Tag Archives: Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracies all the way down: Is your local climate contrarian a kook or a crook?

A new paper has just been published. This paper is going to cause an uproar in the science denialist community. Mud will be thrown. Tin hats will be donned. Somebody better check the oil pressure.

Conspiracies everywhere

I see conspiracies everywhere. It’s true.

Look at any internet site that talks about health, disease, diet, or anything related. Some of those sites will be legit science based sites. The majority will be sites feeding you woo. The anti-Vaxers, the anti-Milkers, the Homeopaths, man of the “natural food” sites. Now look more closely at those sites to find out what they provide as proof of their main arguments. In there with that proof you will find, each and every time, a reference to somebody conspiring with somebody to keep the truth away from you.

There is an interesting research project by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, and others, that has emerged in written form in a few places, that looks at conspiracy ideation in relation to science denial. An earlier version of this research was subjected to significant and somewhat effective attacks (effective as in a monkey is effective at getting attention when it throws poop at you) against this research by conspiracy driven anti science activists involved in some sort of conspiracy! Against the people studying conspiracy!

Now, there is a brand new paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Scott Brophy, Elisabeth A. Lloyd, and Michael Marriott, called
Recurrent Fury: Conspiratorial Discourse in the Blogosphere Triggered by Research on the Role of Conspiracist Ideation in Climate Denial, in the current or upcoming issue of the Journal of Social and Political Psychology. The abstract reads:

A growing body of evidence has implicated conspiracist ideation in the rejection of scientific propositions. Internet blogs in particular have become the staging ground for conspiracy theories that challenge the link between HIV and AIDS, the benefits of vaccinations, or the reality of climate change. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and other scientific propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS. That article stimulated considerable discursive activity in the climate blogosphere—i.e., the numerous blogs dedicated to climate “skepticism”—that was critical of the study. The blogosphere discourse was ideally suited for analysis because its focus was clearly circumscribed, it had a well-defined onset, and it largely discontinued after several months. We identify and classify the hypotheses that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions using well-established criteria for conspiracist ideation. In two behavioral studies involving naive participants we show that those criteria and classifications were reconstructed in a blind test. Our findings extend a growing body of literature that has examined the important, but not always constructive, role of the blogosphere in public and scientific discourse.

The authors note that there are generally two reasons someone would reject established consensus climate science. One is their politics (climate change is truly, an inconvenient truth for them). The other is conspiracist ideation, or “…person’s propensity to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations.” They point out that there is a sensible link between rejecting an area of science and believing in a conspiracy. In essence, a significant conspiracy is required in order for thousands of research scientists working in hundreds of institutions across dozens of countries to all be saying essentially the same thing about a major area of science. Conspiracy is not enough. Massive conspiracy is required. “In the case of climate change, several qualitative analyses have shown that denial is suffused with conspiratorial themes, for example when dissenters are celebrated as “Galileos” who oppose a corrupt scientific “establishment”.” Consider this:

Smith and Leiserowitz (2012) found that among people who reject the findings from climate science, up to 40% of affective imagery invoked conspiracy theories. That is, when asked to provide the first word, thought, or image that came to mind in the climate context, statements such as “the biggest scam in the world to date” would be classified as conspiracist.

The authors describe two previous studies that form the basis for the current project.

The first study, which took its sample from visitors to climate science blogs, is known as LOG13. A pre publication version of the paper along with the data was made available in Summer 2012. The second paper is known as GLO13.

These papers replicated prior research, identifying a link between preferences for laissez-faire free market economics and the rejection of climate science. Conspiracy played a role in a different group.

Conspiracist ideation, measured by endorsement of items such as “A powerful and secretive group known as the New World Order are planning to eventually rule the world” constituted another but lesser contributing factor. Notably, notwithstanding the rather different pools of participants and differences in methodology, the size of the effect of conspiracist ideation on rejection of climate science … was virtually identical across both studies.

LOG12 caused a great deal of discussion on anti-climate change science blogs.

