Stephan Lewandowsky – The Mind of the Conspiracy Theorist

June 03, 2013

From 9-11, to the death of Osama bin Laden, to the Boston Bombings, there’s been a consistently bizarre and troubling reaction by some members of the public.

We’re referring to the people—a minority, to be sure, but a surprisingly large one—who always seem to think there’s some kind of cover up. The U.S. government, they feel, was really behind the attacks on, uh, itself. And as for Bin Laden—well, he isn’t really dead.

These people are called conspiracy theorists, and, their particular form of irrationality is uniquely befuddling. It has been often denounced, but rarely understood. That’s too bad, because conspiratorial thinking clearly plays an important role in science denial, on matters ranging from the connection between HIV and AIDS, to the safety of vaccines, to global warming.

Fortunately, conspiracy mongers are now becoming the subject of research and study—and our latest guest is helping to lead this inquiry.

His name is Stephan Lewandowsky, and he’s a professor at the school of psychology at the University of Western Australia, and at the University of Bristol in the UK. And he’s the author of a recent study with the delicious title “NASA Faked the Moon Landings, Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science (PDF)”—which drew some small amount of attention, especially when it was followed by a second study of the conspiracy theorists who rejected the first study for, yes, conspiratorial reasons.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, June 3rd, 2013, on the show this week, we talk to cognitive scientist Stephen Lewandowsky about the mind of the conspiracy theorist. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney one of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. If you don’t already, please follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and also on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. From 9/11 to the death of Osama bin Laden to the Boston bombings, there’s been a consistently strange and troubling reaction on the part of some members of the public. I’m referring to the people, a minority, but a surprisingly large one who always seemed to think there is a cover up. The U.S. government, they feel, was behind the attacks on itself. And as for bin Laden, well, he ain’t really dead. These people are called conspiracy theorists and their particular form of irrationality is uniquely befuddling. It’s been often denounced, but more rarely understood. And that’s too bad because conspiratorial thinking clearly plays an important role in science denial on matters ranging from the connection between HIV and AIDS to the safety of vaccines to global warming. Now, fortunately, these conspiracists are now becoming the subject of research and study. And our guest today is helping to lead this inquiry. His name is Steven Lewandowsky. He’s a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia and at the University of Bristol in the UK. And he’s the author of a recent study with the delicious title NASA Faked the Moon Landings. Therefore, climate science is a Hoax, an anatomy of the motivated rejection of science, which drew some small amount of attention, especially when it was followed by a second study of the conspiracy theorists who rejected the first study for conspiratorial reasons. 

We didn’t have to actually talk with Professor Lewandowsky by phone in Australia. He happens to be right here in D.C. in our studio. So Stephen Lewandowsky welcomed the point of inquiry, huh? 

Chris, thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be. 

It’s great to have you. So conspiracy theories. Let’s talk about who they are and the beliefs, their spouse first. Generally, you define a conspiracy as, quote, the attempt to explain the significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations. Does that mean that by definition are all conspiracy theories are irrational? 

No, not necessarily, because they are also true conspiracies, for example, Watergate comes to mind. And the Iran-Contra scandal, which was very difficult to invent, I think I thought at the time reality sort of outpaced my capacity to invent strange things. So the crucial thing for me as a cognitive scientist is to look at conspiratorial thinking, not based on what they are trying to explain, but how they do it. 

The important thing about understanding conspiratorial thinking is the thought process itself. And so one of the characteristics of conspiratorial thinking is that it is self sealing. That’s what we call it. And that means that any evidence to the contrary. Any any evidence against the conspiracy is interpreted to be an actual fact evidence for the conspiracy. So basically what happens is that the circle of conspirators is broad, and whenever there’s evidence to the contrary. 

And let’s just jump straight into climate change. A hugely controversial issue that involves a lot of conspiratorial thinking. Now, you may recall that a couple of years ago, some e-mails were illegally illumined gate in Dade climate gate, as it was called at the time. And those e-mails were spread around the Internet. And people interpret them cherry pick them to death. 

