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Are climate sceptics more likely to be conspiracy theorists?

Aug 2, 2012 by | 45 Comments

This was first published by the Guardian Environment section on 27.07.12.

Its time to come clean: climate change is a hoax. And the moon landings were faked, 9/11 was an inside job, and the CIA is hiding the identity of the gunman on the grassy knoll.

It might seem odd to lump climate change – a scientific theory supported by thousands of peer reviewed papers and hundreds of independent lines of evidence – with conspiracy theories like these. But new research published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science has found a link between the endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of established facts about climate science.

In a survey of more than 1000 readers of websites related to climate change, people who agreed with free-market economic principles and endorsed conspiracy theories were more likely to dispute that human-caused climate change was a reality.

Stephen Lewandowsky and his colleagues at the University of Western Australia posted a link to an online questionnaire on 8 climate-related blogs with a diverse readership, in order to capture people’s views about economics, science and conspiracy theories. 5 ‘sceptic’ (or ‘sceptic-leaning’) blogs were also approached but declined to post the link – interesting in and of itself, given the frequent claim that sceptical views are excluded from mainstream debates.

What they found was remarkable: people who endorsed conspiracy theories such as ‘9/11 was an inside job’ and ‘the moon landings were faked’, were also more likely to reject established scientific facts about climate change, such as ‘I believe that the burning of fossil fuels on the scale observed over the last 50 years has increased atmospheric temperatures to an appreciable degree’.

Clearly, a self-selecting sample of blog users is not representative of the wider population. But this is precisely why the researchers targeted this group: in the cut-throat world of climate change scepticism, this is undoubtedly where the action is.

Lewandowsky’s research poses difficult questions for the climate sceptic community. Although they are not a homogenous group, they tend to coalesce around common themes relating to the reality and seriousness of climate change. The findings suggest that at least some proportion of the people who consider themselves ‘sceptical’ about climate change are also willing to entertain conspiracy theories that are simply not taken seriously in mainstream society.

All scientists are sceptics: it is a healthy, everyday part of the process of systematically weighing up evidence and reaching a considered conclusion. But if vocal online opponents of climate change science also do not accept basic historical truths about society, can their position really be described as ‘scepticism’ at all?

The findings provide yet more evidence that a rejection of climate science has more to with ideological views than scientific literacy, bolstering the well-supported finding that climate change scepticism is more likely to be found on the right, than on the left of politics. But they also go a step further, adding an important layer of detail to this rather crude characterisation of climate change scepticism as a ‘conservative’ issue.

The link between endorsing conspiracy theories and rejecting climate science facts suggests that it is the libertarian instinct to stick two fingers up at the mainstream – whatever the issue – that is important. Because a radical libertarian streak is the hallmark of free-market economics, and because free-market views are popular on the political right, this is where climate change scepticism is most likely to be found.

The findings also suggest that talk of a ‘consensus’ on climate change is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the weight of scientific evidence showing that humans are changing the climate is a powerful argument for taking action to prevent its dangerous effects. But the very notion of consensual agreement is also a red flag to libertarians, who dis-trust statements about consensus on principle.

All of this suggests that the battle to overcome climate scepticism – if that is even a useful way of thinking about it – will not be won by simply re-stating the scientific facts. The problem is that ‘the facts’ are not ‘the facts’ for a small proportion of people – and the noise made by this minority group dilutes the otherwise clear signal about climate change received by the wider population.

Climate change is a scientific entity, but one given meaning through the social, political and economic lenses we view it through. The challenge of engaging with climate change sceptics is finding the lens that better fits their ideological views – not just shouting the science more loudly.

45 Comments + Add Comment

  • How many ‘actual’ sceptics will have seen these survey, or answered them..

    as this paper based its research only from 8 ‘anti-sceptic’ blogs.

    They asked 5 skeptical blogs to post a link…
    Who refused. (suspecting motives?, like those that commented below did)

    The 8 blogs actually surveyed were so called ‘pro-science’ blogs ! (who are all very anti-sceptic, with a lot of very derogatory language & rhetoric about deniers.

    The blogs who posted the links are claimedto be:

    even the locals didn’t think the ‘deniers’ would fall for such a transparent survey…

    “Yeah, those conspiracy theory questions were pretty funny, but does anyone think that hardcore deniers are going to be fooled by such a transparent attempt to paint them as paranoids?”

    Actual links to the original articles.. these were the links I found:

    I haven’t found the links yet to:

    where even the locals thought it was a transparent and poor survey, an attempt to try to describe sceptics as paranoids or nut.. ie. very likley, by the comments that the ‘anti-sceptic’ locals had some fun with it..

    As no data is available yet, it would be very interesting to see a breakdown based on referring URL’s as the blogs mentioned some are MUCH more high traffic than others, which begs the question. did most of the survey results come from just a few of these blogs (who detest sceptics) –

    The percentage of actual sceptics taking this survey must be tiny…

    making the Guardain article conclusions and claims rather laughable.

  • It is interesting that you, a professional academic in the field, are unable to spot the obvious flaws and omissions in this so-called research. Perhaps this is because the result fits so well with your own prejudices.

    The most obvious omission is that there is no mention of the number of participants that were sceptical of climate change. The paper claims that links were placed on 8 ‘pro-science’ blogs that attract a diverse audience. This is untrue. One of the blogs used is notorious for banning sceptics and even ‘lukewarmers’. One of the others had 11 posts during the month of August 2010 when the survey was posted, of which 8 consist of attacking Monckton and insisting that he should be sent to prison. So very few sceptics will have taken the survey, invalidating the conclusions.

    The other obvious point is that the agenda of the survey is so transparent. This was spotted by several of the commenters on the blogs used, eg
    “These surveys are designed for an outcome”
    “does anyone think that hardcore deniers are going to be fooled by such a transparent attempt to paint them as paranoids?”

    You continue to persist with your delusion that “rejection of climate science has more to with ideological views than scientific literacy” which was thoroughly disposed of in your recent discussion with Geoff. The correlation could equally be interpreted as “enthusiastic embracing of action to mitigate climate change has more to with ideological views than scientific literacy”.

