Source: Point of Inquiry
Date: 03/06/2013
Event: Stephan Lewandowsky: The Mind of the Conspiracy Theorist
Credit: Point of Inquiry, also to Geoff Chambers for transcribing this

  • Professor Stephan Lewandowsky: Cognitive psychologist
  • Chris Mooney: American journalist, author of The Republican Brain


Chris MooneyThis is Point of Inquiry from Monday, June 3rd, 2013. On the show this week we talk to cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky about the mind of the conspiracy theorist.


Chris MooneyWelcome to Point of Inquiry. I'm Chris Mooney. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Centre for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. If you don't already, please follow us on Twitter @pointofinquiry and also on Facebook at /pointofinquiry.

From 9/11, to the death of Osama bin Laden, to the Boston Bombings, there's been a consistently strange and troubling reaction on the part of some members of the public. I'm referring to the people - a minority, but a surprisingly large one - who always seem to think there's a cover up. The U.S. government, they feel, was behind the attacks on, uh, itself. And as for Bin Laden - well, he ain't really dead. These people are called conspiracy theorists, and their particular form of irrationality is uniquely befuddling. It's been often denounced, but more rarely understood, and that's too bad, because conspiratorial thinking clearly plays an important role in science denial, on matters ranging from the connection between HIV and AIDS, to the safety of vaccines, to global warming.

Now fortunately, these conspiracists are now becoming the subject of research and study - and our guest today is helping to lead this inquiry. His name is Steven [sic] Lewandowsky, he's a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia, and at the University of Bristol in the UK, and he's the author of a recent study with the delicious title "NASA Faked the Moon Landings, Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science" - which drew some small amount of attention, especially when it was followed by a second study of the conspiracy theorists who rejected the first study for conspiratorial reasons. We didn't have to actually talk with Professor Lewandowsky by phone in Australia, he happens to be right here in DC in our studio, so Steven Lewandowsky, welcome to Point of Inquiry.

Stephan Lewandowsky: [Laughs.] Chris, thanks so much, it's a pleasure to be here.

Chris MooneyIt's great to have you. So, conspiracy theorists - let's talk about who they are, and the beliefs they espouse, first, generally. You define a conspiracy as, quote, the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organisations. Does that mean that by definition all conspiracy theories are irrational?

Stephan Lewandowsky: No, not necessarily, because there are also true conspiracies, for example, Watergate comes to mind, and the Iran-Contra scandal, which was very difficult to invent, I think, I thought at the time. Reality sort of outpaced my capacity to invent strange things.

So the crucial thing for me as a cognitive scientist is to look at conspiratorial thinking, not based on what they're trying to explain, but how they do it. The important thing about understanding conspiratorial thinking is the thought process itself. And so one of the characteristics of conspiratorial thinking is that it is "self-sealing" - that's what we call it, and that means that any evidence to the contrary, any evidence against the conspiracy is interpreted to be in actual fact evidence for the conspiracy.

So, um, basically what happens is that the circle of conspirators is broadened whenever there's evidence to the contrary, and let's just jump straight into climate change, a hugely controversial issue that involves a lot of conspiratorial thinking. Now you may recall that a couple of years ago some emails were illegally obtained.

Chris Mooney: Climategate.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Indeed, Climategate, as it was called at the time, and those emails were spread around the internet and people interpreted them, cherry-picked them to death, and, you know, created this theory that climate scientists are corrupt and engaged in a conspiracy for God knows what reason, I've no idea why they would do that, but anyhow that's - so the story went. Now, what's interesting is that there have been countless investigations of these scientists. I've lost track, I mean at least six or seven -

Chris Mooney: Something like six.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Six? Maybe, yeah okay it's a good number, so six in different countries - I think there were three in the UK, another three here in the US, and guess what? They all found that there was absolutely no case to answer. They, those scientists, did nothing wrong.

Chris Mooney: So, conspiracy.

Stephan Lewandowsky: It's a conspiracy, but now here's the interesting thing. The interesting thing is that now those investigations are labelled as a whitewash -

Chris Mooney: Right.