And, you know, created this theory that climate scientists are corrupt and engaged in a conspiracy for God knows what reason. I have no idea why they would do that. 

But anyhow, that’s so the story went. Now, what’s interesting is that there have been countless investigations of these scientists. 

I’ve lost track. I mean, at least six or seven, six, six, maybe. Yeah, OK. It’s a good number. So six in different countries. I think they were three in the UK. Another three here in the U.S.. 

And guess what? They all found that there was absolutely no case to answer. They those scientists did nothing wrong. 

So conspiracy and it’s a conspiracy. But now here’s the interesting thing. The interesting thing is that now those investigations are labeled as a whitewash. 

Right. And therefore, the conspiracy now broadens from initially just involving climate scientists to now also involving the U.K. government, the U.S. government, the EPA, the well, any you know, you any government agency involved in this has now become part of the conspiracy. 

And that is very typical of conspiratorial thinking. And that, I think, is what is differentiating it from other ways of interpreting the world. 

There’s some other aspects I gleaned from some of your papers. It’s always a negative secret, not a positive siggraph on those. Interesting you pointed out that, you know, no one ever has a conspiracy theory about a birthday party, a surprise. I mean, it’s never a good thing. That’s right. 

Indeed. And that gets us right to the issue of what’s the purpose of a conspiracy theory? Why is it that people hold on to conspiracy theories? 

And that’s an interesting question. And I think what is happening there is that people are in you know, they have a need to explain bad things. 

Let’s look at something tragic like the Boston bombing or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

I mean, those are horrible, horrifying events. And in a sense, they were completely random. They were unexpected. They came out of nowhere. And that’s what makes them incredibly frightening, because the fact that they are unpredictable, random and boom, all of a sudden they’re there. That that’s scary, isn’t it? It’s really scary. So how do you deal with that? Well, one, why in which people can deal with scary events is to create a an explanation that that put some sense into this event. 

And it turns out there is data to suggest that if you explain something through a conspiracy and by having an enemy, that that is actually making you feel better. It is actually giving you a sense of control is the person that if you can explain and then an unexpected event through a malicious enemy, that’s out to get you. That sounds terrible, but in actual fact, it gives people a sense of control, makes them feel better. 

So this leads to the question that I think I was thinking as I read your papers a lot, which is, is there something unique about conspiratorial thinking or is it just part of a person’s array of responses to situations? It always is something about this particular way of thinking that’s a syndrome or that certain kind of person does all the time. Or is it just, you know, you face uncertainty, you need an answer or you face. Let’s call it an assault on ideology. You need an answer. You need to know why the other people are wrong. And so you just your mind just spins things out. Which one is it? 

Well, I think it’s a mixture of both. I would I would be inclined to say there is some evidence that conspiratorial thinking is usually fairly widespread, that if a person believes in one conspiracy theory, they’re likely to believe in others as well. There is a statistical association. So people who think that M-I five killed Princess Diana, they probably also think that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act by himself when he killed JFK, but that they’re more likely than just the average, probably. Exactly. Exactly. So there is a. Mystical association people tend to cluster in such a manner that if they endorse one theory, they tend to also endorse others. And that association is actually fairly strong. So I think to some extent there there is a cognitive style there. That’s what I would call it. I think it is just a way of looking at the world. 

By by having the style of thinking that invokes conspiracies very readily. 

So there are clearly people who fall within that cluster of of thinking on the one hand. 

So on the other hand, however, I think it is also a situation specific. And let’s talk about science a little bit, because the reason I got interested in conspiratorial thinking is only because I’m I’m a scientist and I’m passionate about being a scientist because I happen to think that that is probably the best way humans have discovered today. To understand the world around them, we share that view on this show, I’m sure. And so I was fascinated by the fact that there are so many people out there who reject scientific findings that they don’t like for other reasons. Now, turns out that if you look at that, if you look at science denial, you find that there is almost invariably a conspiratorial streak to that rejection. So let me give you a few examples. People who reject the link between HIV and AIDS very often think that the U.S. government created AIDS. God knows why. You know, there’s a number of hypotheses that these people advance, but there’s always a conspiratorial element in there. People who reject vaccinations in particular are often very aggressive in their rejection and resorting to conspiracies. 