  • the relationship is not, as I understand it, between a categorical variable of ‘sceptic/denier’ and ‘non-sceptic/believer’ or whatever you might want to label them, and endorsement of conspiracy theories, it is a continuous variable that measures the extent of scepticism against extent of conspiracy theory endorsement. I got stick for artificially creating categories in the experiment i discussed with Geoff – but here you are claiming there are no sceptics. the study shows that the more people were sceptical, the more they endorsed conspiracy theories. Either you create the categories, or you use a continuous variable – either way it attracts criticism and the claim that this is not ‘true’ scepticism. Again we see the systematic, statistically significant link between beliefs about economics and rejection of facts about climate change, and yet you seem to think that completely unsystematic analysis of blog comments disproves that. That is also interesting, given your professional expertise, which I believe is in mathematics.

  • It seems extraordinary that someone who attempts to portray himself as an academic researcher would base a serious article on the work of Stephan Lewandowsky – who has long been recognised in his own country as an out & out political activist.

    His last vestiges of credibility finally disappeared when he wrote this article, attempting to justify the illegal actions of renegade climate scientist Peter Gleick – who used a false identity to steal confidential documents from a registered US charity.

    If scientists want to be taken seriously in the climate debate – they need to dissociate themselves completely from the political activism which has come to characterise their science.

  • Today’s Guardian features an article which appears to be in the most part premised on a conspiracy theory:

    The same view is expressed often in the climate debate: that a small but wealthy group of corporate interests has successfully manipulated public opinion, the media, and politicians throughout the world. Yet evidence of this conspiracy is scant, consisting of no more than details of accounts flowing between organisations and individuals amounting to a fraction (typically in the order of $10s of millions over the course of decades) of the budgets available to governments and their departments, non-statutory public bodies, NGOs, companies, universities and research organisations, schools, hospitals, churches, and other groups, for PR, ‘outreach’, ‘climate change communication’ (this blog being one such example), media campaigns, and so on.

    The lack of evidence pertaining to this theory has not impeded its progress in the climate change debate, where it has become a core argument amongst one vocal, high profile, and influential camp, even amongst those with the benefit of scientific and academic expertise, and an understanding of the political process and its failures (e.g. erstwhile presidents of the UK Royal Society and their press officers). Yet the adherents to this conspiracy theory would, it seems, hold views which are consistent with mainstream climate science.

    However, it would also seem obvious that one can hold with a certain view of climate science which is out-of-kilter with the mainstream, but which would seemingly generate the same moral imperatives nonetheless. For instance, a respondent to the survey could express a high level of agreement with the statement that “the burning of fossil fuels on the scale observed over the last 50 years has caused serious negative changes to the planet’s climate”, but also believe that sea level rise of 20 meters is likely within the next decade, or that Arctic ice and glaciers had disappeared, and that this was attributable to climate change.

    It is not clear from the study how it makes a distinction between conspiracy theories which resonated with the authors’ prejudices and conspiracy theories that the authors’ have identified.

    Clearly, it is possible to hold with a conspiracy theory and mainstream climate science, and it is possible to hold with a conspiracy theory and views which contradict mainstream climate science but which do not challenge the imperatives it generates. The paper does not test for an adequate understanding of climate change, merely certain ‘ethical’ propositions, which are only equivalent to a scientific perspective on the authors’ perspective. Moreover, it seems obvious that there is no adequate test of spoof responses to the questionnaire, while its intentions are made plain to an audience which has an interest (and possibly an inclination) to influence the outcome of the analysis.

    It is things like this which make ‘climate change psychology’ and ‘climate change communication’ harder to take seriously. And from a broader perspective, the fact of publicly-funded research agendas of this kind, which receive budgets (presumably) on the basis of their relevance to policy makes people suspicious. Whilst such relationships between research institutions and policy agendas might not amount to a ‘conspiracy’ in fact, the low quality of research and its uncritical dissemination in the public sphere might well appear to some as propaganda, rather than as value-free research. A more charitable view might be that these efforts are incredibly poorly-conceived.

  • Ben, that’s a very good point, and would form the basis for a fascinating study in itself. The “oil-funded climate denialist conspiracy theory” (for want of a better and more succinct name) appears to be a variant of the crop of ideas that were rampant about Jewish plutocrats a century ago, but with Exxon and the Koch brothers standing in for the Elders of Zion.

    One of the reasons I find this phenomenon interesting is that it is not limited to below-the-line commentators at, for example, the Guardian, but manifests above the line, in articles such as the George Monbiot piece you mention. There’s a similar article from the Independent in 2010, where the writers mutter darkly about Exxon-funded “free-market, anti-climate change think-tanks” who organise “international seminars pulling together climate change deniers from across the globe.”

    Like most good conspiracy theories, it has a grain of truth buried within it, upon which a plausible-seeming world view can be constructed, but again like the Zionist theory-mongers before them, believers go way beyond the paltry facts, ascribing the increasing indifference of the British public to climate change alarm, for example, to shadowy lobbying by U.S. based corporations. In my opinion, this looks like promising thesis material for someone, perhaps in the not-so-distant future.

  • You make a good point, Alex – but I suspect hell will freeze over before researchers like Alex, with a background of Green Party activism, will begin to explore the mass delusions of climate change “believers”.

  • When the Guardian article was written, was the author aware of which blogs had been surveyed (listed in the 1st comment) it has been suggested these have a very low % sceptical readership. (despite claims to a diverse readership)

    one blog was mentioned above, as having a number of negative article about Monkcton..
    it is quite clear to any reader by those that are commenting, that the sceptical readership place of this blog (as the others) is minimal, using one monckton article as an example, from the month before the survey.

    ie the readership apear to be very much on the ‘strong consensus’ anti-sceptic’ side.
    a real who’s who (amongst very many more)

    Gavin Schmitt (Real Climate),
    Raymond T. Pierrehumbert (Real Climate)
    John Cook (Skeptical Sci)
    Prof Scot Mandia, Mandia blog)
    Ray Ladbury,
    Tim Lambert (Deltoid),
    William Connolley, (Realclimate, Stoat, wiki),
    Josh Halpern (Rabbet Run blog)
    A Corner (COIN, PIRC)
    James Annan,
    Tenney Naumer,
    Michael Tobis,
    Dana Nuccitelli (Skeptical Sci),
    Anna Hayes (harrased A Watts),

    I’m absolutely NOT a fan of Monckton (Ben can testify to that ! ) but I merely think this shows that the readership of that blog, is very much a strong consensus one. (ie also includes the owners of three other blogs in the survey)

    I’d never even heard of this blog!