Stephan Lewandowsky: - and therefore the conspiracy now broadens from initially just involving climate scientists to now also involving, ah, the UK government, the US government, um, the EPA, any, you know, any government agency involved in this has now become part of the conspiracy, and that is very typical of conspiratorial thinking, and that I think is what is differentiating it from other ways of interpreting the world. 

Chris MooneySome other aspects I gleaned from some of your papers. It's always a negative secret, not a positive secret. I found that was interesting, you pointed out that, you know, no-one ever has a conspiracy theory about a birthday party surprise, it's never a good thing.

Stephan Lewandowsky[Laughs.] That's right. Indeed. And that gets us right to the issue of what's the purpose of a conspiracy theory. Why is that people hold on to conspiracy theories? And that's an interesting question, and I think, um, what is happening there is that people are in, you know, they have a need to explain bad things. Let's look at something tragic like the Boston bombing or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I mean those are horrible, horrifying events, and in a sense they were completely random, they were unexpected, they came out of nowhere, and that's what makes them incredibly frightening, because the fact that they are unpredictable, random, and boom! all of a sudden they're there, that's scary, isn't it? It's really scary. 

So, how do you deal with that? Well, one way in which people can deal with scary events is to create an explanation that puts some sense into this event. And it turns out there is data to suggest that, um, if you explain something through a conspiracy by having an enemy, that that is actually making you feel better. It is actually giving you a sense of control as a person, um, that if you can explain an unexpected event through a malicious enemy that's out to get you, that sounds terrible, but in actual fact it gives people a sense of control and makes them feel better.

Chris MooneySo this leads to the question that I think I was thinking as I read your papers a lot, which is: "is there something unique about conspiratorial thinking, or is it just part of a person's array of responses to situations?" In other words, is there something about this particular way of thinking that's a syndrome or that a certain kind of person does all the time, or is it just, you know, you face uncertainty, you need an answer, or you face - let's call it an assault on ideology - you need an answer, you need to know why the other people are wrong, and so your mind just spins things out. Which one is it?

Stephan Lewandowsky: Well, I think it's a mixture of both, I would be inclined to say. There is some evidence that conspiratorial thinking is usually fairly widespread, that if a person believes in one conspiracy theory, they're likely to believe in others as well. There is a statistical association. So people who think that MI5 killed Princess Diana, they probably also think that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act by himself when he killed JFK, but that there was -

Chris Mooney: That they're more likely than just the average population..

Stephan LewandowskyExactly. So there is a statistical association. People tend to cluster in such a manner that if they endorse one theory, they tend to also endorse others. And that association is actually fairly strong. So I think to some extent there is a cognitive style there. That's what I would call it. I think it is just a way of looking at the world, by having the style of thinking that invokes conspiracies very readily, so there are clearly people who fall within that cluster of thinking on the one hand. Um, so, on the other hand however I think it is also situation-specific. And let's talk about science a little bit, because the reason I got interested in conspiratorial thinking is only because I'm, I'm a scientist and I'm passionate about being a scientist because I happen to think that that is probably the best way humans have discovered to date to understand the world around them.

Chris Mooney: We share that view on this show.

Stephan LewandowskyI'm sure you do! And so I was fascinated by the fact that there are so many people out there who reject scientific findings that they don't like for other reasons. Now, it turns out that if you look at that, if you look at science denial, you find that's there's almost invariably a conspiratorial streak to that rejection. So, let me give you a few examples. People who reject the link between HIV and AIDS very often think that the US government, um, created AIDS - God knows why - you know, there's a number of hypotheses that these people advance, but there's always a conspiratorial element in there. People who reject, um, vaccinations in particular are often very aggressive in their rejection and resorting to conspiracy, saying that -

Chris Mooney: They think that government is involved somewhere, or Big Pharma is involved somewhere...

Stephan LewandowskyBig Pharma, government, indeed, so, and then finally if you look at climate science I think there it is perhaps more obvious than anywhere else. For example, we have a sitting US senator from Oklahoma.

Chris Mooney: Senator Inhofe?

Stephan LewandowskyIndeed, indeed and I should add that I was at the University of Oklahoma for five years in the nineteen nineties so I have some association with Oklahoma although I've never met Senator Inhofe. Now he wrote a book last year called The Greatest Hoax - How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

Chris Mooney: That puts it right front and centre.