And I think the government is involved somewhere or big pharma as a big pharma government. 

Indeed. So. And then finally, if you look at climate science, I think there it is perhaps more obvious than anywhere else. For example, we have a sitting U.S. senator from Oklahoma and Senator Inhofe in Dade and Dade. 

And I should add that I was at the University of Oklahoma for five years in the 1990s. So I have some association with Oklahoma, although I’ve never met Senator Inhofe. 

Now, he wrote a book last year called The Greatest Hoax How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. 

Puts it right front and center. Right. Yes. I mean, you know, he’s saying, hey, hello. 

Global warming is a hoax. It’s a conspiracy by scientists. Now, he’s actually written a book with that title. And, well, what else do you need? 

And it’s a catchy title. It’s a catchy title. It’s right out there. 

He’s accusing scientists of conspiring for God knows what reason. I still haven’t understood what we’re supposed to be doing and why we’re doing. 

I think it’s it they think it’s ideological. 

They think that you want to bend bend the world’s governments, too, your way of seeing. 

Oh, yes. The world government, indeed. Yes, absolutely. 

That’s I mean, it is. I mean, but but just to be fair, they think it’s an ideology counter to theirs. And you do anything you can to advance it, including making the puppets move. 

Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. 

Now, what’s interesting about this is that when you start to think about it, given how overwhelming the evidence is, in all the cases that I’ve mentioned, when you’re looking at HIV and AIDS, when you’re looking at the effectiveness of vaccinations, when you’re looking at the evidence for climate change, it is so absolutely overwhelming that if you can’t handle that, what are you gonna do? 

Other than invent a conspiracy among the scientists, I mean, in a sense, it’s a very logical thing to do. 

If 97 out of 100 climate scientists tell us that the globe is warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Well, and you don’t like that for whatever reason, maybe because you got money from Exxon. 

What are you going to do about it? Well, really. The only thing you can do is to say, well, those ninety seven out of 100 climate scientists are engaged in a conspiracy. And so a lot of people are now saying that. And it’s exactly the same with AIDS denial. You know, the evidence is absolutely, totally overwhelming. So how do you dismiss that? Well, President Mbeki of South Africa, who rejected the evidence that linked HIV to AIDS, he called it racist Western medicine and therefore was able to dismiss it basically by invoking a conspiracy. And the same is true wherever you look, when there is science denial involved, the people who don’t like the science are often invoking a conspiracy. 

I’m interested to unpack a little more that trait aspect of this. You know, you said it’s in part a cognitive style, a way of thinking. Does that is there something more deep, some other kinds of set of traits, some kind of person? I mean, we hear the word paranoid a lot. 

Yes, there. That is correct. 

There is, again, a statistical association between the propensity to endorse conspiracy theories and. Some paranoia, some tendency to to feel persecuted. And there’s also an association between people’s disgruntlement and their disappointment with society and their economic insecurity that predicts whether or not they’re likely to endorse conspiracy theory. 

So there is a literature that is painting a fairly consistent picture of what kind of people tend to engage in conspiracy theorizing. Now, what’s interesting is to me at least, is that actually there isn’t a reliable association with politics or political leanings or people’s worldview in that you get the occasional association with right wing thinking, but you equally also get it on occasion with quote unquote, left wing thinking. And on balance, I think it is actually not related to politics at all. 

So here’s the question. Is it normal or abnormal cycle? I mean, it seems like a lot of people get down on their luck and want to blame somebody. Paranoia doesn’t seem to me to be a rare thing. Certainly not in the United States. I mean, this is this is a pretty conspiratorial thinking is common. It’s not it’s not something like schizophrenia’s on the it’s it’s much more common than. 

