Damián Bakarcic/Flickr

New Study Links Climate Change Denials With Conspiracy Theories

Just don’t mention the Moon landing.

PETER DOCKRILL
9 JUL 2015
 

Despite the best efforts of the global scientific community to present a clear and unambiguous case for why man-made climate change is a real danger that we need to respond to now (read: yesterday), huge numbers of people just aren’t getting the memo.

Scratch that: they are getting the memo. They just don’t believe it. In fact, one study from as recently as last year found that only 61 percent of Americans believe that climate change is actually happening. And, of that group, only two-thirds accept that it’s being caused by human behaviour.

 

New research may now be able to provide an explanation for some of the virulence of these climate change denial attitudes. Led by Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol in the UK, the study has found strong ties linking climate change denial on Internet blogs with ‘conspiracist ideation’: a person’s propensity to explain political or social events as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organisations.

To people who subscribe to the scientific consensus that global warming is real (and our fault), the view held by the skeptics is cause for much confusion, in addition to concern.

But when you look at the well-orchestrated network of climate change skeptics, naysayers and dissidents, many of whom share their views in the blogosphere, it becomes clear that a lot of misinformation and propaganda are being circulated. And according to Lewandowsky and his colleagues’ findings, published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, it’s not just political rhetoric: it’s evidence of conspiracist ideation.

To assess the link between climate change denials on Internet blogs and conspiracist ideation, student volunteers were presented with two sets of anonymous literature, which the researchers told them were genuine scientific critiques of an academic study related to climate change. The volunteer’s task was to critically analyse the texts and identify any evidence of conspiracist ideation in the writing, looking out for signs like questionable motives, a sense of persecuted victimisation or overriding suspicion, or other evidence that the text isn't a reasonable critique.

Of course, not all the documentation given to the students was actual scientific criticism; the researchers threw in some comments and arguments taken from climate change denial blogs to see if they could spot the difference. Sure enough, it was this text that the students scored most highly in terms of showing high levels of conspiracist ideation.

“The results are important for theoretical reasons because they extend the literature on conspiracist ideation as well as on the role of the Internet as a staging ground for the rejection of science,” Lewandowsky said in an online statement.

“There is ample evidence that the public is currently not being adequately informed about the risks from climate change, owing largely to flawed media coverage, to which blogs make a contribution," he added. "The public interest is therefore served by opportunities to know what is happening on those blogs, and what type of discourse is used in those blogs.”

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