What happens when you study conspiracy theories? The conspiracy theorists make up conspiracy theories about you!

I’ve known about this effect for a while as I’ve been variously accused of being in the pocket of big pharma, big ag, big science, democrats and republicans etc. Now Stephan Lewandowsky, in follow up to his “NASA Faked the Moon Landings – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax.” paper, has used these conspiratorial responses to study how conspiracy theorists respond to being studied! It’s called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation“.

Here’s the abstract:

Conspiracist ideation has been repeatedly implicated in the rejection of scientific propositions, although empirical evidence to date has been sparse. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scienti c propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere’s response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.

Awesome. It’s actually a great paper, from the introduction discussing Diethelm and Mckee’s work on conspiratorial ideation (who cited us in their original paper), to the comparisons between censorship accusations by diverse anti-science movements from the tobacco/cancer denial to HIV/AIDS denial, Lewandowsky et al., lay the groundwork for understanding this problem as a fundamental characteristic of all anti-science. They even cite a book chapter in which the authors make the link that conspiracies are specifically used to rhetorically challenge science when one lacks adequate data (Lahsen, M. (1999). The detection and attribution of conspiracies: the controversy over Chapter 8. In G. Marcus (Ed.), Paranoia within reason: a casebook on conspiracy as explanation (pp. 111{136). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) I’ll have to look that one up, as that was our primary conclusion about denialism when we started writing about it in 2007.

The authors then go on to the conspiracist reaction to their original paper:

When the article by Lewandowsky et al. became available for download in July-August 2012, the climate denialist blogosphere responded with considerable intensity along several prongs: Complaints were made to the rst author’s university alleging academic misconduct; several freedom-of-information requests were submitted to the author’s university for emails and documents relating to LOG12; multiple re-analyses of the LOG12 data were posted on blogs which purported to show that the e ects reported Recursive fury 8 by LOG12 did not exist; and a number of hypotheses were disseminated on the internet with arguably conspiracist content. This response is not altogether surprising in light of research which has shown that threats – in particular to people’s sense of control – can trigger targeted small-scale conspiracy theories (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008), especially those involving a speci c opponent (Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild, 2010).

So what does any good scientist who is interested in the empirical study of conspiracy theories do in such a situation? Mine it for data!

The remainder of this article reports a content analysis of the hypotheses generated by the blogosphere to counter LOG12. The extent and vehemence of contrarian activity provided a particularly informative testbed for an analysis of how conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science among web denizens. Unlike previous analyses of web content, the present project was conducted in real time” as the response to LOG12 unfolded, thus permitting a fi ne-grained temporal analysis of the emerging global conversation.

Using google alerts and other strategies they tracked the response to their paper throughout the denialsphere, then evaluated them using 6 criteria to judge whether the author used conspiracist tendencies independent of actual content. These criteria were great, and as I read them I couldn’t help thinking it is really a beautiful summary of the aberrant thought processes of the conspiracist. They were (1) assuming nefarious intent (NI) on the part of their opponent, (2) delusions of persecution including Galileo comparisons (persecution/victimization or PV) -awesome-, (3) a “nihilistic degree of skepticism”/paranoid ideation (NS), (4) an inability to believe in coincidence or “not an accident” (NoA) thinking, (5) toleration of inconsistencies and contradictions in their own counter-hypotheses as long as they challenge the “official” version (or Must-Be-Wrong MbW), and (6) the incorporation of contrary evidence as further evidence of a conspiracy thus “self-sealing” their hypothesis (SS). This is a really brilliant break down of the behavior if you ask me in particular number 6 which they even provide the perfect example of:

Concerning climate denial, a case in point is the response to events surrounding the illegal hacking of personal emails by climate scientists, mainly at the University of East Anglia, in 2009. Selected content of those emails was used to support the theory that climate scientists conspired to conceal evidence against climate change or manipulated the data (see, e.g., Montford, 2010; Sussman, 2010). After the scientists in question were exonerated by 9 investigations in 2 countries, including various parliamentary and government committees in the U.S. and U. K., those exonerations were re-branded as a whitewash” (see, e.g., U.S. Representative Rohrabacher’s speech in Congress on 8 December 2011), thereby broadening the presumed involvement of people and institutions in the alleged conspiracy. We refer to this “self-sealing” criterion by the short label SS.

At denialism blog we’ve been describing these tactics for years, in particular I feel like the Crank Howto seems to incorporate most of these denialist tactics. In particular, that the authors recognized the persecution complex of the conspiracist is heart warming.

For the meat of the study, the authors then go through the evolution of reactions to their paper, and it’s fascinating. Starting with lots of allegations of “scamming” (must be wrong) and a smear to make them look like nutters (persecution victimization) the conspiracy theories then evolved about everything to whether or not the authors didn’t actually contact skeptic blogs (amazingly the blogs they did contact came out and appear to have lied about not being contacted), persecutorial delusions about the authors blocking individual skeptics IP addresses from accessing the paper (and further conspiracies that when they are being unblocked it’s just to make them look paranoid), conspiracies about it being a ploy by the Australian government (nefarious intent), and it gets crazier and crazier from there. One of the most fascinating aspects of the evolution of the response was how, predictably, as more information was made available, rather than quashing conspiracies, the conspiracy theorists would just broaden the nefarious actors to larger and larger circles of foes:

Second, self-sealing reasoning also became apparent in the broadening of the scope of presumed malfeasance on several occasions. When ethics approvals became public in response to an FOI request, the presumption of malfeasance was broadened from the authors of LOG12 to include university executives and the university’s ethics committee. Similarly, the response of the blogosphere evolved from an initial tight focus on LOG12 into an increasingly broader scope. Ultimately, the LOG12 authors were associated with global activism, a $6 million media initiative, and government censorship of dissent, thereby arguably connecting the response to LOG12 to the grand over-arching theory that “climate change is a hoax.” Notably, even that grand “hoax” theory is occasionally thought to be subordinate to an even grander theory: one of the bloggers involved in the response to LOG12 (cf. Table 1) considers climate change to be only the second biggest scam in history. The top-ranking scam is seen to be modern currency, dismissed as “government money” because it is not linked to the gold standard

And doesn’t that bring this back beautifully, full-circle, to the author’s original hypothesis in the first paper that free-market extremism is behind global warming denialism?