Oh, totally. Yes. It’s it’s extremely common. I mean, in fact, if you look at the data last year or two years ago, the majority of registered Republican primary voters, I think it was 51 percent thought that President Obama was born outside the U.S.. Now, that’s effectively a conspiracy theory. Of course it is. You know, you’ve got to assume that a birth certificate is faked. And you I mean, you know, it’s just a. 

And people are covering up the faking of the birth certificate. Not only that, they also they also forged a newspaper from. Right. Oh, yes. You have to have the newspaper evidence. I think the whole thing is just you just take one look at it. 

Frankly, you think it’s ridiculous. And yet more than more than half of you know, the Republican primary voters endorsed that conspiracy theory. So clearly, it’s very widespread. Clearly ice, I think, except perhaps in extreme cases, it would be wrong to consider it to be a pathology. I never say that. I’m very careful about that. And I usually call it a cognitive style because it is really a style of of thinking. And let’s not forget, it’s a very attractive style of thinking. 

Is it, though, or what does it say about you that you think the people who disagree with you or oppose you have borderline superpowers? I mean, you know, I have been in all kinds of arguments, public. And given what I now know about psychology, I am sure that biases have crept into my thinking. And I have been inclined, especially in first impression, to think negatively about someone I’m arguing with. And probably and what’s important is to check this will probably be more willing to believe something that someone says than I should, because I’m just, you know, the initial disposition is negative and you want to always check that world bias. But I never think that there’s somehow super competent. I mean, I don’t want to give that much credit like they have better abilities. You know, that doesn’t follow at all. 

Right. Yeah. Well, yes, I think you’re right. At first glance it is. 

I mean, I would love to be a an all powerful conspirator, actually, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about anything in life. But yeah, no, I agree that that that is certainly one aspect of it. 

But don’t forget, having one characteristic of of conspiratorial thinking is that they never actually quite think it through. So they never get to the point where. And this is one aspect of conspiracy theories, that they’re never internally coherent. They are basically just a concatenation of thoughts or soundbites, each of which is attractive. 

And you can say things like that. Oh, the president wasn’t born in Hawaii. You know, it’s very easy to say that. And it gives you, you know, it’s a tool to dismiss him because he’s a political opponent. Now, no one really thinks that’s true, as we have just done a couple of seconds ago by saying, gee, how did they forge the newspaper? How did they, you know, think no one ever goes that far? Or most people don’t. For example, one of the interesting things about conspiratorial thinking is that people often hold completely contradictory theories in their head at the same. Time. So, for example, there is evidence that somebody thinks that in my five or my six, whatever, whoever it is, the bad guys that they killed Princess Diana, a person who will say that is also likely to say that Princess Diana faked her own death. Now, if she faked her own death, she’s alive. If MICEX killed her, she’s dead. You can’t have it both ways. And yet people will endorse both of those. And that’s an aspect of conspiratorial thinking as well, that the sort of complete incoherence. But don’t forget, it offers comfort. I said this before that having an enemy, being able to label something as as as an enemy, paradoxically, can give you a sense of control and comfort. And here’s another thing about a conspiracy theory that makes it extremely attractive. It explains absolutely everything. Right, by definition. So it can explain the slightest anomaly that is observed in a complex event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. You know, it can explain that. All you have to say is, oh, it’s a government conspiracy. And they took away this piece of evidence before we should have found like the flight recorders or whatever it was. So it is always a conspiracy theory, always has an advantage over the true scientific theory because a conspiracy theory can explain absolutely everything. All you got to do is just invent some other government aid. Knew who may contributed that part. 

Let’s talk about how this plays out in your actual research on climate change and the people who deny it. Now, you had this study, I guess, is about a year ago. It was in psychological science and it disentangled the idea that this is political free market ideology from the idea that this is conspiratorial. And there are two separate things, overlapping things. Why don’t you explain? 

Okay. Well, that’s very interesting. 

What happened there was that we surveyed visitors to climate blogs, about a thousand of them, more than a thousand. And we found that the overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their world view or their ideology, whatever you want to call it. 

