Science Denial Always Involves A Component Of Conspiratorial Thought

Stephan Lewandowsky

Stephan Lewandowsky

Attacks on scientists and their research are very common in the public debate surrounding global warming. The attacks don’t need to make any sense nor is there a need for merit to the raised criticisms. For climate science deniers it’s more about maintaining their ideological mental armour so they can keep their world view in tact.

In this arena two papers by Stephan Lewandowsky stand out by the sheer tenacity and vitriolic nature of the attacks. The paper NASA Faked the Moon Landing − Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science was, and still is, relentlessly attacked for the inconvenient results it contains.

This study found a small, but significant, relation between rejecting climate science and accepting other conspiracy theories. For anyone who spends any time on the internet this will not be a shocking result. Especially if you’ve had any interaction with creationists, a group who also often rejects human caused global warming.

Reading materials from Alex Jones, Mike Adams, or Anthony Watts will also demonstrate this. It will expose you to a wide range of anti-science ideas and strange theories about why scientists are wrong.

But a science denier doesn’t likes it when they’re called a science denier. They don’t see themselves as a science denier thanks to their biasses and motivated reasoning. It’s not they who are wrong, it’s the majority of experts who are wrong. So of course Lewandowsky’s paper got attacked relentlessly and in strange ways. Which of course gave him, and his colleagues, a lot of material to study.

They used this for the follow-up paper Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation. It’s a fascinating read about a wide range of accusations about scamming, faked data, biases, nefarious intent, the list goes on.  Though my personal favourite is the following:

Initial attention of the blogosphere also focused on the method reported by LOG12 [NASA Faked the Moon Landing − Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science], which stated: “Links were posted on 8 blogs (with a pro-science science stance but with a diverse audience); a further 5 ‘skeptic’ (or ‘skeptic’-leaning) blogs were approached but none posted the link.” Speculation immediately focused on the identity of the 5 “skeptic” bloggers. Within short order, 25 “skeptical” bloggers had come publicly forward ( to state that they had not been approached by the researchers. Of those 25 public declarations, 5 were by individuals who were invited to post links to the study by LOG12 in 2010. Two of these bloggers had engaged in correspondence with the research assistant for further clarification.

That is just mind-boggling. Some actually said they were never contacted while they corresponded about this survey for more information. These claims then fed into conspiracy thinking about why no ‘skeptical’ bloggers were contacted. It shows perfectly how strange and irrational the discussions about climate science can get.

Of course due to this paper very clearly documenting this irrational behaviour and conspiratorial exchanges made it a prime target for climate science deniers. It was just too damaging for them to not attack this paper. So again they started sending in complaints to the authors, the university, the journal, and even the journal that published the first paper (why they did that is beyond me). Carpeting everyone in complaint after complaint and eventually the journal ran for cover.

The journal Frontiers in Psychology eventually retracted the recursive fury paper after the barrage of complaints. Not because of any problems with the paper itself, but because of legal concerns (bolding mine):

In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical, and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.

This is so wrong that this happened. You should never retract a paper that is not flawed or unethical. This paper analyzed public statements by public figures who often try to get as much media exposure as possible. You’re responsible for what you say in public and you can’t complain when those statements are analyzed by academics.

When Lewandowsky asked the university if they were willing to host the paper he got the following reply:

“I’m entirely comfortable with you publishing the paper on the UWA web site. You and the University can easily be sued for any sorts of hurt feelings or confected outrage, and I’d be quite comfortable processing such a phony legal action as an insurance matter.”

— Kimberley Heitman, B.Juris, LLB, MACS, CT, General Counsel, University of Western Australia

You can read the full paper on the University of Western Australia’s website and I commend them for this stance. Academic freedom should not be suppressed like this.

During my visit at the AGU 2014 Fall Meeting I interviewed Lewandowsky about these two papers and the kerfuffle that followed. The interview gives a great overview about the research, the results, and what happened. Well worth the watch if you’re interested in a bit more detail.

As usual you can find the source listing and used media resources in the video transcript section. Transcript for the video hasn’t been added yet, but will be as soon as possible.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.