Finally the authors discuss implications for science communication, and, unlike most people, I think they actually understand the problem. That is, you can’t fix this problem with more communication, and more data. The nature of the conspiracy theorist is that all additional data and all contradictory data will only be used to demonstrate further evidence of conspiracy, that the conspiracy is even larger, or that the data are fraudulent. The “self-sealing” nature of the conspiracy theory, as the authors describe it, makes it fundamentally immune to penetration by logic, reason, or additional information.

Implications for science communication. A de fining attribute of conspiracist ideation is its resistance to contrary evidence (e.g., Bale, 2007; Keeley, 1999; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). This attribute is particularly troubling for science communicators, because providing additional scientifi c information may only serve to reinforce the rejection of the evidence, rather than foster its acceptance. A number of such “back fire” e ffects have been identi fied, and they are beginning to be reasonably well understood (Lewandowsky, Ecker, Recursive fury 37 et al., 2012). Although suggestions exist about how to rebut conspiracist ideations|e.g., by indirect means, such as affirmation of the competence and character of proponents of conspiracy theories, or affirmation of their other beliefs (e.g., Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009) we argue against direct engagement for two principal reasons.
First, much of science denial takes place in an epistemically closed system that is immune to falsifying evidence and counterarguments (Boudry & Braeckman, 2012; Kalichman, 2009). We therefore consider it highly unlikely that outreach e fforts to those groups could be met with success. Second, and more important, despite the amount of attention and scrutiny directed towards LOG12 over several months, the publication of recursive hypotheses was limited to posts on only 24 websites, with only 13 blogs featuring more than one post (see Table 1). This indicates that the recursive theories, while intensely promoted by certain bloggers and commenters, were largely contained to the “echo chamber” of climate denial. Although LOG12 received considerable media coverage when it first appeared, the response by the blogosphere was ignored by the mainstream media. This confinement of recursive hypotheses to a small “echo chamber” reflects the wider phenomenon of radical climate denial, whose ability to generate the appearance of a widely held opinion on the internet is disproportionate to the smaller number of people who actually hold those views (e.g., Leviston, Walker, & Morwinski, 2012). This discrepancy is greatest for the small group of people who deny that the climate is changing (around 6% of respondents; Leviston et al., 2012). Members of this small group believe that their denial is shared by roughly half the population. Thus, although an understanding of science denial is essential given the importance of climate change and the demonstrable role of the blogosphere in delaying mitigative action, it is arguably best met by underscoring the breadth of consensus among scientists (Ding, Maibach, Zhao, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2012) rather than by direct engagement.

Don’t argue with cranks. I can’t agree more. And historically this is what has worked with denialist groups. You don’t debate them as if they’re honest brokers, you treat them as the defective brains that they are, and eventually, their influence dwindles, and they’ll be reduced to a small community of losers sharing their delusions of grandeur and righteous indignation in some tiny corner of the internet.

The key to preventing denialism isn’t in arguing with those that have already formed fixed, irrational ideas. It can only happen with prevention – early education that emphasizes logic, scientific methods, rational thought and non-ideological, pragmatic approaches to problem solving.

59 thoughts on “What happens when you study conspiracy theories? The conspiracy theorists make up conspiracy theories about you!”

  1. *sigh* It’s hard to complain about bashing of the flat-earth ignoramuses who still deny that the climate is changing. Still, the criteria used here to define inferior ideation are not unbiased. I have seen plenty of speech that could fit under points 1 and 4-6 by persons supporting beliefs that they clearly considered to represent orthodox “science” or medicine, and that would be accepted as such by many or most “skeptics.” Point 3 is what you might call unconstitutionally vague; for example, a “nihilistic” level of skepticism is probably one that rejects evidence supporting a belief that I-the-evaluator consider to be well-proven, but not one that rejects evidence that I-the-evaluator don’t care for either. Who is to make these decisions, and is there any test to determine whether such criteria could be consistently applied by multiple scorers none of whom start off with an ax to grind? And will producing jargon-laden pseudoscientific texts to justify labeling our political opponents as “the defective brains that they are” really reduce polarization?

  2. I’m not interested in reducing polarization. I’m interested in making pseudoscience and anti-science ideologues detested for the scum that they are. I am a polarizer, if anything, and purposefully so. When people don’t respond to data, or reason, and they put everyone else at risk as a result of that behavior (HIV/AIDS denial, vaccine denial, global warming denial) the appropriate response is to shame them. Instead they appear on CNN, they get debated as if they have equal weight or as if they have expertise. They don’t. They’re cranks, worthy only of contempt.

    Read the paper. It’s a fascinating read, not dry at all really, and when you see the types of conspiracies that were made about the authors, you see they’re totally indefensible, and laughable. The nihilistic skepticism becomes clear when the speaker usually says something along the lines of “nothing can convince me” or “there is no way you can show data to prove x”. They’re saying they won’t believe no matter what they’re shown. And as the authors make clear, their criteria are functional independent of the content of the argument.

    Ultimately, it’s important to understand conspiratorial thinking is defective. If people are using these types of reasoning they should be mocked until they stop. Especially if someone is using the 6th type – self-sealing, they’re completely irrational. That’s the bubble, the impenetrable shield of ideology at work. If someone is using these to defend an “orthodox” position is besides the point. It’s defective reasoning. And what are conspiracies and conspiracy theorists almost always trying to promote? Hatred of a despised group, ideological agendas, anti-science. Scratch a 9/11 truther and you find holocaust deniers and anti-semites (not to mention some of the classic racist conspiracy theories like the protocols of the elders of zion), scratch a HIV/AIDS denier you find a homophobe, or some other extreme political agenda they’re willing to trade lives for, scratch a global warming denier and you find free-market fundamentalists, willing to say anything to prevent their destructive ideology from being opposed. Why would we want to reduce polarization with these people? If anything, we should be pushing them further and further out of the mainstream of conversation.