  • Visiting Barry Wood’s links to the Climate Activist blogs Lewandowsky amusingly describes as “pro-science” (no bias there of course!) provides some interesting results.

    It turns out that Lewandowsky himself is a regular contributor to some of these blogs – and a bit of a hero to their proprietors and contributors.

    Here is one of his his articles in the rabidly activist Desmog Blog:-

    Here he is getting a plug from his buddies at Tim Lambert’s even more hysterical Deltoid blog:-

    …. and best of all here is Desmog Blog hyping the “Debunking Handbook” co-authored by Lewandowsky and John Cook – ex-cartoonist proprietor of the (extremely unsceptical) Skeptical Science Blog:-

    So when Adam says –

    “Stephen Lewandowsky and his col­leagues at the University of Western Australia posted a link to an online ques­tion­naire on 8 climate-related blogs with a diverse read­er­ship, in order to cap­ture people’s views about eco­nomics, sci­ence and con­spiracy the­ories.”

    … the truth is –

    “Stephan had a word with his collaborators & fan club at the climate activist blogs where he hangs out and authors – to see if they would agree with him that people who don’t share their their mutual activist obsession are a bit weird”.

    I think it’s what our US cousins would call – a bit of a circle jerk.

    Science it definitely isn’t.

  • Foxgoose:
    It turns out that Lewandowsky himself is a regular contributor to some of these blogs — and a bit of a hero to their proprietors and contributors.
    Lew’s biggest fan must be John Cook at Skeptical Science, which was listed (apparently in error) by Lewandowski as a contributing blog to his survey.
    Here are some of his comments to fellow authors at Skeptical Science: (dates are US style)
    then I got involved with Steve Lewandowsky and some of his cognitive colleagues who is very interested in the phenomena of science blogging and they’re planning to do some research into the subject that I’m going to help them with. In November,
    I must be spending too much time conversing with Steve Lewandowsky (cognitive scientist)…
    a while ago, I added a bias field to the user database and a bit of code so as comments came in, I could specify whether the user was skeptics or warmest/proAGW/mainstream (still haven’t found a satisfactory term for our side). I only assign bias if its obvious from the comment. I haven’t done anything with that data yet, I’m not even sure why I’m doing it other than my obsessive compulsion to collect data. The other day, Steve Lewandowsky (cognitive scientist) asked if I had any numbers on the ratio of skeptics to warmists so I dove into the database and counted up around 100 assigned skeptics and around 400 assigned warmists.
    I’ve been having some intriguing conversations with Steve Lewandowsky who’s throwing cognitive experiment ideas at me to see what’s technically possible. Having a significantly sized group of people classified as skeptic or proAGW makes all sorts of interesting experiments possible.
    First up, I met with Steve Lewandowsky and some other cognitive scientists who are interested in the phenomenon of science blogging and how it’s being used to educate and communicate science. In particular, they wanted to test the impact of blog comments on how people processed information. Did a blog post with all negative comments have a different impact on how people retain information compared to a blog post with all positive comments? So we sat down and designed an experiment to run on SkS to see if this has a discernible effect on blogs…
    What’s interesting is Steve Lewandowsky has done some research showing there is a high correlation between conspiracy theorists and climate deniers. This is a theme that could be explored further.
    Man, I’ve been spending too much time with Steve Lewandowsky, I see everything now as a potential social experiment.
    I must be hanging around Steve Lewandowsky too much, he loves poking ants nests with a stick…

  • Fascinating Geoff.

    It seems more and more that a familiar picture is emerging, of university academics who use their publicly funded roles to conduct apparently impartial scientific “research” on various aspects of the climate debate – while concealing parallel roles as political activists on one side of the argument.

    On that subject, I appreciate that Adam Corner has been very fair and open in allowing so many critical comments here and I think it would be very useful for him to make a clear statement on an aspect of his personal position which has caused a lot of concern.

    At the Policy Exchange “Communicating Climate Change on the Right” Symposium on May 1st this year, Adam addressed a group including senior parliamentarians and the chairman of an HOC committee, prefacing his statement with the words “I am a researcher not a campaigner”.

    Many of us on this side of the argument are quite aware of Adam’s activities as a participant in climate activist street demonstrations, a one time Green Party prospective parliamentary candidate and a director and adviser of several climate campaigning groups including COIN and PIRC.

    On the face of it, Adam would appear to have told a direct untruth and misrepresented himself to an important group of decision makers and I think, if we are to continue constructive dialogue here between the opposing sides of the climate debate, he should explain his position.

  • Adam:
    You say: “I got stick for artificially creating categories in the experiment I discussed with Geoff — but here you are claiming there are no sceptics. the study shows that the more people were sceptical, the more they endorsed conspiracy theories. Either you create the categories, or you use a continuous variable — either way it attracts criticism and the claim that this is not ‘true’ scepticism.”

    I think you’re confounding two criticisms here. I criticised your use of a continuous variable (constructed from the Whitmarsh Scale) in you research because it wasn’t clear how sceptical your sceptics are and how warmist your warmists. It doesn’t in any way invalidate your research, but it does affect the interpretation you place on it.

    The other criticism involves the conflating of scepticism in the general public with the tiny group of “active sceptics”. Time and again we see social scientists taking results of research into scepticism among the former and applying it to the latter. I get a lot of stick from sceptics for making this point, because it sounds as if I’m being élitist when I point out that most “sceptics”, like most “warmists” are extremely ignorant. It’s a fact well known to political activists (but never openly admitted) that most people are pretty ignorant about (and indifferent to) most things. Activists have to pretend otherwise, in order to activate themselves and others, but social scientists should recognise the fact.

