Lew on Truth, Conspiracy Theorising, and Everything



[Read Richard’s first. This one is boring.]

Bristol University’s news site is announcing the publication of a “book” (their description) by Professors Lewandowsky and Cook on conspiracy theorisingThe link provided by Bristol University to download the “book” isn’t working, but Mirage News, which reproduces the University puff in its entirety has a link here:

Author Professor Stephan Lewandowsky explains: “Conspiracy theories attempt to explain events as the secretive plots of powerful people. While conspiracy theories are not typically supported by evidence, this doesn’t stop them from blossoming… While actual conspiracies do exist they are rarely discovered through the methods of conspiracy theorists. Rather, real conspiracies get discovered through conventional thinking—healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence and being committed to internal consistency. This handbook helps explain why conspiracy theories are so popular, and how to identify the traits of conspiratorial thinking, and lists effective debunking strategies.”

Got that? A real conspiracy is one that is discovered through healthy skepticism, while a false one is one that is discovered by, er, the methods of conspiracy theorists. Unhealthy scepticism, probably. With a “c.” Like what we do.

The “book,” shorn of covers and title page, is nine pages long. In this very short guide to debunking conspiracy theories, there is very little on real conspiracy theories and no less than seven statements concerning climate change scepticism:

1. Exposure to conspiracy theories decreases people’s intentions to engage in politics or to reduce their carbon footprint.

2. Conspiracy theories may be deployed as a rhetorical tool to escape inconvenient conclusions. The rhetoric of climate denial is filled with incoherence…

3.Incoherence is one attribute of conspiratorial thinking, but it does not follow that climate denial is irrational—on the contrary, denialist rhetoric is an effective political strategy to delay climate action by undermining people’s perception of the strength of scientific evidence. In confirmation, people selectively appeal to a conspiracy among scientists to explain away a scientific consensus when their political ideology compels them to do so—but not when the scientific consensus is of no relevance to their politics.

4. Rejecting the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming is often the result of conspiratorial thinking rather than a careful weighing of scientific evidence.

5. When climate deniers are presented with information about climate change, their most common response is conspiratorial in nature.

6. However, climate denial isn’t just associated with climate-themed conspiracy theories—rather, people who deny climate science are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories in other topics as well.

7. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure… For example, sharing of conspiratorial climate-denial posts on Facebook was reduced by a simple intervention that encouraged people to ask four questions about material before sharing it..

Points 2, 3, 4, and 6 are supported by references to papers by Lewandowsky et al. Forget 9/11 and the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. Conspiracy theorising is a niche cottage industry to Lewandowsky and Cook, intimately linked to climate denial. “Persecuted Victim,” “Nefarious Intent,” – all their carefully assembled characteristics of conspiratorial thinking are there, repeated word for word from their “Moon Hoax” and “Alice in Wonderland” papers. Forget the Skripals, the DNC emails / Crowdstrike / FBI story and the Cambridge professor on a million dollar CIA retainer who just couldn’t help bumping in to people who happened to be working for the Trump election campaign. It’s all about climate denial.

Occasionally a new fact is allowed a look in. Under the heading “Immune to Evidence” we get this:

Conspiracy theories are inherently self-sealing—evidence that counters a theory is re-interpreted as originating from the conspiracy. [supported by references to papers from 1999, 2007 and 2009] This reflects the belief that the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy (e.g., the FBI exonerating a politician from allegations of misusing a personal email server), the more the conspirators must want people to believe their version of events (e.g., the FBI was part of the conspiracy to protect that politician).

Here’s where Lewandowsky’s precept: “real conspiracies get discovered through conventional thinking—healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence” comes in handy. The FBI didn’t exonerate Hillary, they simply decided not to prosecute, possibly because of a certain bias in her favour, highlighted by a senior FBI official asserting that “We” would do everything to prevent Trump from being elected. You’d have to be “immune to evidence” to believe that the FBI was not involved in a conspiracy.