  3. jane:

    The markers of conspiracist ideation are, for all intents and purposes, content-neutral.

    If someone were to resort to conspiracist ideation to defend an empirical claim (or set thereof) that is extremely well supported (such as, say, in defence of contemporary quantum physics), such a person’s reasoning is still suspect or even defective, even if their conclusions are correct.

    The point is that conspiracist ideation, in the absence of confirming evidence of conspiracy, is specious reasoning, no matter the set of claims it is marshalled to defend. Arguably any reasoning which makes use of self-sealing behaviour will be defective as a matter of course, even if one is using it to defend “the daytime sky appears blue”.

    In addition, one of the benefits of relying on conclusions that are based on multiple lines of supporting evidence is that the vagaries of human motivation and the pitfalls and foibles of human thought processes can be minimized, thus preventing the situation you describe – “Who is to make these decisions, and is there any test to determine whether such criteria could be consistently applied by multiple scorers none of whom start off with an ax to grind?” – or at least alleviating it. The multiple lines of supporting evidence would appear to constitute just such a test.

  4. I totally agree that such reasoning is specious, even if used to support a belief that is actually or probably true. The problem comes if it becomes obvious that people with some opinions get a free pass, while there’s a hair-trigger threshold for labeling people with other opinions as defective, even if they’re using equally bad reasoning. I see quite a bit of that in practice. Your average “denialist” is not, indeed, too bright, but he knows when he’s being insulted or demonized.

  5. A good read for those interested in this subject is, “The PseudoScience Wars; Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by Michael D. Gordin. The book uses the Velikovsky story to explore the demarcation problem in science; how scientists have decided in the past what claims count as science and which do not. The problem is more complex than it appears on first glance. Using a simple set of markers to identify crankwork may be a good “rule of thumb” starting place, but this approach is probably not the ultimate answer. The Ptolemaic System was “science” until Copernicus and Kepler, the cranks of their day, showed up.

  6. “The Ptolemaic System was “science” until Copernicus and Kepler, the cranks of their day, showed up.”

    Um, no. Copernicus and Kepler argued using inference and data, not conspiracies, personal attacks, logical fallacies, and other BS rhetorical tactics. They actually were both very well-received in their day, and while Copernicus delayed publication of his life’s work, it was more from fear of criticism, than an unshakeable certainty in his infinite wisdom and superior knowledge. He was, if anything, the opposite of a crank.

    Kepler was also very well-regarded by his peers and was courted for his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, and was even imperial mathematician.

  7. “Point 3 is what you might call unconstitutionally vague; for example, a “nihilistic” level of skepticism is probably one that rejects evidence supporting a belief that I-the-evaluator consider to be well-proven, but not one that rejects evidence that I-the-evaluator don’t care for either.”

    jane, I understand where you’re coming from, but I’d respectfully disagree with that one. Mark hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that nihilistic skepticism is something to the effect of ‘there is nothing that will convince me I am wrong about x.’ Now, I doubt most denialists would actually say that if pressed (except those in the Biblical Literalist/Fundamentalist/YEC camp). Still, it is pretty obvious when denialists go about moving the goalposts and making up ad hoc explanations to avoid admitting they are wrong.

    Case in point, for AGW: Anthony Watts being prepared to accept the results of the BEST Project, only to move the goalposts and cast doubt scientists involved it as soon as it came out with results he didn’t like. Now, these tactics are not new for Watts, but to keep engaging in them after you’ve just said you are willing to accept the results of the study no matter what they are is, well, a pretty good example of nihilistic skepticism.

    Denialists aren’t using the scientific method, they know the Truth and they will prove it, no matter what. This is hard to do when you don’t have any evidence, or when the data suggests otherwise, so what do you do? Pretty much what the author of the paper outlines: demand the data’s not enough, suggest that the scientists have political motivations, point to somebody who says otherwise to prove that there is a “debate'” claim persecution (I guess because if we know all those scientists are wrong, and they vilify us, then we must be right), etc.

    A nihilistic level of skepticism would be consistent if it were applied to all claims out there. That’s impossible in practice, but it would be internally consistent. But when denialists will never let their free-market fundamentalism or whatever be challenged, while simultaneously never admitting to any evidence, no matter how overwhelming, for manmade global warming, then they’re just not being rational. And when almost everybody in the movement is acting like this, then I’d say we’re justified in dismissing global warming denialism as a crackpot theory.

    Just my take on this study. Anyway, I’d be interested to know what opinions you think get a free pass that are almost invariably defended with these kinds of bad arguments…

  8. “early education that emphasizes logic, scientific methods, rational thought and non-ideological, pragmatic approaches to problem solving.”

    The weird thing is that most “climate skeptics” would pride themselves on having these attributes.

  9. I have a friend who is a conspiracy theorist. He was not when we first became fiends, and it’s been strange. He believes all sorts of strange things about health, and consumes and avoids odd foods and substances, while admitting that his health is going downhill and is always tired. He believes some strange political and environmental things as well. I ask to see the studies, the real studies, not blog posts, not adverts or similar, and he considers me a shill for big pharma. I think it’s a sort of brain damage or mental illness, most of that crap makes no sense.

  10. Rhonda, I’m sorry, but I don’t think there’s very good evidence for that little nugget.

    Maybe I’m forgetting about how Einstein, when studying relativity initially, advanced his theory in a little known pamphlet “What the Evil Physics World-Wide orthodoxy doesn’t want you to know” and maybe we would have accepted evolution sooner if Darwin hadn’t hidden this theory in his noted work, “The Genesis Hoax: Three ways knowledge of evolution can change your life!” But I suspect that little gem is a pithy piece of meaningless tripe.


    Julie, that sounds sad. I’ve known a few people IRL who have had the conspiratorial mindset. I couldn’t help seeing it as self-reinforcing destructive behavior. They think the world is against them, but because they’re so fringe and weird it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who wants to advance the career of their graduate student, or student, or any subordinate when every time you engage them in conversation they say something totally bizarre about 9/11, or how the banks (read the Jews) are secretly controlling everything, etc. So yeah, I guess “the man” is out to get you, in that no one wants to be around nutters but if you weren’t so damn weird maybe you’d have better luck.