    My big criticism of a scale like Lorraine Whitmarsh’s has to do with the possible effect it may have on respondents. The advantage of asking a dozen different questions is that it enables you to construct a continuous scale of “strength of scepticism” and avoids the problem that any one question is not going to capture precisely the meaning of scepticism / warmism. My fear is that in the context of a very short questionnaire, having to answer ten or a dozen times what looks like the same question risks raising questions in the minds of respondents about the survey itself. Intelligent respondents will likely be the most critical, and this may lead to non-response by precisely the most motivated and well-informed respondents (very dangerous in a self-completion survey like Lewandowsky’s). Ask a stupid question , and you may get a stupid answer. Ask the same question a dozen times, those who know the answer will probably refuse to play.

  • Geoff and Foxgoose’s posts reveal something about certain researchers’ preoccupation with the blogosphere.

    The public seem largely indifferent, but weakly green on the climate issue – they are not moved by the stories created by either environmentalists or sceptics. Hence, popular mobilisation on the climate issue and therefore decisive political action have been difficult to achieve. Meanwhile, the media is broadly sympathetic to the green agenda and gives relatively little airtime to sceptics. But scepticism has thrived in the blogging world, away from editorial agendas.

    It seems obvious therefore that these researchers are simply joining the dots, to connect the failure of environmental politics at the domestic and international level with the blogosphere — it being home to the most visible expression of climate scepticism. The implication being that the failure of the environmental agenda is the success of the sceptical blog network.

    This misapprehension of the climate debate has persisted for some time, with the more extreme conspiracy theory holding that ‘paid shills’ dominate the blogging and commenting world. For eg:

    >>Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian’s forums, you’ll find endless claims that thehockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world’s glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn’t matter. The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible. To judge by the Comment threads, they have succeeded magnificently. — George Monbiot, The Guardian 2008.<&lt;

    What this highly reductive and deterministic view fails to consider is that the environmental agenda has mostly failed all by itself. For instance, the UNFCCC/COP process is well beyond the reach of bloggers, as such global institutions are not subject to the kind of forces of public opinion as are domestic governments and policy-making processes. Bloggers have no reach there.

    A better explanation for the failure of domestic environmental agendas may be closer to home than the researchers seem to think. That same reductive and deterministic understanding of the public might be one way of accounting for public disengagement with the climate issue, it appearing to individuals as a cynical and self-serving politics of fear. At the international level, the incoherence of the attempt to make climate change the basis of far-reaching agreements has festered as a consequence of it's expansion — 'mission creep', so to speak — which has been unimpeded by criticism from without. The attempt to formulate global policy on the basis of scientific consensus — and the belief that this was possible — failed, ironically, precisely because criticism of it has been largely confined to the blogosphere. Meanwhile, the intention to prevent climate change has turned into an encompassing narrative, that could seemingly explain and connect everything from the existence of poverty to the disappearance of certain species of frogs.

    That narrative is simply too unwieldy, and its project simply too ambitious. Once its rectitude is presupposed, however, and its adherents make themselves immune to criticism, it can only move *itself* towards its own demise — as unwitting acts of self-parody, comedy, tragedy, melodrama and farce. The attempt to isolate the putative mechanisms of scepticism and 'denial' only serve to demonstrate the authors' own detachment from reality. Their hostility to scepticism only demonstrates their own estrangement from the wider public.

  • @foxgoose and everyone else who has made the ‘Adam is a secret campaigner’ argument:

    1) In my personal time – when I do not represent anyone but myself – I have taken part in many campaigning activities, and I plan on continuing to do so. You will no doubt be able to find pictures of me holding various placards about various issues for many years to come. I do not only – or even mostly – campaign on environmental issue, although clearly that is what you are interested in. I don’t see any conflict in what I do in my personal time and what I do at work. You don’t have to agree with me – but I am comfortable defending that position, and academics are not expected to have no political views or to be politically neutral. My research is not MY views – it is the views of others! So unless you are suggesting that I have fiddled my results to suit my political views, I can’t see the issue with this.

    2) I stand by my opening comment at the Policy Exchange event – because all I was intending to convey was that I am not, and have never been to the best of my knowledge, a paid campaigner. I do research work for COIN, not campaigning. The information in my opening talk was about research findings, I hadnt just made it up, and so I wanted to get that across.

    I appreciate you see COIN as some kind of radical organisation, but to me – and I would argue to the vast majority of people – it is only a campaigning organisation in the very mildest sense of the word. In any case, i don’t do any camapigning for them – we have no lobbying positions, no demands – it just aims to communicate climate change better, and works with a wide range of groups (charities, local government, national government, trade unions, businesses) to do this. COIN is a campaign group for climate change only in the way that the Science Media Centre is a campaign group for science. Only if you think that promoting public engagement with climate change, and encouraging people/organisations to consider what steps they could take to reduce their carbon footprints is controversial, would you think that there is anything even vaguely contentious in the work I do for COIN.

    3) I will continue to associate with all sorts of people – PIRC, ex-employees of Greenpeace etc – who you no doubt dont like. I also associate and work with all sorts of other people – for example Policy Exchange – who the ex-employees of Greenpeace probably don’t like. I’m not really sure there is anything else to say on this – unless you have some kind of specific issue that goes beyond ‘these people all know each other and work together’ I don’t really know what else to say.

    I am not asking you to agree with me – we clearly are coming from such different places that we probably never will. I’m not a paid campaigner, I’m a researcher (some of which is for a very mildly campaigning organisation), and I actively try to promote public engagement with climate change, through disseminating and applying psychological research with whichever groups I think it could best be used.

  • @Ben Pile

    very interesting points Ben – especially re: the narrative being too unwieldy and ambitious. It does sometimes seem that way – and no doubt there has been a great deal of bandwagon jumping. My position, I guess, is that while the bandwagon may be over-flowing with spurious baggage, it is nonethless trucking towards a land of significantly enhanced danger (not catastrophe, or apocalypse), where the most vulnerable (i.e. the poor) in particular are likely to suffer the most.

