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A new psychology study has strongly linked rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change to conspiratorial thinking.  The study, led by Dr. Stephan Lewandowsky, builds on his previous research connecting a general belief in conspiracy theories with denial of established findings on climate change – research that has been, perhaps not surprisingly, itself accused of being the product of a conspiracy.

In Dr. Lewandowsky’s most recent study, Recurrent Fury: Conspiratorial Discourse in the Blogosphere Triggered by Research on the Role of Conspiracist Ideation in Climate Denial, study participants were given unidentified comments from “climate ‘skeptic’ blogs” along with scientific critiques from PhD students, and the participants were then asked to grade the excerpts for aspects of conspiratorial thinking.  The participants identified, to an extreme degree, the PhD students’ comments as objective scientific critiques, and the blog comments as conspiracist ideation,[1] which Dr. Lewandowsky defines as “a person’s propensity to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations.”[2]

Specifically, study participants reviewed comments reacting to a 2013 Lewandowsky paper titled NASA Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science.  This initial study had conducted online surveys and found that endorsement of several conspiracy theories (theories such as NASA faked the moon landing, or that the CIA killed Martin Luther King, Jr.) was strongly correlated with rejecting established climate science as well as rejecting other established scientific findings.

The NASA Faked the Moon Landing paper was met with a strong reaction, much of it negative.  The authors received hate mail, were subjected to onerous open records requests seeking fodder for accusations of impropriety (which were unsubstantiated), and were targeted by a “sock puppet” email scam looking for embarrassing material.[3]  There were also numerous accusations that the study’s authors were fanatics out to make self-described “climate skeptics” look bad,[4] and an online YouTube video comparing Dr. Lewandowsky with Hitler received thousands of views.[5]

Dr. Lewandowsky and his cohorts were then galvanized to look more deeply into online comments discussing this initial paper, which resulted in another study later in 2013, Recursive Fury:  Conspiracist Ideation in the Blogosphere in Response to Research on Conspiracist Ideation.  The Recursive Fury paper found that the blog comments exhibited high levels of conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking – but “nobody likes being called a conspiracy theorist, and thus climate contrarians really didn’t appreciate Recursive Fury.”[6]  The study was accused of being defamatory and the journal that published it, Frontiers in Psychology, made the shocking decision to issue a retraction because even though it had no “issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. . . the legal context is insufficiently clear.”[7]  (Dr. Lewandowsky’s institution, the University of Western Australia, also faced “a barrage of complaints,” although the university vocally supported the researchers.[8])  The journal was widely criticized for “toss[ing] authors under a bus,”[9] and the incident led to several resignations at Frontiers in Psychology and related journals.[10]

With this backdrop, the just-published Recurrent Fury study concludes there is a “growing body of evidence [that] has implicated conspiracist ideation in the rejection of scientific propositions.”  Recurrent Fury notes there is also a “need to educate the public about the difference between scientific and non-scientific forms of discourse. . . . [A]cademic discourse, however critical, does not involve the attempt to silence inconvenient voices, which has become an increasingly clearly stated goal of elements of the climate ‘skeptic’ blogosphere.”[11]


Lauren Kurtz is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to protect the scientific endeavor.  For more information, please visit www.climatesciencedefensefund.org


[1] http://www.technologyreview.com/view/539286/conspiracists-concur-climate-change-is-a-colossal-cover-up/

[2] http://jspp.psychopen.eu/article/view/443/html

[3] http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/november-13/the-subterranean-war-on-science.html

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/jul/08/climate-denial-linked-to-conspiratorial-thinking-in-new-study

[5] http://jspp.psychopen.eu/article/view/443/html

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2014/mar/21/contrarians-bully-climate-change-journal-retraction

[7] http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00293/full

[8] http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/rf1.html

[9] http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2014/04/06/a-conspiracy-and-dunces-journal-frontiers-tosses-authors-under-bus/

[10] http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2014/04/climate-of-intimidation-frontiers.html

[11] http://jspp.psychopen.eu/article/view/443/html

One comment

  1. This is a variation on a typical totalitarian ploy to accuse those who resist of being mentally ill. That is worse than abysmal behavior because it brings up the specter of sending critics to mental institutions for ‘thought crimes.’ If only George Orwell were alive today, he would understand this perfectly.

    In the climate arena, the worst conspiracy advocates are those who continually accuse scientists of working for the oil companies or some right-wing organization if they dare to disagree with the prevailing paradigm. Most of us do not and are willing to defend legitimate science for free. That is the only way our profession will survive these latest attacks on scientific integrity.

    When you talk about “denial of established findings on climate change,” you seem unaware of the raging controversy between various scientific camps, because you are only paying attention to the politics and have never considered the science from real scientists.

    You have likely been sold the notion that climate science is “settled.” If that were the case, why would we be wasting billions of dollars a year on this subject? Similarly the elementary notion that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere guarantees warming does not fit with the claim that climate alarmists need ever more money to model our extremely complex climate system.

    As the great MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen has pointed out, you cannot have it both ways: extremely simple and extremely complex at the same time! The correct answer is “complex.” And the further correct answer is that the climate models based on carbon dioxide do a very poor job of what they are supposed to do: predict our climate into the future. This is a fatal flaw that takes down the entire paradigm.

    This will probably elicit some sort of claim that there are only a handful of skeptical scientists and all are mentally ill. But the Petition Project objecting to climate hysteria gathered the signatures of 31,000 scientists, 9,000 of us with PhDs:


    Are all of these scientists mentally ill? What about Dr. Edward Teller, MIT Professor of Meteorology Richard Lindzen, and Professor of Physics Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University? These great scientists signed too.

    In short, the accusations promulgated here are a despicable attack on legitimate scientists in an attempt to silence critics.

    Gordon J. Fulks, PhD (Physics)
    Corbett, Oregon USA

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