Stephan LewandowskyIt does, doesn't it, I mean, you know, he's saying: "Hey! Hello! Global warming is a hoax, it's a conspiracy by scientists". Now he's actually written a book with that title. Well, what else do you need, in a sense...

Chris Mooney: It's a catchy title.

Stephan LewandowskyIt's a catchy title, it's right out there, he's accusing scientists of conspiring for God knows what reason, I still haven't understood what we're supposed to be doing, and why we're doing it.

Chris Mooney: They think it's ideological, they think that you want to bend the world's governments to your way of seeing things...

Stephan LewandowskyOh yes, the world government, indeed, yes, absolutely.

Chris Mooney: But just to be fair, they think it's an ideology counter to theirs, and you do anything you can to advance it including making the puppets move.

Stephan LewandowskyExactly. [Laughs.] That's exactly what it is. Now what's interesting about this is that, when you start to think about it, given how overwhelming the evidence is in all the cases that I've mentioned, when you're looking at HIV and AIDS, when you're looking at the effectiveness of vaccinations, when you're looking at the evidence for climate change, it is so absolutely overwhelming that, if you can't handle that, what are you gonna do, other than invent a conspiracy amongst the scientists? I mean, in a sense it's a very logical thing to do. If 97 out of a hundred climate scientists tell us that the globe is warming from greenhouse gas emissions, well, and you don't like that for whatever reason, maybe because you got money from Exxon, um, what are you going to do about it? Well, really, the only thing you can do is to say, “Well, those 97 out of a hundred climate scientists are engaged in a conspiracy”. And so a lot of people now are saying that. And it's exactly the same with AIDS denial. You know, the evidence is absolutely totally overwhelming, so how do you dismiss that? Well, President Mbeke of South Africa who rejected the evidence that linked HIV to AIDS, he called it "racist Western medicine", and therefore was able to dismiss it basically by invoking a conspiracy, and the same is true wherever you look -  when there's science denial involved, the people who don't like the science are often invoking a conspiracy.

Chris Mooney: I'm interested to unpack a little more the trait aspect of this. You know, you said it's in part a cognitive style, a way of thinking. Is there something more deep, some other kinds of set of traits, some kind of person, I mean we hear the word "paranoid" a lot, ah...

Stephan LewandowskyYes. That is correct. There is again a statistical association between the propensity to endorse conspiracy theories and um, some paranoia, some tendency to feel persecuted. And there's also an association between people's, um, disgruntlement and their disappointment with society and their economic insecurity that predicts whether or not they're likely to endorse conspiracy theories, so there is a literature that is painting a fairly consistent picture of what kind of people tend to engage in conspiracy theorising. Now what's interesting is to me at least is that actually there isn't a reliable association with politics or political leanings or people's world view in that, um, you get the occasional association with right-wing thinking, but you equally also get it on occasion with quote unquote left-wing thinking, and on balance I think it is actually not related to politics at all.

Chris Mooney: So here's the question: Is it normal or abnormal psychology? I mean it seems like a lot of people get down on their luck and want to blame somebody. Paranoia doesn't seem to me to be a rare thing, certainly not in the United States, I mean, conspiratorial thinking is common, it's not something like schizophrenia or something, it's much more common than that.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Oh, totally, yes. It's extremely common, I mean in fact if you, um, look at the data last year, two years ago, the majority of registered Republican primary voters, I think it was 51%, thought that President Obama was born outside the U.S. Now that's effectively a conspiracy theory, of course it is, now, you know, you've got to assume a birth certificate is faked and I mean, what sort of -

Chris Mooney: And people are covering up the faking of the birth certificate.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Not only that, but they also forged a newspaper from -

Chris Mooney: Right. You have to have the newspaper evidence of the birth...

Stephan Lewandowsky: The whole thing is just, take one look at it, frankly, you think it's ridiculous. And yet more than half, you know, of the Republican primary voters endorsed that conspiracy theory. So, um, clearly it's very widespread. Clearly, I think, except perhaps in extreme cases it would be wrong to consider it to be a pathology. I never say that. I'm very careful about that, and I usually call it a cognitive style, because it is really a style of thinking. And let's not forget, it's a very attractive style of thinking.