    Also, conspiracy theories are often promoted to inspire hatred towards a group that a powerless person feels is responsible for their sorry state. Behind many of these conspiracies are some real ugly beliefs that would be socially unacceptable if voiced openly. When people hear them, they’re not stupid, they know what you’re saying when, for instance, you talk about how Obama is a Kenyan. Your not-so-subtle attack is really just racism with plausible deniability. What you’re really saying is a black man can’t be a real American, and therefore can’t be president.

    This is where hate comes from. The belief in what could have been if it weren’t for some external group that’s holding you back, keeping you from your rightful place on top. In reality, your lack of wealth, success, a house with a 2 car garage and a trophy husband or wife is squarely on your shoulders. It’s not the government keeping you down, Obama’s socialist policies, the absence of a gold standard, the banks, big pharma, or mercury, or fluoride or some other outside agent. It’s you, combined with your good or bad luck, that determines your fate. Some people don’t want to face that I guess.

  11. Conspiracist ideation, I suspect, grows out of strongly authoritarian personality.

    Before proceeding, some caveats:
    – I make no distinction here between establishment or revolutionary authoritarians, since as far as I know the underlying personality traits and behaviours are the same).
    – I say strongly authoritarian because, as far as I am aware, everyone possesses authoritarian personality characteristics to a greater or lesser extent.

    People with strongly authoritarian personalities are likely as intelligent or unintelligent as the general population. Where they diverge is a tendency to stronger unwarranted in-group/out-group identification, a tendency to stronger hostility versus out-groups, heightened fearfulness of the world, sloppy and compartmentalized reasoning, and a tendency to dogmatic defence of untenable convictions. These are differences of degree rather than kind: people with stronger authoritarian personalities engage in this sort of behaviour more frequently and more intensely than others.

    It seems to me, then, that strongly authoritarian personality traits would be liable to lead people to adopt and defend unwarranted conspiracist ideation.

    (Research on authoritarian personalities comes from the likes of Robert Altemeyer and others.)

  12. Wow. I actually thought this was a serious discussion about the validity of conspiracy theories that have later turned out to be true throughout history. What a waste of time.

  13. Julia – there is nothing remotely “shocking” about any of those real-life examples of conspiracies. Watergate? Iran/Contra? These are mundane activities that fall well within the understood mechanisms of biology, chemistry, avionics, and physics.

    Global warming denialists must rubbish pretty much the entirety of chemistry, over 200 years of direct laboratory experimentation, as well as the entire profit motive of the alleged conspirators since every university in the world would graduate more conspirators every year to get their share of the bribe.

    9/11Troofers throw away every first-year elementary fact of aviation, architecture, and physics when they claim that there were no airplanes involved, or that there should have been a perfect airplane-shaped hole carved – Wile E. Coyote cliffside style – into the Pentagon, or that the WTC towers should have remained standing forever or should have fallen over sideways or that it is in any way suspicious that they collapsed “at freefall speed.”

    Creationists throw away not just biology but astronomy and anthropology.

    Anti-vaxers throw away everything we know about epidemiology and a century of medical advances.

    Etc. If your “conspiracy theory” involves ignoring brute facts of the physio-chemical universe, it is a worthless theory, for the most part promoted by worthless people.

  14. Totally missed the point. I should have predicted it. These were all discovered post-hoc by people like police, congressional investigators, reporters. Not by internet cranks and trolls pulling ideas out of their behinds. Further many of those on your list aren’t even real. MK Ultra? So what if the CIA gave people LSD because of some stupid mind control idea they had. Northwoods was trashed immediately, it was never even remotely close to implementation, and was dug out of the circular file. Watergate? Banal criminal conspiracy to find dirt on Democrats, political dirty tricks. Tuskegee wasn’t a conspiracy at all, it was incompetence! There was no nefarious intent, and that is a very misleading summary of the error that was made – incompetent follow up and failure to address the ethics of a study post-penicillin. Operation mockingbird – so now government dropping propaganda into the press is a conspiracy? Or something new or unexpected? They still do this, all the time, and gullible reporters like Judith Miller periodically have to learn their lesson. We’re not talking about lying, or some bad CIA plans people dug out of the trash. If you’re going to go for a real conspiracy, at least throw out COINTELPRO, but even it is relatively classic government anti-radical behavior. It doesn’t require denial of things like physics, biology, chemistry, etc., to be believed, but rather a belief in the rather common failings of humans in power, and notably, it was uncovered, because secrets are hard to keep.

    Further, when we’re discussing conspiracy theories here at denialism blog, from the first day we ever blogged we’ve made it clear that these are non-parsimonious conspiracy theories. Not criminal conspiracies, not coverups of malfeasance or incompetence, and the banal conspiracy of drug dealers, adulturers and political ax grinders.

    No, we’re talking about the nutter stuff. Illuminati, 9/11 truthers, anti-vaxxers, HIV/AIDS denialists, holocaust denial/protocols of elders of zion etc. We’re talking about the tinfoil hat crowd, which includes people alleging a global scientific hoax on global warming, or evolution, or what have you.

    And it’s still missing the point, which is these non-parsimonious conspiracy theories that we’re referring to aren’t predictive. When has someone predicted one of these nutty, tinfoil hat jobs and been right? Did we find out the mob killed JFK? Or that Sirhan Sirhan was being controlled by a microchip in his brain by the FBI yet? Did fluoride turn out to be a communist/government mind control ploy? Did any evidence turn up showing vaccines cause autism? Or that something other than HIV cause AIDS? Did that Mayan calender work out?


  15. TTT, Perhaps there IS nothing shocking about them TODAY because they are no longer “Conspiracies” they are proven facts. lol. 911, climate change and other conspiracies yet to be determined are not they remain unknown conspiracies by so-called insane people. hence the ‘debate’ we are now having.