    Anyway, I am getting off topic on my own thread…I will try to add any more comments that come through today, and possibly tomorrow, but I am then away for a bout a week, so please (all) be patient if comments are not moderated quickly

  • Adam
    I’ve been as cynical as anyone else here about your reasons for engaging with us, but I think your considered reply to Foxgoose puts you in a different category to anyone else in the warmist camp, and more particularly, anyone else at Guardian Environment.
    It’s worth reflecting that most of us commenting here are banned from commenting on your article at the Guardian. My own sin was described by the Commentisfree editor as “persistent criticism”, mainly of Monbiot for refusing to engage with critics as you are doing.
    All this has nothing to do with your uncritical support of Lewandowsky of course. Expect a heap of questions on your return.

  • Adam, your reply demonstrates the problem, which I hope you will allow me to explain. The ‘baggage’ and bandwagons are now as much of the policy agenda, and the environmental outlook as is, for instance, the issue of climate change. In your research, you seem to aim to detect differences in the way people adhering to different ‘ideological’* perspectives treat or understand climate science. The research which is the subject of this blog post is similar. My criticism of your research has been that you forget this baggage, yet it clearly colours your research focus.

    * – ‘ideology’ is an extremely tricky concept, which has no concrete meaning inside political science. I don’t believe that it can have any more robust a meaning in psychology, and there is a danger, which I don’t feel is addressed in your research, and clearly isn’t addressed by Lewandowsky, that ‘ideology’, or ideological concepts, are seen through ideology. But we can’t take categories like ‘left’ and ‘right’ at face value; they each mean something different to the other, even if the words are the same. They do not even serve as useful coordinates to the debate, being such inadequate approximations of a great many arguments, many of which are too complex to be reduced to simple objects of psychology.

    Leaving aside the hard, material facts of climate science, there are very good reasons why people of different political perspectives would treat them differently. On the issue of poverty, and it being exacerbated by climate change, the maxim ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ can generate two, counterposed moral imperatives. To you, no doubt it says that we must do everything to stop climate change. But reading the maxim carefully, it would seem that it might also suggest that wealth is an answer to the problem of a changing climate. And if you take a broader look at the ‘ideological’ arguments in currency, it would seem that there is a great deal of scepticism about the potential of wealth to change human circumstances. Not just in the green movement, either.

    Some might say that corporate profits have caused harm to the environment, and therefore to people. But the rapid development seen in the last few decades, especially in India and China, has seen an unprecedented change of circumstances for hundreds of millions of people. The development of this wealth has done more for people, and removed them from danger, far more than a stable climate and the West’s complete eschewing of carbon-emitting industry ever could.

    So if you see some divergence in the debate in the treatment of ‘climate science’*, roughly approximate to left/right lines, it might be because the contemporary left — to the extent that it is green — has lost confidence in the potential of wealth: ‘bread for all’, rather than ‘steak for all’. Whereas, the right — to the extent that it corresponds to climate scepticism, which is not very much at all in fact — has not had such a pronounced break with its history. Psychology tells you nothing about the historical changes which have led to that situation. It tells you nothing about the way in which political ideas meet seemingly scientific ideas. And it tells you nothing about how climate science becomes the ground on which a proxy battle of politics is fought. You might say here that the (nominative) right can’t deny that temperatures have risen. But by the same token, you can’t deny that estimates of impacts of climate change have been coloured by the ‘baggage’ and ‘bandwagons’, rather than simply informed by science.

    * – I put ‘climate science’ in scare quotes, because when we’re talking about impacts of climate change, particularly on the social world, we’re no longer talking about objects of climate science. We’re talking about highly contingent effects on the social world, of material effects, the mechanisms of which are poorly understood, and consensus notwithstanding, contested. It follows that if you hold with a deterministic view of humanity’s relationship with the natural environment, you will emphasise the necessity of a ‘stable’ climate. And it follows that if you take a more robust and self-dependent view of human society, you will put so much less emphasis on the natural world’s providence. The appearance and significance of a scientific consensus might be owed to a predominance of, and preference for deterministic accounts of the world. The parameters of climate science seem as good as any other objective fundamentals around which society should be organised, perhaps. But for people who have studied political history, this is nothing new in it at all, and the mistakes of natural determinism and positivism seem to have been repeated.

    There’s a great deal more that could be said here. Suffice it to say that when I see attempts to approximate political ideas with statistics from opinion polls, and to establish a correlation between those ideas and self-evidently daft ideas, I know that I’m reading work that fails to get over its own baggage and bandwagons: it starts with its own ignorance and gets worse. If you want to take the debate seriously, and to make a serious attempt to understand it, you need to take the perspectives within that debate seriously. That means treating them on their own terms, not lumping them in with whichever unpopular, nasty or silly ideas come to mind. It means reflecting on your own perspective, prejudices, and motivations. It means crediting people with the faculty of thought and reason, rather than treating them as unconscious, unthinking automata who merely respond to ideas that can be easily digested by statistical analyses. Failing to take the debate seriously, as research like the above does, merely makes is authors’ own prejudices and ‘ideology’ plain to see.

  • One thing that I notice about all these surveys and studies, and that was alluded to above by Geoff, is they way they ask questions about beliefs, but not about the reasons for holding those beliefs. Is a person who believes in global warming because it was endorsed by their favourite pop stars more scientific in their thinking than someone who is agnostic because they haven’t personally examined and tested the evidence? Or even because they read Harry’s readme?

    Surely, in any sort of research about social attitudes and beliefs, the reasons for those beliefs ought to be of primary interest? You need to know whether people are influenced by the media, or government, or scientists, or the internet. You need to know whether they’re more influenced by qualifications and authority, or technical details and evidence, or ideological loyalties. Have they been exposed to only one point of view, or many? Of what quality and quantity? You need to know whether they take others’ word for it, or whether they like to check things for themselves. And you need to know what checks they did, and where it went wrong if they came to what you consider to be the wrong conclusion.

    Your speculation, that conspiracy theorists and libertarians are inherently less likely to accept argument from authority, probably does have some plausibility. But without asking the questions and testing their reasoning you’ll never know.

    Such studies seemed aimed more at developing ammunition for the climate wars, so maybe that isn’t a drawback as far as the more activist authors are concerned. But it still surprises me that there is so little interest in the question from other researchers.