Chris Mooney: Is it, though? What does it say about you that you think that people who disagree with you or oppose you have borderline super powers? I mean, you know, I have been in all kinds of arguments public, and given what I now know about psychology, I am sure that biasses have crept into my thinking, and I have been inclined, especially on first impression, to think negatively about someone I'm arguing with, and probably what's important is to check this. I would probably be more willing to believe something that someone says than I should because I'm just, you know, the initial disposition is negative, and you want to always check that, but we're all biassed...

Stephan Lewandowsky: Sure.

Chris Mooney: ...but I never think that they're somehow super-competent, I mean I don't want to give that much credit, like they have better abilities, you know, I - that doesn't follow at all. Right?

Stephan Lewandowsky[Laughs.] Yeah, well, yes, I think you're right, at first glance. I mean, I would love to be a, an all-powerful conspirator actually, because then I wouldn't have to worry about anything in life, but yes, no, I agree. That is certainly one aspect of it, but don't forget, having - one characteristic of conspiratorial thinking is that they never actually quite think it through, okay? So they never get to the point where - and this is one aspect of conspiracy theories - that they're never internally coherent, they're basically just a concatenation of thoughts or sound bites, each of which is attractive, um, and you can say things like that - "Oh, the president wasn't born in Hawaii", you know it's very easy to say that. And it gives you, you know, it's a tool to dismiss him because he's a political opponent. Now no-one really thinks that through as we have just done, you know, a couple of seconds ago by saying: "Gee, how did they forge the newspaper, how did they..?" No-one ever goes that far - well most people don't. For example, one of the interesting things about conspiratorial thinking is that people often hold completely contradictory theories in their head at the same time. So, for example, there's evidence that somebody thinks that MI5 or MI6 or whatever, whoever it is, the bad guys, um, that they killed Princess Diana. The person who will say that is also likely to say that Princess Diana faked her own death. Now if she faked her own death she's alive. If MI6 killed her she's dead. You can't have it both ways. And yet people will endorse both of those. And that's an aspect of conspiratorial thinking as well, that, the sort of complete incoherence. Um, but don't forget it offers comfort, I said this before, that having an enemy, being able to label something as, as an enemy paradoxically can give you a sense of control and comfort.

And here's another thing about a conspiracy theory that makes it extremely attractive. It explains absolutely everything...

Chris Mooney: Right.

Stephan Lewandowsky: ... by definition. So it can explain the slightest anomaly that is observed in a complex event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. You know, it can explain that. All you have to say is: "Ooh, it's a government conspiracy, and they took away this piece of evidence we should have found like the flight recorders" or whatever it was. Um, so it is always, a conspiracy theory always has an advantage over the true scientific theory because a conspiracy theory can explain absolutely everything. All you got to do is just invent some other government agent who, who, you know, contributed that part.

Chris Mooney: Let's talk about how this plays out in your actual research on climate change and the people who deny it. Now you had this study that I guess is about a year ago and it was in Psychological Science, and it disentangles the idea that this is political free market ideology from the idea that this is conspiratorial. Um, they're two separate things, overlapping things, why don't you explain...

Stephan Lewandowsky: OK, well, that's very interesting. What happened there was we surveyed visitors to climate blogs, er, about a thousand of them, more than a thousand, and we found that the overwhelming factor, um, that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their world view or their ideology or whatever you want to call it. And specifically people who are very enthusiastic and endorse a laissez-faire version of the free market, they tend to reject climate science. 

Now that's been known for a very long time, you know. We know that. There is a very strong association between world view and the rejection of climate science. And what my study additionally showed was that there was a separate factor that was actually not related to world view, um, that predicted rejection of scientific propositions - not just climate science, but also the link between tobacco and lung cancer and the link between HIV and AIDS, and that separate factor was conspiratorial thinking. And so the extent to which people endorsed a number of conspiracy theories predicted the rejection of those scientific propositions. 