  16. And thus we have the Galileo gambit. julia, even if those nine examples are what you say they are, conspiracy theories that were later proven true, that does not have anything to say about, well, anything. Even if a conspiracy theory were eventually vindicated, that would say absolutely nothing about all the other whacky conspiracy theories out there being true.

    But of course, as TTT points out, those aren’t actually conspiracy theories. Because lack of evidence is totally the same as abundance of evidence. I guess we should equate government lies and subterfuge with a cabal of thousands of scientists and journalists to convince people of global warming, or covering up 9/11 beng an inside job, or whatever. Huh?


  17. Mark, did she read the Howto? I swear, there was something about ALL CAPS in there…

    Keep using them, we totally get how important SOME theories are as opposed to all, and TODAY as opposed to yesterday. Really, it’s a great way to be taken seriously…

  18. And as I pointed out, most of those items weren’t even the banal kind of conspiracies. No our definition of conspiracy theory refers to the colloquial use of the term to denote the tinfoil hat kind, which is distinct from simple conspiracy. Conspiracy just means to breathe together, and it happens whenever two schmucks get together to plan to knock over a 7-11, or a bunch of cardinals decide to hide the evidence of priests diddling little boys. It should be obvious that criminal conspiracy is a separate phenomenon from the “conspiracy theory”, such as that lizard people rule the earth from space. I’m not making that one up. It’s real. I’m looking at you whale.to.

  19. @Julia – When you say “911, climate change and other conspiracies yet to be determined” and you assume there is a debate, I have to wonder if you read the article. There is nothing ‘yet to be determined’ about them; there are the facts, and then there are those that deny the facts and concoct grand conspiracy theories. There is no debate, just a bunch of ranting nutters who seem to desperately want one because, for whatever reasons, they can’t handle the actual real evidence, or just don’t want to.

  20. I’ve never heard anyone say the climate isn’t changing. My own climate changed just in the last few hours and this happens constantly, over days, weeks, months and years. In fact, it has changed — sometimes quite rapidly — long before humans were around.

    The issue is not climate change — that’s a given and to use this term only serves to misdirect the debate over why it changes. The issue is AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming or alleged human-caused climate change.

    I think the issue as degenerated into what is a cultish clash between “believers” and “non-believers.” It is this tendency to marginalize and stigmatize one side of the debate that should make anyone suspicious. AGW has certain religious characteristics, and the most important is the crusade against heretics. It’s not enough to argue with them, debate the issue or even ignore them — they have to be hated, despised and stereotyped. AGW has become a “cause,” not unlike religious and political causes in its desire to create sacred beliefs and control and manage the narrative concerning them. There’s something more than science going on here.

    The simple fact is that many skeptics think the evidence for AGW is weak and that there are other explanations. They also doubt the effect of some of the suggested remedies. The intractable campaign against “denialists” reveals a deep uncertainty in the AGW ranks and one they have chosen to address by silencing their critics with a barrage of name-calling and “othering.” It’s time to bring a little civility into this issue.

  21. “I’ve never heard anyone say the climate isn’t changing.”

    Really? The names Inhofe, Bachmann, and Perry don’t ring a bell? I just thought they might, seeing as how they get loads of media coverage. But I’ll just point you to a simple black swan for this one here.

    “My own climate changed just in the last few hours and this happens constantly, over days, weeks, months and years.”

    Confusion of weather and climate, try reading a dictionary, it will do you some good.

    “It is this tendency to marginalize and stigmatize one side of the debate that should make anyone suspicious.”

    This is a wonderful example of claiming persecution. We are saying that the arguments of faux skeptics are specious, that they do not hold water. Their arguments are just as lousy as those put forward by anti-vaxxers, creationists, AIDs denialists, etc. We are calling BS on these bad arguments, and yes, trying to make people see why those who use them in the public sphere deserve ridicule.

    “AGW has certain religious characteristics, and the most important is the crusade against heretics.”

    Even better! Looks like this one read the Crank Howto! Yes, because we who believe in climate change are marching in with our holy warrior armies to hotbeds of global warming denialism, massacring innocents, setting up an inquisition, and burning people at the stake.


    “The simple fact is that many skeptics think the evidence for AGW is weak and that there are other explanations.”

    This is an excellent place to actually name them and bring some science into the debate. I notice that there is none here; you might be more convincing if you had some (non-cherry picked) data.

    “The intractable campaign against “denialists” reveals a deep uncertainty in the AGW ranks and one they have chosen to address by silencing their critics with a barrage of name-calling and “othering.” It’s time to bring a little civility into this issue.”

    Who is silencing you? Mark let your post appear on his blog, doesn’t that kind of make an irony meter explode somewhere? Name one instance of somebody losing their right to free speech who endorsed global warming denialism.

    Calling people denialists is not name calling, its about the BS rhetoric that they use. Read this blog, you might learn something.

    Now where have I seen the last sentence before? Oh yes, it’s the sanctity of science concern troll from the Climate Trolls Bestiary. I love how these arguments are never new…

    Laird, you’re going to have to do a lot better than that.

  22. Climate change is actually a mixed bag, even the IPCC has changed to respect incertitudes, go to their website on http://www.ipcc.ch

    in GM crops the conspiracy theories are thriving. With my own concrete experience I was able to debunk one of the monst (in)famous ones on poor poor Ignazio Chapela being a victim of Monsanto conspiracies, see the whole blog with lots of details:

    Ammann, K. (20120315), Review: The Case of Mexican Corn Gene Flow, ASK-FORCE AF-12, in: ASK-FORCE-12, AF-12, 23, Ammann K., Neuchatel, http://www.ask-force.org/web/AF-12-Mexican-Geneflow-20120315/Ammann-Mexican-Geneflow-Case-20120315.pdf

    before publishing the Chapela story, I will cite your brilliant analysis, and thanks for it, Klaus

  23. Laird:

    The assemblage of pseudo-skeptics, cranks, and bought-and-paid-for shills (I’m looking at you, Fred Singer who campaign against climate action are enabling the destruction of property on a large scale, the ruination of people’s lives and livelihoods, and an unremitting future of more of the same.

