Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Filtering Science through Conspiracy

By Peter Bowditch

A new study finds that people who tend to believe in conspiracies are also likely to reject a consensus of scientific opinion on issues like climate change and vaccination.

A supposed journalist once exposed me as a member of the Illuminati, the world’s most secret secret society. The revelation was made on the website of noted kook David Icke – the man who thinks the British Royal Family are lizards. Another journalist, the editor of a high-circulation Australian “alternative” magazine, disputed the claim, not on the basis that the Illuminati doesn’t exist but because he didn’t think I was smart enough to be a member. I told him that setting membership qualifications was above my pay grade and in any case I couldn’t discuss it.

So at the risk of starting a conspiracy theory that I write about conspiracy theories to cover up my involvement in conspiracies, I’m going to write about them again.

In September I wrote about research that indicated that acceptance of one conspiracy theory was a reasonable indication of acceptance of others. This was not really surprising as a lack of critical thinking ability would be expected to generalise across various belief systems, but it was good to see some research confirming this.

The authors, Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles E. Gignac and Klaus Oberauer, have now published further research in PLoS ONE (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075637) looking at the effect of political leanings on the acceptance of some current issues that are often clouded by accusations of conspiracy – climate change, genetically modified foods and vaccination.

Their initial assumption was what “common sense” would predict – right wing thought would lead to a rejection of climate change on economic grounds (e.g. too expensive to fix, it’s all happened before so why worry, too much restriction on business activity), while left bias would lead to rejection of genetically modified organisms and vaccination (due to the domination by Big Pharma and Big Farmer, controls on consumer freedom of choice etc.).

What they found, however, was a little surprising.

The results on climate change denial were as expected – rejection is driven by opposition to regulation and at times can look almost totally political or commercial. For instance, I know several long-term and very strong and active supporters of the skeptical movement in Australia who are devout climate change deniers. All are open about their political affiliation and one makes no secret of his involvement in the mining industry.

However, the connection between politics – either left or right wing – and resistance to GMOs and vaccination was a lot less clear, as has been the case in earlier research by others.

It looks like common sense is not a useful tool for making predictions about how political alignment affects attitudes to some of the major issues facing society. But one thing that links all of these issues is that they are based on scientific research, and in each case there is a preponderance of science and scientists pointing one way and a small minority of scientists who reject the consensus.

This is nothing new, and there have always been those who claim that the dominant paradigm in some area of science is wrong. Sometimes mavericks are right and accepted knowledge is either replaced, extended or significantly modified. Most of the time, however, they are wrong and following their ideas leads to dead ends and wasted effort and resources.

The authors looked for something else that might be a predictor of opinion on these issues and found one – conspiracy ideation. Many conspiracy theories are based on the idea that there are secrets known only to a minority and that the majority who follow the orthodox position reject or suppress the truth. It should come as no surprise, then, that people with strong beliefs in active conspiracies reject the majority view in matters of scientific debate.

The PLoS ONE paper concludes:

Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested. ... The involvement of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science has implications for science communicators.

I was recently part of a forum discussing the public understanding of science. We talked about the state of science education and the lack of good science writing in the media, but it seems we might have missed the real problem.

My local newsagent carries three or four copies of the three Australian popular science magazines and a couple of imports, but has large stacks of magazines touting hidden alien bodies and the dangers of GMOs and vaccines. The last sentence in the conclusion above is something that everyone trying to communicate science to the public needs to recognise – the barrier might not be scientific illiteracy per se but a mindset that treats all science with suspicion. We have to think differently about how we get the message out or it might never be received.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).