Now, what's interesting here is that the strength of that link was far greater for tobacco and AIDS than it was for climate science. In fact for climate science, it was a very weak relationship. Um, but it was notable, it was certainly there in the data, it was statistically significant, and clearly for a number of people, not a huge number, but for a number of people, conspiratorial thinking determines their rejection of science. And, um, yes, that paper caused quite a bit of interest.

Chris Mooney: Well let's go to that in a second, but does this mean that a left-wing person who's a conspiratorial thinker might be a climate science rejecter? Those people are out there?

Stephan Lewandowsky: Oh, yes!

Chris Mooney: And it's the conspiracy factor having nothing to do with the ideology factor?

Stephan Lewandowsky: Indeed. That's what we er, er, found in those particular data.

Chris Mooney: They're rarer I guess than the free market ideologists, but they're there.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Oh absolutely, but they're there, they're there, absolutely. Yeah, no, and that's what's, um, important to bear in mind, that we have not found - and I mentioned this before - there is no clear association between conspiratorial thinking and your, your politics. Um, you know, you can get it both ways, one way or the other, and, um, and and some particular conspiracies tend to have a political identification. For example the notion that 9/11 was an inside job tends to be associated with people on the political left, whereas this notion of the world government, you know, the United Nations is trying to create a world government, that tends to be associated with people on the political right. So there are some individual theories that have a clear political identification, but by and large, if you look at the whole er, er, space of theories, they tend to be overall I think independent of politics.

Chris Mooney: So, yes, this study created a dramatic response, and you might say the response itself, you do say the response itself was conspiratorial, including alleging that the Australian government was involved in your study, or the response to it.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Well ultimately [laughs], ultimately, yes, it became very interesting, and er, er, to be honest, when we published this first paper, I thought: yeah, OK, this is sort of, you know, a four-thousand word paper that does make a point that's interesting to know about, and so, why not put it out there? Well, it turns out that, er, the response was er, quite vigorous, and, um, the people who engage in the rejection of climate science, er, you know, on blogs and so on, um, were stimulated into, well, lots of things, um...

Chris Mooney: It was because the study was of blog readers that the bloggers were engaged so much.

Stephan Lewandowsky: I guess so, it was, yes...

Chris Mooney: It was obviously the topic too, but..

Stephan Lewandowsky: - and obviously the topic too. I think it was the topic as well as the, the fact that it was visitors to climate blogs who were the, er, participants in that study. So, I don't know, I think there was a whole lot of reasons why they were, er, quite upset about this study, and began to, um, create a lot of internet traffic, er, discussing this study. And some of the, um, um, thinking that was exhibited by the blogosphere - I'll call it generically the blogosphere, because there were so many people involved that you really can't talk about individuals, you can just talk about this, this organism, this blogosphere out there - the type of thinking that they exhibited was, um, well - conspiratorial. It looked just like what we were studying, um, much to our amazement. I mean, we were not prepared for this, but then we thought, well, this is really interesting, this is actually exactly what we're talking about. Um, because all sorts of hypotheses were advanced about myself and my co-authors and the study, um, which were quite peculiar. So, for example, um, we were accused of not having contacted sceptic quote unquote bloggers to post the link to our initial study, because it was an on-line study and so the links were placed at various blogs and, um, I approached, um - I forget now - four or five, er, sceptic quote unquote blogs to post the link, and none of them did. Well, I said that in the method section, as you would. I said, you know: "I contacted four or five and none of them posted the link". Well, that was not accepted by the blogosphere. They said: "Well, no that can't be right, that's not true", um...

Chris Mooney: And the reason is that they thought that if you only had blogs that accepted global warming that therefore your sample would be wrong, but that's not necessarily true because people of both persuasions read...

Stephan Lewandowsky: Indeed, and all you have to do is look at the comment streams on, on blogs that are...

Chris Mooney: People argue back..