And specifically, people who are very enthusiastic and endorse a laissez faire version of the free market. They tend to reject climate science. Now, that’s been known for a very long time. You know, we know that there is a very strong association between world view and the rejection of climate science. And what my study additionally showed was that there was a separate factor that was actually not related to world view, that predicted rejection of scientific propositions, not just climate signs, but also the link between tobacco and lung cancer and the link between HIV and AIDS. 

And that separate factor was conspiratorial thinking. And so the extent to which people endorsed a conspiracy, a number of conspiracy theories predicted the rejection of those scientific propositions. 

Now, what’s interesting here is that the strength of that link was far greater for tobacco and AIDS than it was for climate science. In fact, for climate science, it was a very weak relationship, but it was notable. It was certainly there in the data. It was statistically significant. And clearly, for a number of people, not a huge number, but for a number of people, conspiratorial thinking determines their rejection of science. And yes, that paper caused quite a bit of intrigue. 

Let’s go to that a second. But does this mean that a left wing person who is a conspiratorial thinker might be a climate science reject or those people are out there? Oh, yes. And it’s the conspiracy factor, having nothing to do with the ideology fact. 

And that’s what we found in those particular day. Rarer, I guess, than the than the free market idea. 

Oh, absolutely. So there is there. There they are. Absolutely. Yeah. No. 

And that’s what’s important to bear in mind, that we have not found that I mentioned this before there. There is no clear association between conspiratorial thinking and you’re your politics. You know, you can get it both ways, one way or the other. And and some particular conspiracies tend to have a political identification. For example, the notion that 9/11 was an inside job tends to be associated with people on the political left. Whereas this notion of the world government, you know, the United Nations is trying to create a world government that tends to be associated with. On the political right. So there are some individual theories that have a clear political identification. 

But by and large, if you look at the whole space of theories, they tend to be overall, I think, independent of politics. 

So, yes, this study created a dramatic response. And you might say that the response itself. You do say the response itself was comparators, conspiratorial, including alleging that the Australian government was involved in your study or the response to Isaac Ultimate. 

Yes, it became very interesting. And to be honest, when we published this first paper, I thought, yeah, OK. This is sort of, you know, a 4000 word paper that does make a point that’s interesting to know about. And so why not put it out there? Well, it turns out that the response was quite vigorous. 

And the people who engage in the rejection of climate science, you know, on blogs and so on, were stimulated in two. Well, lots of things. 

And is because the study was of blog readers that the bloggers were engaged so much. 

Right. I guess so. It was. Yes. So this is a topic, too. 

But and obviously the topic, too, I think it was the topic as well as the the fact that it was visitors to climate blogs who were the participants in that study. So I don’t know. I think there was a lot of reasons why they were quite upset about this study and began to create a lot of Internet traffic discussing this study. And some of it’s they. 

Thinking that was exhibited by the blogosphere, I’ll call it generically the blogosphere, because there were so many people involved that you really can’t talk about individuals. 

You can just talk about this this organism, this blogosphere out there, the type of thinking that they exhibited was, well, conspiratorial look, just like what we were studying. Much to our amazement. I mean, we were not prepared for this. But then we thought, well, this is really interesting. 

This is actually exactly what we’re talking about, because all sorts of hypotheses were advanced about myself and my coauthors in the study, which were. 

Quite peculiar, so, for example, we were accused of not having contact, contacted skeptic, quote unquote, bloggers to post the link to our initial study because it was an online study. 

And so the links were placed at various blogs. And I approached, I forget now four or five skeptic, quote unquote, blogs to post the link and none of them did. Well, I said that in the method section, as you would. I said, you know, I contacted four or five and none of them posted the link. 

Well. That was not accepted by the blogosphere. They said, well, now that can’t be right. That’s not true. 

And the reason is that they thought that if you only had blogs that accepted global warming, that therefore your sample would be wrong. But that’s not necessarily true because people of both persuasions read. 

