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Unlocking the Conspiracy Mind-Set

Science & Tech  (tags: corruption, ethics, dishonesty, propaganda, republicans, usa, politics, lies, media, congress, abuse, americans, scientists, study, research, science, society, interesting, humans, health, discovery )

- 1884 days ago -
"Flirting?" he said. "No. They've already had conspiracy theory out on a hot date, and now it's the morning after and they're sitting up in bed, having coffee."

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JL A (281)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 9:32 am
Unlocking the Conspiracy Mind-Set
Green: Politics

When I first met the NASA climate researcher Gavin Schmidt a few years ago, we discussed the proliferation of material on the Internet attacking mainstream climate science. I asked him whether he thought climate contrarians were flirting with conspiracy theory in their views.
WND Books

“Flirting?” he said. “No. They’ve already had conspiracy theory out on a hot date, and now it’s the morning after and they’re sitting up in bed, having coffee.”

I happened to recall that conversation the other day as I read the latest chapter of a remarkable back-and-forth between mainstream researchers and climate contrarians.

It all started last year, when a social scientist named Stephan Lewandowsky, of the University of Western Australia, and two colleagues published a rather provocative paper. It was based on an anonymous Internet survey of the readers of climate blogs.

The title alone will give you a sense of the findings: “NASA Faked the Moon Landings – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax.” The subtitle was “An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science.”

The strongest finding in the survey was that ideological belief in an unregulated free market tended to be a predictor of someone’s willingness to reject the findings of mainstream climate research. No great surprise there. It was the secondary findings that set off a brouhaha.

Dr. Lewandowsky’s survey results suggested that people who rejected climate science were more likely than other respondents to reject other scientific or official findings and buy into assorted fringe theories: that NASA faked the moon landing, that the Central Intelligence Agency killed Martin Luther King Jr., that the AIDS virus was unleashed by the government, and so forth.

This piece of research appeared in a specialized journal in psychological science, but it did not take long to find its way onto climate skeptics’ blogs, setting off howls of derision.

A theory quickly emerged: that believers in climate science had been the main people taking Dr. Lewandowsky’s survey, but instead of answering honestly, had decided en masse to impersonate climate contrarians, giving the craziest possible answers so as to make the contrarians look like whack jobs.

So, a paper about a tendency among this group to believe in conspiracy theories was met by … a conspiracy theory.

Dr. Lewandowsky and his collaborators were taken aback, but not for long. As far-fetched ideas about the survey ricocheted around the Internet, they realized that manna was falling on them from heaven.

They started collecting the relevant blog posts, attempting to trace ideas to their origin, and observing how readily new conspiracy theories were embraced by the contrarians.

The result is yet another paper, just out recently. Again, the title tells the tale: “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation.”

Now, I will confess to being a bit of a skeptic myself about the value of Internet surveys, which tend to draw a self-selected population of respondents. And the only science I follow closely these days is physical research into the climate system, so I will let others with more expertise in the social sciences judge the merits of these papers.

But for sheer entertainment, they are both great reads – especially the second one, with its long passages about how the minds of conspiracy theorists work to seal off doubt and contrary evidence.

The heart of the second paper is a narrative of the eruption of various theories regarding the first paper, with elements of conspiratorial thinking explicitly identified in each case. Before the fever died down, one blogger was comparing Australian climate research to Soviet political repression, spinning a web of treachery that involved the Australian government, the University of Western Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and other groups.

(Judging from some of the e-mail I get, The New York Times is also seen in some quarters as part of a global plot to foist a scientific hoax on the public.)

Parts of this second paper remind me of the timeless Richard Hofstadter essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which is, by the way, essential reading for anyone trying to understand the influence of climate denialism on modern American or Australian or British politics. It was written in the early 1960s and contains not a word about climate change, but anyone who has followed the climate wars closely will recognize a lot of the themes in the essay.

When I recently reminded Dr. Schmidt of our conversation from a few years back, he replied that it was “worth pointing out that just because an argument is used by a conspiracy theorist doesn’t make it wrong, and that just because someone agrees with a conspiracy theorist on something, it doesn’t make them a crank.”

Indeed, some of the strongest online reaction to Dr. Lewandowsky’s original paper came from intelligent climate contrarians who were offended at being labeled part of the tinfoil hat brigade. Whatever you think of their position on global warming, some of them have remarkable statistical skills and have made contributions, generally modest, to the scientific literature.

And yet, in other corners of the climate contrarian movement, words like “conspiracy” and “hoax” keep cropping up. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is the standard-bearer for the climate contrarians in Congress, scored a double last year in the title of a book he published: “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

Stephen Brian (23)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 12:13 pm
Lewandowski's work was thoroughly debunked and retracted by the publisher. Contrary to his statements about his methodology, his "study" of climate change skeptics/deniers was found to have appeared only on sites where they were rare. His results show more about how common internet-trolls are than anything about debates regarding climate-science.
There is a whole series on that website, commonly believed to be the single most visited climate-skeptic blog on the internet, about Lewandowski's work. It starts with the fact that neither it, nor other prominent skeptic blogs, received copies of the survey which was supposedly meant to study their visitors. Then it was found that some skeptics did receive a survey from Lewandowski, but the questions were different. Ironically, Lewandowski's work was so bad that it started conspiracy theories among skeptics about a smear-campaign posing as science, and frankly, after having gone through Lewandowski's survey and findings, I believe that theory is, if not correct, at least well-founded.