    Critically, their advocacy for inaction is based on a series of claims which range from utterly unsupported, to crackpot (anything to do with the Laws of Thermodynamics and the like), to downright dishonest, and such claims almost invariably fail to withstand even the most cursory scrunity.

    Since I have a one-year old son whose future will be directly harmed by ongoing climate change, I personally am not very interested in being civil. Parental over-protectiveness, I suppose.

    Bottom line: people can think or say what they like; but if their claims are based on false premises and sloppy inferences, no one else is obliged to take them seriously or allow them any influence in policy-making.

  24. Composer, I think you may be on to something with the role strong authoritarian traits play in conspiracy ideation. It’s been a while since I read Altemeyer, but I definitely remember that the strong authoritarian personality types tended to engage in the kinds of behavior that the bloggers researched in this new paper did.

    I’d say Altemeyer’s last criterion, the defense of dogmatic conditions, is really playing a major role here. It doesn’t seem like global warming denialists are just following a leader in the same way that other authoritarian groups might when taken as a whole. But their commitment to government regulation being evil (yes, evil; not just undesirable, no, it’s an a priori assumption that anything the government does is evil) coupled with a general distrust of science, and possibly a dislike of lefties and anything they seem to support, leads them to blindly accept the likes of whatever denialists like Watts or Singer say. I suspect it’s just confirmation bias, where those who oppose orthodoxy get picked up on.

    The point is that the conclusion has already been reached, namely, government is bad, and the science is wrong. Start with that as a premise (in a way–I doubt most denialists are actually working through formal logic) and all the other allegations begin to make sense. If the science is wrong, then there must be a conspiracy to keep it alive, there must be nefarious intent on the part of scientists and liberals, etc. Needless to say, no evidence will ever be good enough, either, hence the nihilistic skepticism.

    Even the persecution complex makes sense, in a twisted sort of way. If their really do have nefarious intent, and they are wrong about climate change, then surely if they call us names, then they are “crusading” against us (see above), and it must mean we’re right. After all, we know they are all wrong… right??

    I’m probably overgeneralizing, but this seems to be how the psychology of the anti-science crowd is working in this case. I really should take a look at Altemeyer again, and try reading his work through the lense of how it could lead to conspiracy theorists.

  25. Looks like some research findings might bear out a relationship (though I would hardly say anything conclusive has been established since I am not familiar with the literature).

    For example, Swami et al (2011).

    It’s not in the abstract, and the article itself is in a paywall, but when this turns up in Google Scholar (search term ‘authoritarian conspiracist ideation’) the search result excerpts some text from the paper thusly:

    For instance, some work has shown significant associations between conspiracist ideation and
    greater anomie, distrust in authority, political cynicism … Related work has also shown that
    conspiracist beliefs are associated with a higher authoritarian tendency (Abalakina-Paap[…]

    Additional articles which suggest a relationship include Swami (2012) and Darwin et al (2011).

    Excerpt from abstract from Swami (2012):

    Results showed that belief in the Jewish conspiracy theory was associated with anti-Israeli attitudes, modern racism directed at the Chinese, right-wing authoritarianism, and social dominance orientation.

    The abstract of Darwin et al doesn’t mention authoritarianism, but somewhere in the text (excerpt provided by Google search result) there is:

    … where belief in certain conspiracies was associated with high levels of anomie, powerlessness,
    authoritarianism, and low …

  26. The Swami et al (2011) paper refers to what appears to be this paper (Abalanika-Paap et al (1999). The abstract states:

    This study used canonical correlation to examine the relationship of 11 individual difference variables to two measures of beliefs in conspiracies. Undergraduates were administered a questionnaire that included these two measures (beliefs in specific conspiracies and attitudes toward the existence of conspiracies) and scales assessing the 11 variables. High levels of anomie, authoritarianism, and powerlessness, along with a low level of self-esteem, were related to beliefs in specific conspiracies, whereas high levels of external locus of control and hostility, along with a low level of trust, were related to attitudes toward the existence of conspiracies in general. These findings support the idea that beliefs in conspiracies are related to feelings of alienation, powerlessness, hostility, and being disadvantaged. There was no support for the idea that people believe in conspiracies because they provide simplified explanations of complex events.

  27. That’s an interesting survey of studies. There definitely seems to be some connection between high authoritarianism and conspiracy ideation.

    From what I can read of them (only the abstracts for the Wiley ones, the other two I can read in full) it looks like those with right-wing authoritarian tendencies tend to be conspiracy theorists, but conspiracy theorists may not tend, at least on the whole, to be RWAs. That’s not too much of a surprise, since conspiracy ideation probably wouldn’t develop in only one type of personality, anyway. The fact that we find conspiracy theories from both the left and the right, and even in between, should suggest this.

    Looking at Altemeyer’s book again (PDF here) I notice he draws a distinction between left wing and right wing authoritarians. Again, the LWAs aren’t really prevalent in American society, but there are a few notable fringe people who might get some followings from them. I’m thinking about Alex Jones, David Icke (the-Reptilians-from-space-are-ruling-us guy), etc. Of course, there aren’t really any anarchist or communist or other revolutionary groups following them, so maybe the people listening to them are really RWAs, or not authoritarians at all. I’m not sure, but I’d still bet that LWAs, if they exist, are more likely to be conspiracy theorists, for the same reasons that RWAs seem to be.

    Whether you’re a partisan crank, or you’re a fringe person who thinks that those up on top in the power structure are wrong, you are probably going to endorse some kinds of views that lead to conspiracy theories. This seems to be the essence of the overvalued idea that leads a person to denialism. I don’t know of any specific research to that effect, but that’s the impression I get from the studies you linked to.