Indeed. And all you have to do is look at the comments streams on on blogs that are people argue back. Yeah. People argue back. So where do the comments come from? You know, clearly people visit each other’s blogs. 

I mean, the proportion of skeptics versus people who endorse the science may be different between the different blogs. But there’s no question that people visit each other. So, I mean, that wasn’t, you know, in itself a fairly weak argument. 

But then the accusation that we hadn’t contact these people was just bizarre. I mean, if we hadn’t, why would we say that we did in in the method section. 

And so this hypothesis just, you know, kept on going. Kept on going. And initially, I was reluctant to release the names of these people I contacted because for ethical reasons, you know, I invited them to participate in research and they either didn’t answer or declined to do so. And I wanted to check whether it’s OK to release those names, which I did with my university’s lawyer ultimately. And he said, oh, go ahead, release the names. So I finally did. It turns out that I think pretty much all of the people or virtually all of the people I contacted had stated previously, just a week earlier, that they were never contacted by me or my research assistant. So they, you know, the dog ate their e-mail or something. You know, their inbox was was corrupted and they couldn’t retrieve the e-mail. Now, you would think that that would make people think, oh, OK, right, we were wrong, you know, Lewandowsky did contact the skeptic blogs. Here’s the email. I released the email. I showed it. You know, they were publicly available. Now, the way you published the emails you sent. I certainly published the names of the people. And in the meantime, a Freedom of Information request was launched to my university for release of those emails. So ultimately, they they were released by me, everything. And of course, I had the emails. And of course, I did contact those people. And in fact, some of them replied back and talked. You know, we had a little conversation by email, which they just forgot. 

They just forgot. Perfectly fine. 

Not a problem. I hold no grudge against that. Oh, that can happen. 

But it was very interesting how little things like that just blew up into this. Tempest of confected outrage among bloggers on the Internet. And then it went on from there. And and I don’t know, in the end there were something like nine or 10 different hypotheses that people on the blogosphere created about our our first paper. And so what we did was to write a second paper, a follow up paper. And the follow up paper basically analyzed the response of the blogosphere to our first paper. So we used Google to search the Internet daily for everything or anything that was related to myself and and the first paper. And we then looked at these various utterances from from a number of people, commenters, bloggers, you know, we just used anything out there. We cast the net as wide as possible. And we tried to identify their cognition and how how well, you know, what was going on there. 

And it turns out that we were able to to show. 

Yeah, actually, you know, this this does fulfill some of the criteria for conspiratorial thinking. Foremost among them, I guess, this nihilistic degree of suspicion. You mentioned the word paranoia earlier, and I think there was some trace element of that in there that people well, maybe it wasn’t paranoia, but suspicion, you know. I mean, think about it. What would it take to to think that I as a scientist, would put something in the method section such as, hey, I contacted these bloggers, but they didn’t reply. I mean, how suspicious do you have to be to think that I’m making this up? 

And I would I would take it up. It’s just my view of something like that is just that. Well. 

You’re opening yourself up to a pretty definite devastating refutation by making a clear factual claim that is extremely obviously refuted. It takes no effort to refute that. 

So it’s still possible you did it. But if so, you’re the person who goes around doing that. You’re going to have created a lot of problems for yourself, for your career. So, yeah, it’s it’s like very few people go and make statements that are so obviously refutable definitively that are wrong. It’s like walking into a giant mess. Yeah. Yeah. 

So and that was a common theme of everything that was underlying the thinking about our papers that, you know, the premise was there has to be something wrong. 

You know, the paper cannot be right. Therefore, whatever the cost, we must find the reason why it is wrong. 

But this saga now has another leg, which is that the study the second study is. Taken down. How do I put this by the journal, which is looking into some kind of investigation? 

What do you have to say about that? So, of course. Well, what happened is that the paper got here. 

I mean, if you wanted to give your critics ammunition, that would count. 

Well, absolutely. So, no, I don’t think the saga ends there. 

It’s basically let me let me just tell you what happened. What happened was that we the paper was peer reviewed. 

The second paper, it was published in an online journal. And it was met with a what’s the best word? 