JL A (281)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 12:28 pm
Information about the website/source Stephen provided for those who wish to assess credibility of source based on what the site provides:

About Anthony:

I’m a former television meteorologist who spent 25 years on the air and who also operates a weather technology and content business, as well as continues daily forecasting on radio, just for fun.

Weather measurement and weather presentation technology is my specialty. I also provide weather stations and custom weather monitoring solutions via (if you like my work, please consider buying a weather gadget there, StormPredator for example) and, and turn key weather channels with advertising at

The weather graphics you see in the lower right corner of the blog are produced by my company, IntelliWeather. As you can see most of my work is in weather technology such as weather stations, weather data processing systems, and weather graphics creation and display. While I’m not a degreed climate scientist, I’ll point out that neither is Al Gore, and his specialty is presentation also. And that’s part of what this blog is about: presentation of weather and climate data in a form the public can understand and discuss.

I’m also hearing impaired, with about an 85% sensory-neural hearing loss I’ve had since my early teens (11) due to an ototoxic drug reaction. Basically I’m totally deaf above about 2 kilohertz, with significant losses in the remaining frequencies. I wear powerful microprocessor based CIC hearing aids in each ear, which corrects my hearing up to about 30% of normal for the remainder. This hearing handicap forced many decisions in my life for me, including becoming a TV broadcaster when the opportunity presented itself. Why? Because in TV and radio I didn’t have the embarrassing problem of trying to hear people, I only had to talk. Blogging of course is natural for me, since it allows me to “broadcast” but also to interact without needing to hear. For more on hearing loss, see the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which I support.

While I have a skeptical view of certain climate issues, I consider myself “green” in many ways, and I promote the idea of energy savings and alternate energy generation. Unlike many who just talk about it, I’ve put a 10KW solar array on my home, a second one on my new home this past summer of 2012. See photos below.

My home solar solar home grid tie inverters

Plus I championed a 125 KW solar array on one of our local schools when I was a local school board trustee. I’ve retrofitted my home with CFL’s and better insulation, as well as installed timer switches on many of our most commonly used lights.

I also drive an electric car for my daily around town routine, but now mostly in the summer due to the battery technology not performing well in the winter. See my second electric car, which is an upgrade from the glorified golf cart in the link above, below.


I encourage others to do the same when it comes to efficient use of energy and energy conservation. For example, I recently installed energy saving LED lighting in my home, reducing power consumption for my largest lighting use from 325watts to 60 watts.

For story ideas or other items related to this website: leave a comment on the Tips and Ideas thread, available on the menu bar under the masthead. I no longer post my email address due to the volume of mail I get.


About Watts Up With That? News and commentary on puzzling things in life, nature, science, weather, climate change, technology, and recent news by Anthony Watts

This science news site feature original content from myself as well as several contributors:


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Roger G (154)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 2:32 pm
noted, thanks !

JL A (281)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 2:39 pm
You are welcome Roger!

Phil W (210)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 8:16 pm
Here's an interesting National Public Radio interview on the topic. Myself, it looks as if it's a legitimate study from the information presented there.

JL A (281)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 8:19 pm
Thanks Phil for providing what is usually considered a credible source on the subject for those who want to know more!

Joanne Dixon (38)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 8:49 pm
Wonderful, colorful metaphor from Gavin Schmidt. Beyond that, I may be back after I read more.

JL A (281)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 8:54 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Joanne because you have done so within the last week.

Roger H (26)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 9:02 pm
I think we need to come up with a less environmentally dangerous alternative than CFL's, since studies are showing that most of the CFL's tested have cracks in the phosphorescent coatings that are supposed to protect us from the harmful levels of UV radiation they emit without the coating. Also, what is going to happen to our groundwater when the billions upon billions of CFL's are carelessly disposed of in lakes, rivers, drainage ditches, the ocean or burned in trash fires in rural areas? One bulb has very little mercury in it, but billions of bulbs can cause an environmental nightmare!

JL A (281)
Saturday February 23, 2013, 9:07 pm
The topic is not CFLs but rather is Unlocking the Conspiracy Mind-Set and related research and/or commentary

g d c (0)
Sunday February 24, 2013, 6:17 pm

JL A (281)
Sunday February 24, 2013, 6:22 pm
You are welcome g d c.

Helen Porter (39)
Monday February 25, 2013, 6:46 am

Yvonne White (229)
Wednesday February 27, 2013, 2:54 pm
Hmm, I guess I'm a selective Conspiracy Theorist - since I do think there's climate change, but I also believe 9/11 was an Inside Job. I love how CONservatives get to smear science facts!:(
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