Stephan Lewandowsky: People argue back, so where do the comments come from? I mean, you know, clearly people visit each other's blogs, I mean, er, er, the proportion of sceptics versus people who endorse the science may be different between the different blogs, but there's no question that people visit each other so, I mean that wasn't, you know, in itself a a fairly weak argument, but then the accusation that we hadn't contacted these people was, er, just bizarre, I mean, if we hadn't, why would we say that we did in, in the method section? Um, and so this hypothesis just , you know, kept on going, kept on going, and, um, er, initially I was, um, reluctant to release the names of these people I contacted, because, er, for ethical reasons, you know, I invited them to participate in research and they either didn't answer or declined to do so, and I, I, I wanted to check whether it was okay to release those names, which I did with, er, my university's lawyer ultimately and, and he said: "Oh, go ahead, release the names". So I finally did. It turns out that, um, I think pretty much all of the people or, um, um, virtually all of the people I contacted had stated previously just a week earlier that they were never contacted by me or my research assistant, so they, you know, the dog ate their email or something, you know, their inbox was corrupted and they couldn't retrieve the email. Um, now you would think that that would make people think: "Ah, okay, right, we were wrong, you know, Lewandowsky did contact the sceptic blogs. Here's the email". I released the email, I showed it, you know, they were publicly available now, um..

Chris Mooney: So you published the emails you sent.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Um, I certainly published the names of the people and in the meantime a Freedom of Information request was launched, er, to my university for release of those emails, so ultimately they, they were released by me, every thing. And er, of course I had the emails, um, and of course I did contact those people. And in fact some of them replied back and talked, you know, we had a little conversation by email, er which they..

Chris Mooney: They just forgot...

Stephan Lewandowsky: They just forgot. Perfectly fine. Not a problem, I, I hold no grudge against that, you know that can happen. But it was very interesting how,um, little things like that just blew up into this, um, tempest of confected outrage among, um, bloggers on the internet. And then it went on from there, and, and, um, I don't know, in the end there were something like nine or ten different hypotheses that people on the blogosphere created about our, our first paper. And so what we did, um, was to write a second paper, a follow-up paper, and the follow-up paper, um, basically analysed the response of the blogosphere to our first paper, so we used, er, Google to search the internet daily for everything or anything that was related to myself and, and the first paper, and we then looked at these various utterances from from a number of people, commenters, bloggers, you know, we just used anything out there, we cast the net as wide as possible. We tried to identify their, um, er, cognition, and how, how, um, you know, what was going on there.

And it turns out that we were able to to show, yeah, actually, you know, this this does fulfill some of the criteria for conspiratorial thinking. Um, foremost among them I guess this nihilistic degree of of suspicion. You mention the word "paranoia" earlier, and I think there was some trace element of that in there, that people, oh maybe it wasn't paranoia, but suspicion. You know, I mean, think about it, what would it take to to think that I as a scientist would put something in the method section such as: "Hey, I contacted these bloggers but they didn't reply"? I mean, how suspicious do you have to be to think that I'm making this up? Why would I make it up?

Chris Mooney: It just.. My view of something like that is just that: Well, you're opening yourself up to a pretty devastating refutation by making a clear factual claim that is extremely obviously refuted. It takes no effort to refute that. So, it's still possible you did it, but if so, you're the person who goes round doing that, you're going to create a lot of problems for yourself, for your career. Um, so, it's like, very few people go and make statements that are so obviously refutable definitively, that are wrong. It's just like walking into a giant mess.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Yeah, yeah. So, and that was a common theme of everything that was underlying the er, er, thinking about our papers that, you know, "the premiss was there has to be something wrong, um, you know, the paper cannot be right, therefore, whatever the cost, we must find the reason why it is wrong".

Chris Mooney: But this saga now has another leg, which is that the study, the second study, is taken down - how do I put this? - by the journal which is looking into some kind of investigation.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Yes.

Chris Mooney: What do you have to say about that? So..

Stephan Lewandowsky: Of course, well, what happened is that the paper got peer-reviewed..

Chris Mooney: I mean, if you wanted to give your critics ammunition, er, that would count.

Stephan Lewandowsky: [Laughs.] Well, absolutely, so, no, I don't think the saga ends there. It's, basically, let me, let me just er tell you what happened. What happened was that the paper was peer-reviewed, the second paper, it was published, in an online journal, um, and it was met with a - what's the best word? - an assault, I suppose...

Chris Mooney: All this blogosphere activity..