An assault, I suppose all this blogosphere act by all the blogosphere activity continued. 

They continue to do what they had done to begin with against the first paper, which is to erupt into considerable outrage. And they express their outrage in the usual manner, which is, you know, blog posts, comments on blogs and the, you know, in invariably complaining emails sent to universities, my university and and in this instance, also the journals involved for both the first and the second paper. 

And what happened is that the volume of that complaint was sufficient for the journal of the second paper to this online publication for them to say, well, this is a bit hot. 

And they took the paper down. And while they left the abstract up and they put up a notice saying that this paper is subject to complaints and it has not been retracted. But we have taken it down while we consider those complaints. Now, the complaints basically in a nutshell, are of the same type. Pretty much verbatim as what you find on blog posts and blog comments. For the most part. So anybody who wants to know what the complaints are just, you know, look at the blogs. But they can be found. 

They can be found. There’s plenty of them out there. And that’s where the situation currently stands. 

And, yeah, that’s the usual pattern that people scientists who say things that are inconvenient are the target of all sorts of things. Complaints, accusations, freedom of information requests. That’s standard practice. But what the people who launched those complaints, what they never then tell the public is that they don’t go anywhere. Those complaints never go anywhere. They haven’t gone anywhere in my case because of e-mail university. They haven’t gone anywhere. Visa V, the University of Dozens, if not hundreds of my colleagues and climate signs who’ve likewise been subjected to complaints and freedom of information request. And I view them as basically being part of a campaign that is being waged against scientists who are reporting inconvenient data. And in my instance, against scientists who are actually shining a spotlight on the activities of people who deny science, which I will continue to do. 

So let me raise an objection. I mean, I can see a contrary hypothesis for what happened here, which makes let me put it this way. It makes it seem less like some sort of special form of conspiracy think. I mean, let’s just posit, for whatever reason, your paper kicked up a hornet’s nest. People were upset. I think that’s beyond dispute. When you’re upset, it naturally follows. They are motivated to criticize or discredit you because they’re upset and they just have negative affect feelings toward you in general. So they’re motivated to believe negative things about you. 

So then they just do. And it’s not any different from Democrats being motivated. Believe bad things about Republicans and vice versa is not different in kind. It’s just. Motivation occurred and criticism occurred, is is it really more than that? Well, I mean, it’s just know in proportion to the level of the motivation, which in this case was relatively high. 

Oh, yeah. Look, I think you’re absolutely right. I’m not disagreeing with you at all. 

So the. 

But I guess the the question is whether or not you can characterize it as as conspiratorial thinking or whether that’s different in kind or whether it’s different in kind. Well, let me bounce the question back to you. 

If Republicans are upset at President Obama and because they’re upset at him and they have motivation to be upset at him for for whatever reason, if they then say he wasn’t born in Hawaii in order to discredit him or to question his legitimacy, is that just motivated opposition or doesn’t stray? 

I’m just saying it might blend seamlessly with all the other things they say. You know, I mean, so, yeah. 

I mean, I guess I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer. I’m just. 

Well, I think I think it’s it’s an interesting question because it got me to think about it. 

And I agree with you that clearly this is just motivated opposition. And what basically what you’re saying is they just opposed my paper and they just threw anything at it that they could find. And I totally agree that, as you know and in a sense that’s understandable, you kick up a hornet’s nest and they’ll just throw away everything at you. That’s true. I totally agree. Now, the question is whether that particular stuff they threw at me, whether that fulfills criteria for conspiratorial thinking above and beyond, just making stuff up or. 

And the question is, when someone when people are motivated, do they all respond the same way, grasping at any kind of straw? Or does some people say, no, you know, that idea doesn’t sound like it would work. I mean, you know, in other words, you need additional criterion to say that when motivated, some people conspires and some will die. 

Yeah, no, that’s a very good point. 