  • Adam, thank you for taking the time to respond to my earlier post.

    I’m afraid however that your response seems to raise more questions than answers.

    The point at issue is your clear and unambiguous statement to the politicians and policy makers at the PE forum that – “I am a researcher not a campaigner”.

    You now state – “In my per­sonal time — when I do not rep­resent anyone but myself — I have taken part in many cam­paigning activ­ities, and I plan on con­tinuing to do so”

    So you are, and intend to remain, a campaigner.

    You follow this by – “I stand by my opening com­ment at the Policy Exchange event — because all I was intending to convey was that I am not, and have never been to the best of my know­ledge, a paid cam­paigner.”

    I think we all understand that the vast majority of political campaigners are not paid and, as far as I’m aware, no one has ever alleged that you were a “paid campaigner”. What you are doing here is simply trying to soften your admission by using a rather obvious “straw man” argument.

    You say on COIN – “I appre­ciate you see COIN as some kind of rad­ical organ­isa­tion, but to me.. it is only a cam­paigning organ­isa­tion in the very mildest sense of the word. In any case, i don’t do any campaig­ning for them … it just aims to com­mu­nicate cli­mate change better… COIN is a cam­paign group for cli­mate change only in the way that the Science Media Centre is a cam­paign group for sci­ence. Only if you think that pro­moting public engage­ment with cli­mate change, and encour­aging people/organisations to con­sider what steps they could take to reduce their carbon foot­prints is con­tro­ver­sial, would you think that there is any­thing even vaguely con­ten­tious in the work I do for COIN.”

    Again, no one ever suggested that COIN was particularly radical or contentious – simply that it was a campaigning organisation.

    I’ve had another look at their website & clearly IS a campaigning organisation – run by a guy who cheerfully boasts – “George has twenty years experience in research and campaigning and outreach for environmental and indigenous rights organisations. He has worked as a senior campaigner for Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation…….Before joining COIN George was one of the founders and co-ordinators of Rising Tide, a national network of grassroots climate change campaign groups.”

    So, in summary, you have told us that you are and intend to remain, a campaigner both personally and as a director of a campaign group – but you “stand by” your statement that “I am not a campaigner”.

    I’ll leave it to others to draw their own conclusions from that.

    On the subject of your Guardian article, repeated above – perhaps you could clarify for us whether you regard this as part of your campaigning activities or your research work.

    If the former – well I guess it’s about par for the course in the Graun.

    If the latter – I’m frankly mystified by the basic concept.

    I’m a regular visitor at most of the “pro-science” blogs Lewandowsky used and, as Barry has remarked, genuine sceptic posters are relatively rare there.

    The oddest thing, though, is that I have never seen anyone on the sceptical side of the argument make any reference at all to any of the classic “conspiracy” issues Lewandowsky and yourself have chosen to highlight in your “research”. I’ve literally never hear a sceptical commentator on any blog comment on the Apollo moon landings, Kennedy’s assassination or 9/11 conspiracy theories.

    I have, however, regularly heard commentators of a climate activist persuasion accusing sceptics of being “believers in conspiracy theories”. The alleged belief is usually portrayed as “why would all the world’s scientists ganging up to invent a scare story”.

    I’ve haven’t ever actually heard that argument employed by a sceptic – but it’s a “straw man” argument much used by climate activists.

    Most psychological and sociological research on the nature of climate “deniers” has tended to identify them as middle aged to older white males, often with higher than average technical education, retired from professions involving business and engineering and with strong conservative and free market views. I wouldn’t argue with much of that since it fits my own profile – but I’m mystified by the intellectual leap that assumes that this demographic includes those prone to conspiracy theories.

    In my experience conspiracy theories usually flourish among radical extreme left and anarchist groups. The commonest place to find them in the UK is among the CIF commentators at your own dear Guardian where the belief that George Bush got his business buddies to wire the WTC with explosives, stopped the CIA from investigating known terrorists and stood down the air force interceptors is common currency.

    Taking note of what Barry Woods and Geoff Chambers have discovered above – it’s pretty obvious that the genesis of Lewandowsky’s “research” was as follows:-

    He and his buddy & co-author John Cook, who happens to run Australia’s main climate activist blog, started discussing “cognitive work” on “deniers” in 2010. John offered to help by “coding” his “denier” contributors in some unspecified way.

    Quote –
    “I only assign bias if its obvious from the com­ment. I haven’t done any­thing with that data yet, I’m not even sure why I’m doing it other than my obsessive com­pul­sion to col­lect data. The other day, Steve Lewandowsky (cog­nitive sci­entist) asked if I had any num­bers on the ratio of skep­tics to warm­ists so I dove into the data­base and counted up around 100 assigned skep­tics and around 400 assigned warm­ists.”

    and –
    “I’ve been having some intriguing con­ver­sa­tions with Steve Lewandowsky who’s throwing cog­nitive exper­i­ment ideas at me to see what’s tech­nic­ally pos­sible. Having a sig­ni­fic­antly sized group of people clas­si­fied as skeptic or proAGW makes all sorts of inter­esting exper­i­ments pos­sible.”

    Followed by –
    “What’s inter­esting is Steve Lewandowsky has done some research showing there is a high cor­rel­a­tion between con­spiracy the­or­ists and cli­mate den­iers. This is a theme that could be explored fur­ther.”

    So, Steve designs an “experiment” whereby he sticks a questionnaire, with loaded questions of his own devising, exclusively on blogs controlled and populated by his co-activists – and even they are incredulous – “Yeah, those con­spiracy theory ques­tions were pretty funny, but does anyone think that hard­core den­iers are going to be fooled by such a trans­parent attempt to paint them as paranoids?”

    Steve makes no attempt to control or identify responses – other than excluding duplicate IP’s and the most obvious jokers (age 95).

    These uncontrolled responses to his arbitrarilyy loaded questions, from anonymous posters, exclusively on 8 fanatically anti-sceptic blogs – convince Steve that climate sceptics generally believe that the CIA shot Kennedy, Bush blew up the WTC and NASA never got to the moon.

    As I said above, Adam – if you wrote this in your activist role we can all shrug and move on.

