his university, he was busy replying to two researchers, Steve McIntyre and Brandon Shollenberg who wrote to him independently pointing out that this finding is based on a simple statistical error. The full story is at
    http://climateaudit.org/2013/11/07/more-false-claims-from-lewandowsky/

  7. conspiracykiller
    Nothing discussed here is your problem, fortunately (unless you’re the victim of some conspiracy, I suppose)
    I’m commenting because of a personal problem I have with (Wood Douglas & Sutton 2012)
    You see, both the Wood paper and the Lewandowsky papers are cited extensively in this edition of PsychoPAG Quarterly, and both Wood and Lewandowsky cite each other, and Wood’s paper is the sole source given for Lewandowsky’s psychological construct, “Unreflexive Counterfactual Thinking” of which he accuses Steve McIntyre and me.
    It’s the first time I’ve ever been named in a peer-reviewed scientific paper, and it came as quite a shock to find that I was being accused of being as nutty as the fruitcakes who believe both that Diana was murdered by the secret services, and that she faked her own death.
    The problem is that there was no-one in the Wood Douglas & Sutton paper who actually held both these beliefs. So there is no evidence that such people exist. Lewandowsky’s reference to me is not only defamatory, but it is based on a sample of zero, that is nothing at all. And yet both the Lewandowsky paper and the Wood Douglas Sutton paper are being quoted here extensively.
    Perhaps someone would like to issue a correction, or at least acknowledge that there is a problem?

    • Lewandowsky’s ‘defamation’ is a business between yourself and him. If it’s a legal matter between yourselves I would advise you stay quiet about it online, and get on with the proceedings, or else subject yourself to counter claims.

      Also just because someone else cites a paper does not mean a thing, they may well have cited it for reasons other than your claimed problems, which is in all likelihood the reality. Likewise if there is a problem with one of the points, that being a small data set and a conclusion drawn upon it from that, then I agree that point should be addressed. However, that being said it does not detract from other points and data in the paper, assuming that they have not been discredited also ? Can you discredit every claim made in it ?

      Should I be throwing out the whole paper and all claims made therein because there are some errors and personal mentions of you made in it ? The answer to that is No.

      The fact of the matter is conspiracy theorists are quite simply lacking in critical thinking on the whole, they have very poor reasoning skills, make erroneous judgements, and are predisposed to paranoid worldviews. The data sets and papers you discuss are merely added value to what is already known regarding conspiracy theorists. Research already conducted elsewhere by academics such as T Goertzel , C French and many more who can add to this.

      I feel bad that you are personally named in the paper, however if you want that point addressing it seems to me you are complaining about it in the wrong place.

      The data sets themselves should be taken up with the author in an academic setting if you really want them addressed, not by personal bickering on a blog. So what’s it going to be ?

      • conspiracykiller
        I’m glad that you agree with me that the problem of a “small data set” needs addressing. But it’s not just small, it’s zero. And I’m not gong to start listing all the problems with a paper entitled “Dead and Alive” once it’s been pointed out that no-one believes that Diana is both dead and alive, no-one at all. As far as the Wood paper and the Lewandowsky papers are concerned, the conspiracists have no case to answer. The prosecution doesn’t get to continue calling witnesses once the case collapses, and the defence is not called on to continue countering them. So no, I am not going to try and discredit every claim made in it.

        I’m not complaining here about being named in the paper. I’m just a satirical blogger with some experience of survey technique who found out by chance the depths to which the social sciences (and the peer reviewed literature which is supposed to be the guarantor of academic quality) can sink.
        As a commenter on climate sceptic blogs I find myself defending the work of social scientists against the criticisms of rightwing libertarians for whom the social sciences are indistinguishable from socialism, which is indistinguishable from soviet communism. This led me to undertake a dialogue with Adam Corner, researcher in psychology at Cardiff University, a dialogue which made no conversions, but was carried out politely and led to a clarification of positions which I think is evident in the way both of us now express our opinions. This dialogue got a lot of exposure in the small world of climate scepticism. I see no such dialogue developing here.
        If it helps, the dialogue developing on (dare I say it?) my own blog involves people who believe in lots of conspiracy theories and people who believe in none. Nobody taking part is “lacking in critical thinking”, has “poor reasoning skills”, or is “predisposed to paranoid worldviews”. We just don’t always agree, that’s all.

  8. PS
    No, it’s not a legal matter between Lewandowsky and me. I’m just a blog writer and Lewandowsky is free to be as rude about me as I have been about him. Just don’t call it peer-reviewed science, that’s all.

    • hybridrogue1 says:

      geoffchambers,

      Killerguy is a bit confused about “peer-review” and “beyond reasonable doubt” and technical issues beyond, “see spot run”…
      \\][//

  9. Pingback: Lew’s Thinking | Geoffchambers's Blog

  10. Pingback: The psychology of conspiracy theories (PDF) | Illuminutti

  11. hybridrogue1 says:

    Well, I have actually read every article in this PsyPAG Quarterly addressed to “conspiracy theory” and found them to be quite hilarious. Almost as funny as the commentary by killer-guy on the threads here.

    Many things try to pass for “science” these days. Psychiatry and Psychology have been trying to get their foot in that door for about a century now. Good luck with that kiddies.
    \\][//

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