Well, you see that the thing we went to great lengths when we wrote the second paper, the follow up paper, to not actually comment on the validity of the criticisms of our first paper because we weren’t interested in that. I mean, you know, we could agree, but all of these hypotheses, but we chose not to because what we were interested in is just to say, well, hang on, irrespective of whether or not the criticism is is is ultimately true. 

How is it being you know what what are the thought processes by which people are pursuing those criticisms? And that’s where the conspiratorial thinking comes in. And at the very beginning, I started out today saying, hey, there are true conspiracies. What differentiates conspiratorial thinking is how it is being done. And one of its characteristics, one of his attributes is the cell ceiling nature of it. And we observed some very self sealing, thinking or processing in response to our first paper, where ultimately, as you also said at the outset, I was gosh. 

Well, ultimately, I was held responsible, too, for for a an online newspaper that was created in Australia called The Conversation dot com. It’s a fantastic newspaper written by largely by academics, experts in their field. It’s a terrific initiative. It’s supported by all universities in Australia and and some branches of the government, the research institutions. Well, all of a sudden, that was my responsibility. And then the Australian government was put into the picture and somehow I was responsible for the Australian government as well, or vice versa. Maybe they were responsible for me, but there was the sort of self sealing expansion of the conspiracy to involve other people. So that’s what we were talking about. That was what we’re talking about, you know, ignoring evidence, focusing on on tiny anomalies at the expense of losing track of the overall picture, the typical aspects of conspiratorial thinking. 

And arguably, they were we we suggest that they were present in our response to our first paper. 

Fair enough. And and we can not on this show. We do not have infinite length. We have gone some time already talking about this. We cannot get into all of the claims, counterclaims and allegations, but people can certainly read about them. And I bet that there will be more developments in this story. So I just want to wrap up the interview with the obvious question. What on earth do you advise to do to respond to or deal with conspiratorial thinking? Because Limpert, this way, it doesn’t sound like there’s an obvious way to. Make something, as you call it, self sealing. 

Spring, a leak date. Absolutely. That’s a very important question because conspiratorial thinking is with us. It is widespread and as you noted it. 

Props up whenever there is an event out there. Be at the Boston Marathon or 9/11 or indeed climate change. Well, I think there’s a number of answers. The first answer is that it’s very important to understand how it operates and that it exists. And it is important to understand in connection of climate science, at least, that the number of people who engage in that kind of thinking is rather small in our sample. 

It was quite small. It was a significant number, but it was not a large number. So there is a small number of people who engage in that. 

And that’s important too, too, to bear that in mind. 

And so rather than engaging with conspiracy theorists, which is completely impossible, there’s absolutely no point in having a discussion with somebody who thinks that 9/11 was an inside job. 

You know, you get into the weeds and you’ll never come out rather than doing that. 

I think it is very important to talk to the vast majority of people who do not engage in conspiratorial thinking into address messages to those people. And one of the things in the case of climate science that we have found that I found in other research is that what is very successful or promising, at least, is to tell people and remind them how great the consensus, the scientific consensus really is. There is a huge gap between the actual scientific consensus. I mentioned earlier about 97 percent of climate scientists give or take. A few agree on the basic premises. There’s a huge gap between that actual consensus and what the public thinks the consensus is. The public thinks it’s only around somewhere between 50 out of 160 out of 100, something like that. Now, if you can narrow that gap, I have data to show in a number of different experiments that if you tell people, hey, 97 percent of all scientists agree. Right. And then I ask them, should we cut carbon emissions? They’re more likely to say yes to cutting emissions than if they hadn’t been reminded of the consensus. So that is something that works with the vast majority of people who are not engaged in a conspiracy. And really what we should do is we should have a civil discourse in in society where we’re debating how to deal with climate change. We shouldn’t really be sidetracked or distracted by people who engage in conspiratorial thinking and say it’s all a hoax. As Senator Inhofe has done in his book. 

Well, on that note, I guess it’s been at least been a delightful sidetracking this conversation. So, Stephen Lewandowsky, thank you. Thank you. I’m sorry. Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us at point of inquiry, dawg. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org, or you can respond on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

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I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney