Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Conspiracy of Conspiracists

By Peter Bowditch

Research into the psychology of conspiracy theorists has been withdrawn from publication following complaints that the research is itself a conspiracy.

The cover story in the June edition of Australasian Science, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Science”, described research into the psychology of conspiracy theorists by three academics: Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles Gignac and Klaus Oberauer.

I’ve had an interest in this area for a long time, so it was nice to apply a bit of confirmation bias when I saw that their research had confirmed one of the things I had noticed over the years – that people rarely if believe in only one conspiracy, and that belief in one conspiracy theory can be a useful predictor of the person’s position on others.

Anti-vaccination campaigners are quite often AIDS deniers and opposed to GM foods; 9/11 “Truthers” can be relied on to believe that the HAARP project is designed to control weather in conjunction with chemtrails behind airliners; and climate change deniers know that it is just part of a wider government plan to destroy capitalism and enforce the hegemony of the United Nations over governments.

The title of their research paper was “NASA Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore, (climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science”. There was nothing very controversial in it, and it replicated the findings of previous research in the area.

Well, the authors thought it was uncontroversial until they started getting feedback accusing them of all sorts or perfidy. Their methods were attacked as being unprofessional and possibly fraudulent, the existence of people interviewed or surveyed was questioned, and they were almost openly accused of committing scientific fraud.

What was strange was that complaints didn’t come from 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust deniers or many of the other species of conspiracy theorists but came from climate change deniers. Given that the title of the paper contained the word “climate”, this should not have come as a surprise, because climate change denial is possibly the best organised (and some would say funded) opposition to science around.

The authors found the flow of accusations that they were part of some great conspiracy themselves interesting, and wrote a follow-up paper titled “Recursive Fury: Conspiracist Ideation in the Blogosphere in Response to Research on Conspiracist Ideation”, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Then the fun resumed. Apparently this paper was an affront to those honest maverick scientists who have been exposing the climate change “hoax” for the past 20 years. The Frontiers in Psychology web page that used to host the paper now just displays the abstract, plus the following notice:

This article, first published by Frontiers on 18 March 2013, has been the subject of complaints. Given the nature of some of these complaints, Frontiers has provisionally removed the link to the article while these issues are investigated, which is being done as swiftly as possible and which Frontiers management considers the most responsible course of action. The article has not been retracted or withdrawn. Further information will be provided as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.

I’ve read the “Recursive Fury” paper, and it seems to be a quite reasonable analysis of the way that certain groups who rely for their existence on a shared ignorance or rejection of science react to criticism in two ways – they tighten the circle of wagons around themselves and their dogma, and they increase the noise about how all critics are part of the conspiracy.

I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been accused of being in the pay of pharmaceutical companies for my stand on vaccination and alternative medicine, although I have to give top marks to the Holocaust denier who accused me of being on the payroll of “the Jews”. It’s standard practice for these groups, and all this paper did was analyse a real-world manifestation of the problem.

It is rather ironic that a group who claim that their views are suppressed by the scientific publication industry (but who seem to have untrammelled access to mainstream media) should now be trying to suppress the publication of something in the scientific literature because it hurts their feelings. I realise that I am exposing myself to accusations of being a hypocrite and an apologist for warmism by implying a conspiracy of conspiracists to suppress the article, but that’s a risk we supporters of scientism have to take.

Which reminds me of some “red flag” words used to discredit opponents. If you see anyone described as a “warmist”, “evolutionist”, “Darwinist”, “vaccinationist” or a follower of “scientism” you can often stop reading. The writer has lost the argument. Name-calling and ad hominem have their place in kindergarten battles. They have no place in the discussion of science.

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