    If you’re putting it forward as the fruits of serious scientific research – you’re in danger of making yourself a laughing stock.

  • Conspiracy theorists abound on both sides of the climate and enviro fight. A number of scientist policy advocates have long claimed that a conspiracy of “dirty fossil fuel interests” oppose action on climate change, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

    In fact, almost every scientific idea that may be profitable is lampooned by environmentalists as a conspiracy of “corporate interests” seeking to exploit the unwashed masses for personal gain. GM foods, coal export terminals and the Keystone XL pipelines are great ongoing examples. Opposition to Keystone and oil sands developments often uses the same language as the Old Testament prophets. It’s associated with ideas like the end of the world as we know it, environmental collapse as retribution for humanity’s arrogance (sins), etc.

    Far and away, the weight of conspiracy theories lies most heavily on the Green Mob, which is driven by apocryphal fear of technology and of social and environmental collapse.

  • There is a a timely article about political bias in psychology, “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology” at;
    As well as finding that conservatives are in a minority, it also showed that they are actively discriminated against.

    I wonder, what are the odds of Adam writing an article about this in his Guardian Column?

  • What a piece of “academic” garbage.

    “endorsement of a laissez-faire conception of free-market economics predicts rejection of climate science”


    “endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings, above and beyond endorsement of laissez-faire free markets”

    Does not lead to the conclusions drawn (i.e. that climate sceptics, cospiracy theorists and other forms of extremist thought are one of a kind, or that climate sceptics are cospiracy theorists, or that free market thinkers are conspiracy theorists).

    Try this:

    “free market thinkers are more likely to believe in strong border controls”


    “murdering rascist extremists are more likely to believe in strong border controls”

    Do you want to conclude that “”free market thinkers are closely linked to murdering rascist extremists”?

    I imagine some commentators here might like to try, but it would reamin a grossly abhorant manipulation of facts.

  • The damn astronauts who faked those moon landings are now also bashing established climate science? How dare they!

  • Warmists could fill this in a skeptic to defeat the object. They clearly did. I don’t know a single skeptic who is a conspiracy theorist.

  • It’s obvious that Lewandowsky and Adam believe in CAGW. So the question then arises, why is someone who has an obvious self-declared bias attempting to conduct a research pole to study opposing views. Surely such a study is doomed to be biased. If anything the study should have been farmed out to a third party independent company who conducts polls on a professional level. Then you can study the results and everybody can come to their own conclusions.

    Which is another thing which really bugs me. Sceptics are told “this is what you must think; else you’re a weirdo/conspiracy theorist/flat earther”. How about put the science on the table and let everybody come to their own conclusions. And they don’t have to all be the same, damn it.

  • Greg Cavanagh August 29, 2012 at 10:51 pm
    How about put the sci­ence on the table and let every­body come to their own con­clu­sions. And they don’t have to all be the same, damn it.

    Sounds like an excellent idea until you read…….

    Dr Phil Jones – Senior CRU climate scientist

  • Greg Cavanagh August 29, 2012 at 10:51 pm
    How about put the sci­ence on the table and let every­body come to their own con­clu­sions. And they don’t have to all be the same, damn it.

    Sounds like an excel­lent idea until you read.……

    Dr Phil Jones — Senior CRU cli­mate scientist

    “Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it. “

    Kind of defeats the object doesn’t it?

  • Adam

    Have you been monitoring the discussion on Lewandowsky’s paper at Skeptical Science and various other sites?

    If so, you will be aware that several serious flaws have been found in both the methodology and the conclusions drawn from the data.

    In particular, it would appear that analysis of the data provides no support at all for the headline conclusion promoted by yourself and others that climate sceptics are likely to be conspiracy theorists.

    Tom Curtis of Skeptical Science, who have collaborated with Lewandowsky in the past and are certainly no friends of genuine climate sceptics, has now called for the paper to be withdrawn – quote:-

    Given the low number of “skeptical” respondents overall; these two scammed responses significantly affect the results regarding conspiracy theory ideation. Indeed, given the dubious interpretation of weakly agreed responses (see previous post), this paper has no data worth interpreting with regard to conspiracy theory ideation. It is my strong opinion that the paper should be have its publication delayed while undergoing a substantial rewrite. The rewrite should indicate explicitly why the responses regarding conspiracy theory ideation are in fact worthless, and concentrate solely on the result regarding free market beliefs (which has a strong enough a response to be salvageable). If this is not possible, it should simply be withdrawn.

    Since you were the earliest and most enthusiastic promoter of this paper in your Guardian article and here – would you be prepared to review it in the light of these criticisms and state whether you agree or disagree with them?

  • […] And finally, if you don’t want to deal with the issue of scientific integrity, you can always call your opponents conspiracy theorists.  From a post on the talkinkingclimate blog: […]

  • Adam

    Many of us who are interested in the climate debate are puzzled and disappointed that you have not responded to the question I posted at your Talking Climate blog almost a week ago – asking you to comment on the Lewandowsky paper you launched into the world ,with such enthusiasm, in the Guardian and this blog.

    You have told me on Twitter that you are busy and have more important things to do – but this seems odd when the paper is so central to your field of study and you had no difficulty in finding the time to promote it.

    Since my last comment, the discussion of this paper has reverberated around the blogosphere and attracted huge attention. It has now probably had more public exposure than any published work on the psychology of climate change “denial” – a field where you seem to be the most prominent UK practitioner.

    It’s a bit like God appearing in St Peter’s Square, surrounded by a choir of angels – and the Pope lurking in the Vatican and refusing to comment.

    In the expectation that you will, eventually, find time to comment on this important controversy, there are a couple of supplementary questions I would like to add to my original request – in order to better understand the origins of the controversy.

    1. When you first reported on this paper here, I pointed out to you that it seemed to me more like activism than science. You have stated here that you see no problem in pursuing your climate activism in your spare time as long as you keep it separate from your work as a publicly funded academic and occasional government adviser.

    It therefore becomes very important for people to know whether particular statements by you are delivered in your academic role or as a climate activist. Since the Guardian is the UK forum of choice for fringe political activism – I think you should clarify for us whether your article on the Lewandowsky paper was written as part of your academic work or as an activist statement.