And of course Lewandowsky and Cook are immune to evidence, on this and on many other subjects. For example, they seem to be immune to the fact that the world is not agog to hear their recipe for countering the plague of conspiracy theorising. Lewandowsky had his chance in chapter ten of “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them” to present the truth about conspiracy theorising, instead of which he recounted the conspiracy (by Steve McIntyre, Paul Matthews, Barry Woods, me, and others) to get his “Recursive Fury” paper retracted.

There’s one novelty in this little pamphlet, (which Bristol University describes as a “book”) and that’s point 3 mentioned above:

Incoherence is one attribute of conspiratorial thinking, but it does not follow that climate denial is irrational—on the contrary, denialist rhetoric is an effective political strategy to delay climate action by undermining people’s perception of the strength of scientific evidence.

And the reference here is to:

Lewandowsky, S. (2020). “Hannah Arendt and the contemporary social construction of conspiracy theorists.” Manuscript Submitted for Publication.

After four papers demonstrating that climate denialists are irrational -two degrees short of a secular trend – Lew has come up with a paper demonstrating the opposite: that they may be motivated by the perfectly rational observation that their “rhetoric” is an “effective political strategy.” The paper is, in its methodology and structure, a carbon copy of “Moon Hoax,” which demonstrated that climate denial was caused by irrational psychological defects such as feelings of persecution and an inability to think straight.

The abstract starts by presenting grandiose programme for retooling society (or shaping tomorrow’s world:)

Exposure to conspiracy theories can have considerable adverse impact on society. I argue that scholars therefore have a responsibility to combat conspiracy theories and misinformation generally. Exercising this responsibility requires an understanding of the varied rhetorical roles of conspiracy theories. Here I focus on instances in which people reject unequivocal scientific evidence and invoke conspiracy theories, or radical anti-institutional positions, based on ideological imperatives. I argue that those positions do not always reflect true attitudes. Instead, people may deploy extreme rhetoric as a pragmatic tool of political expression. I investigate this possibility by focusing on the role of conspiracy theories in the rejection of science. Conspiracist cognition and rhetoric violate the epistemic standards that underpin science. Ironically, this violation of epistemic standards renders conspiracy theories useful as a rationally deployed tool that serves political purposes. I present a study that confirms that conspiracy theories can be deployed to support worldview-motivated denial of science. I provide suggestions how scholars can debunk or defang conspiratorial rhetoric.

This is followed by one quote from Hannah Arendt and two from Donald Trump. Hannah gets a mention in the title of the paper and Donald doesn’t, so you know who Lew’s rooting for – the philosopher who analysed Nazism and anti-semitism, and not the elected president of the United States. The lines of battle have been drawn up. By Lew. In a scientific paper. It’s Us (anti-Nazis) versus Him.

[We all have our favourite Trump quotes. Mine is “If I’d listened to John Bolton, we’d be on World War Six by Now.” What a pity Obama didn’t make a similar observation about Hillary.]

Pages 3-of the paper are about Lewandowsky’s political journey from reasonable leftist scepticism about the justifications for the Iraq war to a far right wholesale acceptation of the CIA version of the downing of Malaysian flight MH17. Pages 6-11 discuss post modernism and post truth, culminating in this observation:

The idea that the very notion of evidence and truth itself may be compromised by shock and chaos is supported by public opinion data, such as a Pew poll (July 2017) that showed that a majority of Republicans, by a 58% to 36% margin, considered colleges and universities to have a negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. Among Democrats, opinion was split in reverse, with a 72% (positive) to 19% (negative) margin.

