Climate denier blogosphere reaction to conspiracy study confirms conspiracy ideation
From Cindy Baxter, NZ climate action campaigner:
Perth - 6 February 2013 -- When Australian climate psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky published a study showing that those who denied scientific propositions such as the link between climate change and human activity or AIDS/HIV were more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories like the faked moon landing, he knew he would get a reaction from climate denialists.
But the response from the climate “deniersphere” bloggers was so comprehensive and wide-ranging, promulgating so many different conspiratorial hypotheses, that he decided to formally study the reaction.
The resulting paper: “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation” published this week in the Journal “Frontiers”, provides insights into how conspiracy ideation plays out in the area of climate denial.
“The denier blogosphere’s fury at my paper was, in a way, a gift, in that they gave me another chance to study how conspiracy ideation works. It was the perfect case study,” says Lewandowsky.
Working with three other authors (1), Lewandowsky tracked the online reaction in the months following publication of his original study from August to October 2012. They looked at the Google hits on the study, which, at 443 hits, were 40 times more than any other research on conspiracy theories that year.
He concentrated on the most vocal and popular blogs, including well-known climate deniers, including Anthony Watts (Wattsupwiththat), who led the outcry, and Steve McIntyre (ClimateAudit), Marc Morano (ClimateDepot), Australian Joanne Nova (jonova) and other blogs such as “Bishop Hill” and “Junkscience”.
While the conspiracy hypotheses narrowly focused on the study itself at first, some grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors, such as university executives, a media organization, and even the Australian government.
“Complaints were made to [my] university alleging academic misconduct; several freedom-of-information requests were submitted to [my] university for emails and documents relating to the study; multiple re-analyses of the data were posted on blogs which purported to show that the effects reported did not exist; and a number of hypotheses were disseminated on the internet with arguably conspiracist content.”
Lewandowsky identified a number of types of conspiracy ideation exhibited, including: “presuming nefarious intent” “nihilistic skepticism” “framing themselves as persecuted victim” “assumption that there must be something wrong” “there is no accident” “self sealing theorizing” and “unreflexive counterfactual thinking.”
“The blogosphere's response appeared driven by the need to resist the “official" explanation of an event (criterion: there must be something wrong) and propose a sinister hidden alternative.”
Initial hypotheses centred around a theory that Lewandosky hadn’t contacted skeptic blogs to take part in his original survey, despite having said he had. Lewandowsky disproved that theory by publishing the names of those who had been contacted – and the emails to prove it. This didn’t shut down the outcry: the bloggers merely shifted to other theories.
“Several of those new hypotheses were based on what we call unreflexive counterfactual thinking; that is, the hypothesis was built on a non-existent, counterfactual state of the world, even though knowledge about the true state of the world was demonstrably available at the time.”
“This unreflexive counterfactual thinking is indicative either of the absence of a collective memory for earlier events, or of the lack of a cognitive control mechanism that requires an hypothesis to be compatible with all the available evidence.”
In closing, the authors of the paper have some lessons for science communicators, in particular the fact that “a defining attribute of conspiracist ideation is its resistance to contrary evidence.”
“This attribute is particularly troubling for science communicators, because providing additional scientific information may only serve to reinforce the rejection of the evidence, rather than foster its acceptance.”
(1) Authors: Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Western Australia, John Cook, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Klaus Oberauer, University of Zurich, Michael Marriott, Climate Realities Research, Australia.
Stephan Lewandowsky blog post is here:The involvement of conspiracist ideation in science denial