Unlocking the Conspiracy Mind-Set

The New York Times/February 21, 2013

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.

"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."

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