  28. Very interesting article. In Germany there is a similar situation. Passive smoking denialism is aligned with other denialism topics too, and mirroring disclosure of passive smoking denialism, tobacco lobby accuses medical science consensus as “WHO conspiracy” and financed by pharma industry. Last year I published some psychological considerations about this in a German journal (Prävention 35 (2012): 11-14), an English version is available at my homepage:

  29. wow! many thanks for that incredible article. I actually beloved it to the core. Hope you retain putting up this sort of impressive articles

  30. Mark said:
    “When people hear them, they’re not stupid, they know what you’re saying when, for instance, you talk about how Obama is a Kenyan. Your not-so-subtle attack is really just racism with plausible deniability. What you’re really saying is a black man can’t be a real American, and therefore can’t be president.”
    That’s the sort of sloppy thinking I associate with Truthers. Many of the same people who call Obama a Kenyan also think highly of Blacks like Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell and supported Herman Cain during the primaries.

    *Most* of the people who refer to Obama as a Kenyan do so to piss-off lefties. It’s just that simple.

    OTOH, the use of the term “denier” is clearly an attempt to insinuate that skeptics are like holocaust deniers. Many of the same “aberrant thought processes” mentioned in the paper could be applied to Mark.

  31. I know it’s never a good idea to respond to people who make no coherent arguments and hurl insults (read: William), since it’s usually just troll-feeding. Still, I can’t help myself.

    “Many of the same people who call Obama a Kenyan also think highly of Blacks like Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell and supported Herman Cain during the primaries.”

    Really? If Herman Cain had “many” people supporting him from the birthers, it looks like he was a fool for dropping out, given that half of Republican primary voters were birthers. Wonder why he never had anywhere near that kind of support in the polls leading up to it… Maybe if you gave some evidence for this assertion being true, you wouldn’t remind me so much of the truthers (who, I will agree, have sloppy reasoning; evidently, so do you).

    “*Most* of the people who refer to Obama as a Kenyan do so to piss-off lefties. It’s just that simple.”

    They don’t do so because they actually believe he’s from Kenya? They’ve been trolling the country the whole time, with none the wiser? Incredible! But I doubt it.

    Or maybe deep down you know that birtherism is ridiculous, but you just don’t want to admit that, yes, that much of your party really is as breathtakingly stupid as it acts?

    But by all means, don’t stop! Really, it doesn’t piss anybody off, it makes us laugh, seeing how people can hold such an outrageous idea completely disconnected from reality, logic and evidence be damned!

    “OTOH, the use of the term “denier” is clearly an attempt to insinuate that skeptics are like holocaust deniers.”

    [Facepalms]; thus you show that you simply haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about. You are really going to bring up the tired canard about denialism meaning Holocaust denial?

    Denialism is about rhetoric and argument style, and not all denial is Holocaust denial. (Interestingly, though, the tactics of denialism, like conspiracy theories and cherry picking, are indeed used by Holocaust denialists–you’d know about this if you would actually read the blog, instead of just showing up in a random comment thread.) Since when does the word “denial” mean saying the Holocaust never happened? If somebody is in denial about an illness, nobody takes that to mean they’re anti-semitic, or that they think Hitler was a great guy. Likewise, global warming denialism; it doesn’t have anything to do with Holocaust denial, except to refer to a type of BS rhetoric used by both when there is no evidence from either science or history to support such a position.

    Seriously, try reading this blog before posting your drivel here–if you don’t want to come off looking like a total ignoramus, that is. Because putting the same point refuted a thousand times forward is not going to impress anyone.

  32. I tire of idiots like ‘TTT’ who always want to concentrate on the bat shit theories of 911 like faked planes instead of acknowledging that there are many many unanswered questions that still surround the events to this day.

    Man Cleland of the 911 commission admitted that it was a cover up and setup to fail. Bush and Cheney refused to testify on record and under oath. They didn’t even want 911 to be investigated ffs.

  33. William:

    Those who style themselves “skeptics” of global warming do not behave in any fashion characteristic of skepticism. Most importantly, they will tend to adopt and advance even the most ignorant or self-evidently false arguments against the science.

    As such, at best one can speak of such people as pseudoskeptics.

  34. >And what are conspiracies and conspiracy theorists almost always trying to promote? Hatred of a despised group, ideological agendas, anti-science. Scratch a 9/11 truther and you find holocaust deniers and anti-semites (not to mention some of the classic racist conspiracy theories like the protocols of the elders of zion), scratch a HIV/AIDS denier you find a homophobe, or some other extreme political agenda they’re willing to trade lives for, scratch a global warming denier and you find free-market fundamentalists.

    I see no proof for this. It’s like the old Saul Alinsky tactic of picking out targets, shooting at them then when the target agrees to fight (or in this case argue), you just run away.

    >we should be pushing them further and further out of the mainstream of conversation

    So the idea is to decide who should have a voice and those you disagree with should be silenced. Fascists everywhere are smiling at you mark.

  35. jmichael:

    In what way is decision-making by either individuals, businesses, or governments on the matter of, say, HIV prevention, improved by allowing HIV/AIDS cranks influence disproportionate to the merits of their claims? (Since their claims have no merit that we are aware of, the proportional influence in decision-making would be none.)

    In what way is decision-making on, say, mass vaccination, improved by allowing anti-vaccine cranks influence disproportionate to the merits of their claims? (Again, claims without merit implies no merited influence in decision-making.)

    (One could go on, but I won’t.)

    People are formally equal in modern liberal democracies. Ideas aren’t. No one has any obligation to give bad ideas a fair shake. Indeed, tolerating demonstrably harmful ideas is counter-productive.

    Just because you have a guarantee to free speech does not mean you have a guarantee to be taken seriously.

  36. >These were all discovered post-hoc by people like police,
    >congressional investigators, reporters. Not by internet cranks
    >and trolls pulling ideas out of their behinds.”

    Mark, you do realize that you just posted a theory, and that you posted it on the internet, don’t you?

  37. And the Truthers have finally arrived! What took you so long, I was afraid the party would start without you.

    I’m beginning to wonder if this thread is really being overrun by a bunch of cranks, or just troll[s] with nothing better to do.

    So to all you Galileo gambiters, conspiracy theorists, and people crying “Fascism!” in the crowd, here’s a brilliant idea: why don’t you try posting arguments with actual facts to back them up? If you do, you might actually be taken seriously.