How does this banal finding that Democrats and Republicans disagree about the value of a university education “support” Lew’s opinion that “the very notion of evidence and truth itself may be compromised”? Easy. Republicans are wrong to think that universities have a negative effect. Lew knows that they’re wrong – he works at one, for Gaia’s sake. Half the people think that folks like Lew are having a negative effect, therefore truth itself may be compromised by shock and chaos. It follows as night follows day, because the only people qualified to examine the question are people like Lew, who work at universities and therefore have the monopoly of opinion in “the literature” as to what effect universities etc.

And here’s how he does it (page 13.) By interviewing 195 people on-line for ten minutes (on average.)

Bollocks. In the far off days when I did market research, we might have considered 200 a minimum sample size to determine whether house persons preferred soap A to soap B – just. But they were real human beings, interviewed in the street on their way to the shops to buy soap A or soap B. And their responses weren’t expected to reveal the truth about Life, Truth, Shock, Chaos, and Everything.

Lew’s professional respondents, on the other hand were recruited by Amazon for a measly $1.10 to answer questions on-line (in ten minutes) on:

..basic demographics (age and gender) then, on a seven-point response scale ranging from “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree”, with the midpoint “Neither agree nor disagree:”

(a) Political attitudes measured by a subset of 5 items from a scale developed by Thomas Scotto and Jason Reifler for their ESRC project “Public Opinion and the Syrian Crisis in Three Democracies”

(b) The presumed knowability of truth measured by presenting 3 quotes from public figures who questioned that truth or that facts could be unequivocally ascertained. The first two statements were made by Katie Hopkins, a columnist for UK tabloids and the third statement was made by Donald Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Participants indicated their agreement or disagreement with each statement. A further two items queried the presumed knowability of truth directly.

(c) Conspiracism was measured using 5 items taken from Imho and Bruder (2014). These items do not target belief in specific conspiracies but probe a broader, likely dispositional, tendency to engage in conspiracist cognition

(d) Reliance on sources of knowledge was measured by 4 items developed by my team.

(e) Need for chaos (“Need”) was measured using 4 items from the scale developed by Petersen et al. (2018).

(f) Reliance on intuition as a source of knowledge was measured using 5 items developed by my team.

The questionnaire additionally examined two [surely three?] aspects of scientific consensus. People first indicated their perceived scientific consensus (using a percentage scale) for the link between HIV and AIDS, the link between CO2 and climate change, and the safety and efficacy of vaccinations. At the end of the questionnaire participants were presented with accurate information about the scientific consensus (e.g., “Virtually all medical scientists agree that HIV causes AIDS”), followed by the question “How much do you think each of the following reasons contributes to this scientific agreement?” The question was accompanied by the 6 response options in Table 2. Options were presented together on the same screen and participants could choose any number of options on a 5-point scale ranging from “Not a reason” to “The only reason”.

After all items in Table 1 had been presented, participants were again asked to indicate their age, followed by a question probing how much attention they paid. Any participants who indicated that they were not “paying much attention” or did not want their data to be used for other reasons would have been eliminated (none did).

Of course they didn’t, you berk. Otherwise they wouldn’t have got their $1:10.

One dollar and ten fucking cents. That’s what Professor Lew paid his informants to reveal the truth about the nature of conspiracy theorising, their need for chaos, the presumed knowability of truth, and hence the scientific path towards eliminating misinformation in public discourse, all in ten minutes. The rest of the paper (pp 15–24) is devoted to demonstrating, on the basis of significant-at-the-0.5-level correlations, that if you ask 195 normal people a series of stupid questions about need for chaos, scientific agreement, a dispositional tendency to engage in conspiracist cognition, and whether they agree with Katie Hopkins and Rudy Giuliani, all on-line in an average of ten minutes, you can get any results you want, with correlation coefficients of 0.2-0.3 or so.

This shitty pre-published article can be stopped. The supplemental materials seem to be here

including data and R code


Lew has contributed to a comment on a paper by our old friend Neil Levy “Is Conspiracy Theorising Irrational?” here.  How does he find time to teach cognitive psychology?

via Climate Scepticism


March 25, 2020 at 08:18PM

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