Stephan Lewandowsky: ...by all the blogosphere activity continued, they continued to do what they had done to begin with against the first paper, which is to erupt into considerable outrage and, um, they expressed their outrage in the usual manner, which is blog posts, comments on blogs, um, and the, you know, invariably complaining emails sent to universities, my university, and, and, and in this instance also the, er, er, journals involved for both the first and the second paper. And what happened is that the volume of that complaint was sufficient for the journal of the second paper to - this online publication - for them to say "Woah! This is a bit hot!" and they, er, took the paper down, and, well, they left the abstract up, and they put up a notice saying that "this paper is subject to complaints, and it has not been retracted, but we have taken it down while we consider those complaints". Now, the complaints basically, in a nutshell, are of the same type, pretty much verbatim, as what you find on blog posts and blog comments for the most part, so anybody who wants to know what the complaints are, just, you know, look at the blogs..

Chris Mooney: ...and they can be found.

Stephan Lewandowsky: They can be found, there's plenty of them out there. And that's where the situation currently stands, and, um, yeah, that's the usual pattern that, er, people, scientists, who say things that are inconvenient are the target of all sorts of things, complaints, accusations, Freedom of Information requests, um, that's standard practice, but what, um, the people who launched those complaints, what they never then tell the public is that they don't go anywhere. Those complaints never go anywhere. They haven't gone anywhere in my case, vis-à-vis my university, they haven't gone anywhere vis-à-vis the university of dozens if not hundreds of my colleagues in climate science who've likewise been subjected to, er, complaints and Freedom of Information requests. Um, and I view them as basically being part of a campaign that is being waged against scientists who are reporting inconvenient data. And in my instance against scientists who are actually shining the spotlight on the activities of people who deny science, which I will continue to do.

Chris Mooney: So let me raise an objection. I mean, I can see a contrary hypothesis for what happened here, er, which makes - let me put it this way - it makes it seem less like some form of special form of conspiracy thinking. I mean, let's just posit, for whatever reason, your paper kicked up a hornets' nest. People were upset, I think that's beyond dispute. When you're upset, it naturally follows they're motivated to criticise or discredit you because they're upset and they just have negative affect feelings towards you in general and, I don't know, so they're motivated to believe negative things about you. So then they just do,and it's not any different from Democrats being motivated to believe bad things about Republicans than vice versa, it's not different in kind, it's just motivation occurred, and criticism occurred. Is it really more than that?

Stephan Lewandowsky: Well, yes and no..

Chris Mooney: I mean, it's just criticism is in proportion to the level of the motivation, which in this case was relatively high.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Oh yeah, look, I think you're absolutely right, I'm not disagreeing with you at all, er, so, the, but I guess the question is whether or not you can characterise it as conspiratorial thinking...

Chris Mooney: Or whether that's different in kind..

Stephan Lewandowsky: ... or whether it's different in kind. Well, let me bounce the question back to you. If Republicans are upset about President Obama, and because they're upset at him, and they have motivation to be upset at him, for, for whatever reason, if they then say he wasn't born in Hawaii, er, in order to discredit him, or to question his legitimacy, is that just motivated opposition, or does that stray into...

Chris Mooney: I'm just saying that might blend seamlessly with all the other things that they might say, you know what I mean? So, yeah, I mean, I guess, I don't know the answer, I don't know the answer. I'm just...

Stephan Lewandowsky: Well, I think, I think, it's an interesting question, because it got me to think about it. Um, and I agree with you that clearly this is just motivated opposition, and what basically what you're saying is they just opposed my paper and they just threw anything at it that they could find. And I totally agree that is, you know, and in a sense that is understandable. You kick up a a hornets' nest and they'll just throw everything at you. Um, that's true, I totally agree. Now the question is whether the particular stuff they threw at me, whether that fulfills criteria for conspiratorial thinking, above and beyond just er, er, making stuff up..

Chris Mooney: And the question is, when someone is, when people are motivated, do they all respond the same way, grasping at any kind of straw, or do some people say: "No, you know, that idea doesn't sound like it would work." I mean, you know, in other words, you need an additional criterion to say that when motivated, some people conspire, and some people don't.