It wasn’t just conversation. There were intensive efforts to stop the publication of LO12. In fact, a real life conspiracy was organized by nefarious conspirational (is that a word?) individuals who tried very hard to keep a paper about conspiratorial ideation from being published in a peer reviewed journal. It got really nasty and if it wasn’t for the rather scary nature of some of the kooks who carried out this activity it would have been really funny. It is also worth noting that the publisher that was attacked by the conspiracy to stop the conspiracy paper from being published had apparently had their cojones removed at birth and totally caved. That was not their only problem. The paper, widely known as “Recursive Fury,” was eventually withdrawn, though made available elsewhere by agreement with the publishers.

To our knowledge this article, called Re- cursive Fury from here on, became the most-read article in psychology ever published by that journal (approximately 65,000 page views and 10,000 downloads at the time of this writing). Recursive Fury also received some media attention, including in the New York Times (Gillis, 2013). After the journal received a barrage of complaints from a small number of individuals, the article was eventually withdrawn (in March 2014) for legal, but not academic or ethical reasons. The publisher deemed the legal risk posed by a non-anonymized thematic analysis too great.

There was fallout. Editors resigned. Other bad stuff happened. Other publishers of scientific journals around the world will not do what the Recursive Fury paper publsihers-withdrawers did because of lessoned learned. That particular kerfuffle changed the world a little.

From Recursive Fury to Recurrent Fury

Anyway where was quite a conversation over Recursive Fury, and the current paper, Recurrent Fury, is a study of that conversation.

This paper consists of three separate but related studies, and is best summarized by Stephan Lewandowsky in a blog post:

In a nutshell the new article applies criteria from the scholarly literature on conspiracist ideation to the public discourse in the blogosphere in response to the publication of LOG12. The first study reports a thematic analysis that establishes the presence of various potentially conspiracist hypotheses in the blogosphere in response to LOG12. The second study shows that when “naïve” judges (i.e., people who are not conversant with any of the issues and are blind to the purpose of the study) are given the blogosphere content material, they reproduce the structure of hypotheses uncovered in our thematic analysis. In a final study, naïve participants were presented with a sample of anonymized blogosphere content and rated it on various attributes that are typical of conspiracist discourse. This final study found that blogosphere content was judged extremely high on all those attributes. For comparison, the study also included material written by junior scholars who were instructed to be as critical as possible of LOG12. This comparison material was rated lower on all conspiracist attributes than the blogosphere content, but it was rated higher on an item that related to “reasonable scholarly critique”—in a nutshell, the blogosphere discourse was identified by blind and naïve participants as being high on conspiracism but low on scholarship.

These results add to a growing body of research on the nature of internet discourse and the role of the blogosphere in climate denial. It also confirms that conspiratorial elements are readily identifiable in blogosphere discourse, which should not be altogether surprising in light of the fact that a U.S. Senator has written a book entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

See also: Curses! It’s a conspiracy! The Fury is Back Thrice Over at HotWhopper

The new article goes beyond Recursive Fury in two important ways:

(1) All content is anonymized and all quotations have been extensively paraphrased to prevent identification of authors. Similarly, the corpus of text underlying the analysis is no longer publically available. These step was undertaken to guard against intimidation of the journal, even though Frontiers’ own expert panel had confirmed our right to subject non-anonymized public speech to scholarly analysis, and even though the initial article was written and conducted with ethics approval from the University of Western Australia.

(2) In the new paper, the thematic analysis is confirmed by two behavioural studies involving naïve participants who were blind to the identity of all parties involved and unaware of the source of the statements they were processing.

Stephan also has an FAQ on the paper here.

Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J., Oberauer, K., Brophy, S., Lloyd, E. A., & Marriott, M. (2015). Recurrent fury: Conspiratorial discourse in the blogosphere triggered by research on the role of conspiracist ideation in climate denial. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3 (1). doi: 10.5964/jspp.v3i1.443.