  38. Well mark, usually when you attack someone by calling them names, common sense dictates that they will retaliate and call you names and attack you in return, so why bother? What comes around goes around, so if you go out call someone a homophobe or global warming denier or a “conspiracy theorist”, do you actually expect those people to just take that crap and ignore you? No way. They will come back swinging to the final ounce of energy is spent. Face it, no one is ging to take being atacked and do nothing about it. If you attack someone, expect to be attacked in return with slightly more umph that you attacked them with. That’s how the real world works OUTSIDE of the univeristy classroom. Might want take a walk around out there and see it for yourself sometime.

    As far as the moon landing to be a hoax, I don’t buy it. I do know that the astronaught wore gold lenses on their helmets as filtr so that they could more easily see some of the domes and crystal structures on the moon. I know for a fact they had a masonic ritual on the moon and planted a mason symbol flag there. I know for a fact that they have found fossilized skeletal remains on Mars as well as enormous structures not natural to any environment. They were built by someone intelligent.

    It’s time anonymous left banksters alone and started hacking military and NASA files and disclosing this stuff to the pulic. If we paid for it, we have a right to see it.

    The largest conspiracy theory existing at the moment is the one about global warming – a tool of the New Wolrd Order to increase power to the elites, make more money for themselves, and to decrease the world population. A fraud to be certain. Rest assured, when Judgement Day comes, some freakshow leftwinger fraud is going to burn in hell for this global hoax. he will have a new meaning for warming.

  39. Oliver, considering your choice of words, I don’t think you would be the the best spokes person for whatever it is you think you believe in or not.

    The first sign of a feeble mind is the ad hominem attack. How about an actual argument you so crave, instead of being what you accuse others of being? What does the word “crank” bring to the debate?

    Kinda makes you wonder whence the name “science blog”.

  40. Mickey Mouse:

    When the people that the likes of Mark Hoofnagle or Oliver describe as denialists start making arguments supported by data (instead of by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and the other characteristics of denialism), then there can be an argument.

    Until then, ideas which are unsupported, patently ridiculous and even downright harmful (such as those espoused by, say, Cooper just upthread) do not belong in the realm of serious discourse.

    As things stand, denialists are not contributing meaningfully to either the science of Earth climate or to the debate over appropriate personal & policy responses to the fact of rapid, human-induced global overheating.

    (By the way, as appears to be typical, you appear to misunderstand the term ad hominem.)

    (You also appear to be ignorant of the fact that descriptive labels are useful shorthand for behaviour. One would not shy from calling, say, Bernie Madoff a fraud, nor calling a Congressional representative a politician, nor calling a person who rescues a stranger’s child from a burning building a hero. Why should one hesitate from referring to people who engage in denialist or crank behaviour as denialists or cranks?)

  41. Public safety announcement: Arkham Asylum is missing a patient. Mr. Crumbwell, please stand very still and make no sudden movements. The men in white coats will be along to collect you shortly.

  42. public safety announcement:

    Be forwarned that any attempt to round up (and place in FEMA camps) patriots, constitutionalists, conservatives, Christians, or any other freedom supporting enemy of the New World Order will result in fierce swift merciless brutal retaliation. Be forwarned that your treachery will not go unpunished wether it be in the life of in the Judgement to come. That being said, any plan to turn the USA into a heap of rubble ruled by left wing dictators and patroled by treason weary troops of said leadership will be judged. A curse will be put on you – for every patriot that you impriosn of kill, may your future generations die young brutal painful deaths at the hands of those you despise the most.

    This has been a public service announcement. Now to all who oppose world government, the New World Order, satan, elitists, global warming fraudsters, left wing baby killer freaks, and other treachery organizations, POWER TO THE RIGHTEOUS. May the evil ones fall forever into hellfire and darkness and may the flames of hades forever torment their evil flesh.

  43. Good job guys, you’ve officially attracted the tin foil hat crowd.

    As far as calling people names, this is a typical retort of the crank when they are accurately described for their behavior. The error is assuming that a valid discussion based on data, logic, reason etc., is occurring. When one is forced to interact with one of these types, there is no line of reasoning, no amount of data, no logical argument that holds sway, because they’re irrational actors, or dishonest brokers in the argument. The only way to win the argument is to recognize that you’ve engaged a crazy person, and there is no point in trying to dissuade them that the FBI hasn’t actually implanted a microchip in their brains to track their movements or whatever. In such cases, retreat and or ridicule are the only logical options. What are you going to do, argue with these paranoids? What’s the point? They didn’t become convinced of these insane conspiracy theories because of their excellent grasp of reality. Nor will arguments within the framework of reason change their minds. This guy thinks he’s in a war with satan and baby killers. Don’t engage. He’s totally batshit.

    This discussion is over.

  44. Mark, you need better trolls. Preferably ones without fascistic, violent revenge fantasies.

  45. Composer, I don’t know if the above bloodthirsty fantasy is a troll or not. Cooper may actually be that much of a raving lunatic… All I know is that doomsday crap is all too common in the fundamentalist crowd.

    As for Mickey, I’m almost certain it is a troll–short posts, no arguments, and flinging accusations of ad hominem coupled with that wonderful bit about feeble minds, apparently without a trace of irony.

    Yep, not going to engage.

  46. The appropriate response to paranoid conspiracy theorists is to direct them to a good psychiatrist.

    More generally, efforts should be made to seek the underlying neurophysiological causes and develop effective treatments.

    If we’re willing to exercise just a wee bit of empathy, imagine how miserable life must be for people who are running around harboring these CTs. They must be terribly anxious most of the time, constantly on a fight/flight response to various imagined threats, and alternately depressed when the rest of us won’t agree with them. In short it sucks to be them, and we should at least have a little compassion and acknowledge (even when they indulge in ad-homs and threats) that their lives must be pretty miserable.

    That said, since humans crave emotions and do just about anything to experience strong emotions (even strong miserable emotions qualify here), it’s entirely possible that compassion and psychiatry won’t do much good, until we can offer the CTers something other than CT to give them strong emotions. Any suggestions?

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