    2. Assuming that the article was produced as part of your official academic work – many of us are puzzled by the fact that it pre-dated the official UWA press release of the paper by almost a month.

    Would you mind explaining how you came across the advance copy of the paper and the associated promotional material? Did it arrive at your university as part of an academic collaboration – or did the Guardian receive a copy direct and ask you to write a comment on it?

    Whichever route the paper arrived, was it direct from UWA itself or via an intermediary organisation?

    3. When you wrote about the paper, had you been supplied with the actual data in order to be able to judge whether or not it supported the headline conclusions?

    4. Your Guardian article, in particular, put a lot of emphasis in the “fake moon landings” conspiracy theory. When you wrote it, were you aware that only ten valid respondents out of around 1,100 had supported that theory and, of those, only three identified as climate sceptics?

    Do you now think that this data supports the paper title and the sub-headline of your article?

    I, and I think many others, would be most grateful if you could find time to answer these simple questions.

    Your continued silence is beginning to look like hiding from a controversy of which you were a key instigator.

  • Answers for now:

    1) You say: ” Since the Guardian is the UK forum of choice for fringe polit­ical act­ivism — I think you should cla­rify for us whether your art­icle on the Lewandowsky paper was written as part of your aca­demic work or as an act­ivist statement.”

    Given that – as you well know – the Guardian is one of the most popular English language news websites in the world, describing it as ‘the forum of choice for fringe political activism’ only serves to highlight the extremity of your own views. But there is nothing remotely ‘activist’ about commenting on the results of a new academic paper, which as you know, I do all the time.

    2) Once an academic paper is ‘in press’, this means the journal has accepted it, at the end of a process of peer review. At this point, the author can – and often does – let other people in their field know about it. Stephan told me his paper was forthcoming and sent me a copy of it. I wrote about it, unprompted. I guessed that climate sceptics would have at least two issues with it, the statistical method employed to reach the conclusions (factor analysis) and the un-named sceptic blogs, but in 700 words or whatever Gdn columns are, there simply isnt space for much more than the general gist.

    3) I read the paper not the raw data. I dont expect to check raw data against the paper’s conclusions for any academic article that I read, that is the whole point of peer review.

    4) The moon landings focus came from the sub-editors at the Guardian, writers do not choose their headlines or sub-headlines. But the end of your questions smuggles in the only point which I think bears some scrutiny, and which I will not speculate on (because it would only be that – speculation) until Stephan Lewandowsky has responded on it, which are the questions around the inclusion/exclusion of data based on whether they were ‘valid’ or not. These are legitimate questions – but that doesnt mean that there are not answers to them, and I’ll look forward to hearing them from the author in due course.

  • “I dont expect to check raw data against the paper’s con­clu­sions for any aca­demic art­icle that I read, that is the whole point of peer review.”

    Wasn’t it Phil Jones who told the House of Commons that no reviewer had ever asked to see the data when reviewing his submitted papers?

    I’ve done my share of reviewing academic papers in the general field of statistical communication system engineering. In fields covering traditional physical science, a reviewer checks for originality, significance, comprehensibility and relevance to the readership of the journal.

    The idea that “peer review” validates a paper’s conclusions seems to have originated in the last twenty years with climate science and the IPCC – notwithstanding Phil Jones’s admission.

  • My experience of peer review is that reviewers usually do not check conclusions against raw data. Moreover it is clear that in some cases it would be impossible for them to so – notably the Mann et al 1998 Nature paper on the hockey stick. But in this case there is an obvious and major problem, namely that there is no principled sampling frame. I fail to see how you can draw any sensible conclusions from invited responses from an obviously biased (in the statistical sense) sampling base.

  • […] but he is neither “featured” nor mentioned in HTD. Corner’s unconscionable flogging of Lewandowsky’s pseudo-academic “findings” last July did little, if anything, to […]

  • Several years ago I heard a scientist on the radio who foretold all that would happen with the climate….he has been proved 100% right. The alarmists are in a corner of their own making and are listed as “absolutely desperate. The MET Office coming clean over the 15 year temps showing no increase but with CO2 having risen is a mortal blow and only the media are saving them.
    As regards 9/11…just curious. Somehow the worlds foremost military power not being able to defend itself against four unarmed passenger planes that flew around collectively for 90 mins was frankly pathetic. So you peep behind the curtain and the rest of the nonsense falls apart.
    In the history of high rise construction no steel framed buildings have ever collapsed to a fire yet three came down in one day.
    Reason given was jet fuel…kerosene…similar to paraffin…a hydrocarbon that in a controlled state burns at a max of 1800f. Steel melts at 2500f….Houston we have a problem. Houston we have a bigger problem…all the firefighters point out that the thick black smoke that enveloped the twin towers indicated an inefficient fire starved of oxygen so not even burning at 1800f.
    I could go on and on but you get the picture.
    If science and physics are at odds with the official version of events then people will question it.

  • fred holby- terrorists had usually hijacked planes and passengers and demanded ransoms..

    so nobody was going to shoot them down.. (at that time, and in the confusion)

    Even now, same happened again over London, would UK government shoot down a jumbo with 400 people aboard? especially if flying over London.. would they dither?

    Why 911 becomes a conspiracy I think, because to so many people, they just can’t comprehend how a super power or the west could be vulnerable, to a bunch of highly motivated individuals, with a very low tech, but devastating plan (dependent on their suicide) it is outside of most Western experiences.. In the wider would suicide bombing is sadly not uncommon.

    So at a level, I imagine the 911 conspiracy theorists find it bizarrely (to me and you) more comforting to imagine some sort of big government conspiracy, rather than confront how vulnerable their life’s are, in the face of extremists, with no wish to live, and a simple (relatively) plan.

    And 911 conspiracies are just as prevalent on the left, if the Guardian comments section are anything to go by. (and in the USA, extreme right as well, those that distrust the state)

  • This is really the third article, of yours I checked out.
    Still I really enjoy this specific 1, “Are climate sceptics more
    likely to be conspiracy theorists? | Talking Climate” the
    very best. Thank you -Marina

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