Link Between Climate Denial and Conspiracy Beliefs Sparks Conspiracy Theories

view of Earth and cloud cover
Perception of climate change may be influenced by the frequency that climate-science words appear in the popular literature. (Image credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation)

A study suggesting climate change deniers also tend to hold general beliefs in conspiracy theories has sparked accusations of a conspiracy on climate change-denial blogs.

The research, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, surveyed more than 1,000 readers of science blogs regarding their beliefs regarding global warming. The results revealed that people who tend to believe in a wide array of conspiracy theories are more likely to reject the scientific consensus that the Earth is heating up.

University of Western Australia psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky based the findings on responses from an online survey posted on eight science blogs. According to the paper, Lewandowsky approached five climate-skeptic blogs and asked them to post the survey link, but none did.

Now, climate-skeptic bloggers are striking back with a new conspiracy theory: that the researchers deliberately failed to contact "real skeptics" for the study and then lied about it.

"[F]or some reason, Dr. Lewandowsky refuses to divulge which skeptical blogs he contacted," wrote Anthony Watts, who blogs on the popular climate skepticism website Watts Up With That?

Climate change conspiracy

Though about 97 percent of working scientists agree that the evidence shows a warming trend caused by humans, public understanding of climate change falls along political lines. Democrats are more likely to "believe in" global warming than Republicans, according to a 2011 report by the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute. In fact, deniers and skeptics who felt more confident in their climate-change knowledge were the strongest disbelievers. [10 Climate Change Myths Busted]

Believing that climate change isn't happening or that it's not human-caused requires a belief that thousands of climate scientists around the world are lying outright, Lewandowsky and his colleagues wrote in their new paper. Conspiracy theory beliefs are known to come in clusters — someone who thinks NASA faked the moon landing is more likely to accept the theory that 9/11 was an inside job, for example. So Lewandowsky and his colleagues created an online survey and asked eight mostly pro-science blogs and five climate-skeptic blogs to post a link to the survey for their readers. The respondents were self-selecting, but highly motivated to care about climate science, the researchers noted.

The responses came only from the eight pro-science blogs, the researchers reported. Of 1,145 usable survey responses, the researchers found that support for free-market, laissez-faire economics was linked to a rejection of climate change. A tendency to believe other conspiracy theories was also linked to denial of climate change. Finally, climate-change deniers were more likely than others to say that other environmental problems have been solved, indicating a dismissive attitude toward "green" causes. [Top 10 Conspiracy Theories]

Climate psych controversy

Unsurprisingly, the results did not please climate-skeptic bloggers, some of whom responded by accusing Lewandowsky of not attempting to contact them at all. In an email to Lucia Liljegren, who blogs at The Blackboard, Lewandowsky declined to name the bloggers he emailed, citing privacy concerns.

In response, Liljegren wrote, "I think who Lewandowsky contacted will reveal whether he really even tried to conduct a balanced survey," urging other bloggers to publically give permission for Lewandowsky to reveal their names. The researcher told DeSmogBlog that he has contacted his university's ethics committee to find out if he is allowed to do so.

In the meantime, Simon James, who blogs at Australian Climate Madness, has submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University of Western Australia in an effort to force the release of emails related to the study, and prominent climate-change skeptic Steve McIntyre has urged readers to email the university with academic misconduct complaints.  

McIntyre later reported that an email search turned up a request from one of Lewandowsky's collaborators.

"[T]o our knowledge, our results are the first to provide empirical evidence for the correlation between a general construct of conspiracist ideation and the general tendency to reject well-founded science," Lewandowsky and his colleagues concluded. Psychological research has found that conspiracy beliefs are hard to dislodge, they wrote, but efforts to debunk multiple lines of conspiratorial reasoning at once may help.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.