Stephan Lewandowsky: I think, yes, no, that's a very good point. Well, you see, the, the thing, we went to great lengths, er, when we wrote the second paper, the follow-up paper, to not actually comment on the validity of the criticisms of our first paper, because we weren't interested in that. Er, I mean, you know, we could have rebutted all of these hypotheses, but what we chose was not to, um, because, um, what we were interested in is just to say: "Well, hang on, irrespective of whether or not the criticism is is ultimately true, how is it being, you know, what are what are the thought-processes by which people, um, are, are, um, pursuing those criticisms?" And that's where the conspiratorial thinking comes in. And at the very beginning I started out today saying: "Hey, um, there are true conspiracies". What differentiates conspiratorial thinking is how it is being done. And one of its characteristics, one of its attributes is the self-sealing nature of it. And we observed some very self-sealing thinking or processing in response to our first paper, where ultimately, as you also said at the outset, um, I was, um, gosh, ultimately I was held responsible to, for a an on-line newspaper that was created in Australia called the Conversation dot com - it's a fantastic newspaper written by, largely by academics, um, experts in their field, it's a terrific initiative, it's supported by all universities in Australia, and and some branches of the government, the research institutions - well, all of a sudden that was my responsibility. Um, and then the Australian government was er put into the picture, and somehow I was responsible for the Australian government as well, or vice versa, maybe they were responsible for me, but there was this sort of self-sealing expansion of the conspiracy to involve other people. Um, so that's what we're talking about. We're talking about, you know, ignoring evidence, er focussing on on tiny anomalies at the expense of losing track of the overall picture, the typical aspects of conspiratorial thinking, and arguably they were, we we suggest that they were present in our, er, in the response to our first paper.

Chris Mooney: Fair enough, and we can not on this show, we do not have infinite length, we've gone some time already talking about this, we cannot get into all of the claims, counter-claims, allegations, but people can certainly read about them and I'll bet that there will be more developments in this story, so I just want to wrap up the interview with the obvious question: what on earth do you advise to do to respond to or deal with conspiratorial thinking? Because - let me put it this way - it doesn't sound like there's an obvious way to make something, as you call it, "self-sealing" spring a leak.

Stephan Lewandowsky: [Laughs.] Indeed, absolutely. That's a very important question, um, because conspiratorial thinking is with us. It is widespread, and as you know, it crops up whenever there's an event out there, be it the Boston marathon or 9/11 or indeed climate change. Well, I think there's a number of answers. The first answer is that it's very important to understand, um, how it operates, and that it exists, and it is important to understand, in the connection of climate science at least, that the number of people who engage in that kind of thinking is rather small. In our sample it was quite small, it was a significant number, but it was not a, a, a large number. So there is a small number of people who engage in that and it's important to, to bear that in mind. And so, rather than engaging with conspiracy theorists, which is completely impossible, there is absolutely no point in having a discussion with somebody who thinks that 9/11 was an inside job, you know, you‘d get into the weeds and you'll never come out - um, rather than doing that, um, I think it is very important to talk to the vast majority of people who do not engage in conspiratorial thinking, and to address messages to those, er, people, and one of the things in the case of climate science that we have found, that I've found in other research, is that what is very successful, or promising at least, is to tell people and remind them how great the consensus, the scientific consensus really is. Ah, there is a huge gap between the actual scientific consensus - I mentioned earlier about 97% of climate scientists, give or take a few, agree on the basic premisses - there's a huge gap between that actual consensus and what the public thinks the consensus is. The public thinks it's only around somewhere between fifty out of a hundred, sixty out of a hundred, something like that. Now if you could narrow that gap, I have data to show, um, in a number of different experiments that if you tell people: "Hey! 97% of all scientists agree", right? and then I ask them - "Should we cut carbon emissions?" they're more likely to say yes to cutting emissions than if they hadn't been reminded of the consensus. So that is something that works with the vast majority of people who are not engaged in the conspiracy, and really, what we should do is we should have a civil discourse in, in society where we're debating how to deal with climate change. We shouldn't really, um, be sidetracked or distracted by people who engage in conspiratorial thinking and say it's all a hoax, er, as Senator Inhofe has done in his book.

Chris Mooney: Well, on that note, I guess it's been a, it's at least been a delightful sidetracking, in this conversation, so Stephan Lewandowsky, thank you for being on Point of Inquiry.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Thank you.