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Conspiracists Concur: Climate Change Is a Colossal Cover-Up

Why science denialism and conspiracy theory walk together, suspiciously.

A group of social scientists headed by Stephan Lewandowsky has released a study of online blog comments, concluding that climate-change deniers are strongly prone to conspiratorial thinking. That climate deniers are also conspiracy buffs might seem like one of those dog-bites-man findings for which social scientists are often ridiculed (“People in love do foolish things, study concludes”). But the background to this study is actually more interesting than its conclusion. 

Published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, the new paper, “Recurrent Fury: Conspiratorial Discourse in the Blogosphere,” is based on an examination of blog comments in response to the authors’ previous paper, “Recursive Fury: Conspiracist Ideation in the Blogosphere”—itself a follow-up to their original study, “NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science,” published in Psychological Science in 2012. In other words, commenters responding (mostly angrily) to two studies of conspiratorial thought have accused the authors of being part of a massive conspiracy. 

The thinking of conspiracy believers is, of course, recursive by nature: all evidence that contradicts their thesis is simply more evidence confirming the nefarious cover-up at work. The Warren Commission report, which in 888 exhaustive pages demonstrated conclusively that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy, confirmed that the CIA, or Cuba, or the Mob, was actually behind the murder. The latest report on global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is—aha!—proof that a shadowy one-world-government body, or the Trilateral Commission, or Hillary Clinton, is perpetrating “The Great Global Warming Swindle.”

That last phrase, by the way, was the title of a 2007 “documentary” on the U.K.’s Channel 4 that was shortlisted in the Best Documentary category in the British television industry’s 2008 Broadcast Awards. Conspiracy thought sometimes pays.

The British newspaper The Telegraph has helpfully compiled a list of the most widely cited climate-change theories that shows how ecumenical deniers are in their thinking: among the top theories are a plot against the United States, a plot against Asia, and a plot against Africa. A vast right-wing conspiracy, or a dark plot from the left. Perhaps my own favorite is the notion that climate change was dreamed up by Margaret Thatcher as part of her campaign to break the U.K. coal unions.

In March National Geographic, a publication hardly famed for tackling controversial subjects, published a cover story on the backlash titled “The War on Science.” The story’s premise was that denialism (on climate change, vaccinations, genetically modified organisms, and so on) and the conspiratorial beliefs that underlie it have never been more potent. I’m not so sure about that; the Spanish Inquisition, for example, gives nothing away in fervor or fantasy to today’s paranoid irrationalists. But it’s clear that more and more people are retreating, in the face of unsettling scientific evidence that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs, into impregnable intellectual worlds of their own creation. 

Geographic writer Joel Achenbach mentions the work of Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, who has traced the link between the level of scientific literacy and acceptance of anthropomorphic climate change. Surprisingly, having a clearer understanding of scientific principles does not make you more likely to acknowledge the facts of global warming; it just makes you likelier to hold stronger views, in one direction or the other.  

“Science literacy promoted polarization on climate, not consensus,” writes Achenbach. We use scientific evidence to reinforce conclusions that spring from our beliefs, our personality, and our worldview. A well-designed experiment is no match for a Weltanschauung. This is most clearly understood by Thomas Pynchon, the greatest modern novelist of paranoia. “There is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia,” Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow. The alternative is “anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”

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