The robust relationship between conspiracist cognition and rejection of (climate) science

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 27 March 2015

There are two articles in Psychological Science that appeared online today: The first article by Ruth Dixon and Jonathan Jones presents an alternative analysis of two papers that I published with colleagues in 2013 on the role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science. The second article is a rejoinder to Dixon and Jones and is authored by me together with Gilles Gignac and Klaus Oberauer.

We are very pleased that, more than two years after the first article in Psychological Science became available, a critical commentary on our work was submitted for peer review. This is the type of scientific debate that moves the field forward, unlike some of the other responses to our work, detailed here, that have only wasted our time and that of other university staff without anything to show for it.

So how did the field move forward by the two sets of articles that appeared today? Opinions will likely be divided on this question, but in our view the alternative analyses of our data by Dixon and Jones underscored the robustness of our original results.

The case that we make in our rejoinder is somewhat nuanced, but in a nutshell Dixon and Jones showed that the correlation between endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of climate science (they did not consider the other scientific propositions that were of interest in our research) will become statistically non-significant under certain circumstances, if the data analyst makes particular choices. We do not question their result per se (we get the same results if we apply their technique), but we argue that the choices that are necessary for this correlation to “disappear” are inadvisable.

  • Dixon and Jones (D&J from here on) dismiss one of our studies because the sample was skewed. We agree that the sample was skewed, but because we were aware of this aspect of our data, we used a data analytic technique—an ordinal rank-based structural equation model—that was unaffected by the presence of the skew. We therefore do not believe that a wholesale dismissal of the study is justified.
  • D&J did not model the full variance-covariance structure of the data, as we did in both studies, but resorted to bivariate linear regression involving a single pairwise relationship between two variables while ignoring all others. Linear regression is known to be susceptible to attenuation through measurement error, and it is therefore not surprising that D&J report associations that are only 1/3 the magnitude of those in our—measurement-error free—analysis. Our view is that if techniques exist for precise assessment of relationships then those techniques should be preferred over tools that are known to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio.
  • D&J further removed 35 respondents from our second study with a representative sample because they responded “neutral” on all items involving the two variables of interest. This has no effect on the association between endorsement of conspiracy theories and the rejection of climate science in the structural-equation model (that’s the tool that is known to be free of measurement error), but it does render the bivariate correlation non-significant. In our opinion, the removal of participants on ad hoc grounds (i.e., looking at the data to identify observations that are deemed unsuitable) represents one of the degrees of freedom available to researchers that has recently been identified as a potentially “questionable research practice”, and we believe that the elimination of observations must therefore be approached with great care. This is particularly true in the case of our study, whose sampling plan was “de facto” pre-registered: That is, we contracted with a professional survey company (Qualtrics.com) to obtain a representative sample of Americans of a pre-determined size, and to include only those respondents who completed all items and passed an attention filter question. Those were a priori constraints on our sampling plan, and once we obtained the data, we analyzed them all. Of course, one can now stipulate any number of criteria to eliminate observations, but any such ad hoc elimination can be critiqued as a potentially questionable research practice
  • D&J furthermore reverse the role of the dependent and independent variables in their bivariate analysis, whereupon the observed association disappears. To clarify, instead of predicting the attitude towards science from conspiracist ideation, they predict the latter based on the endorsement of climate science. Now, the fact that the results differ between those two statistical models is not surprising because the two models answer different questions. The question we asked is: Do people with a relatively stable disposition to endorse various conspiracy theories (we know that those cognitive attributes are quite stable) tend to reject established scientific propositions? We have a good theoretical reason for asking this question. A person prone to accept conspiratorial thinking may find it easier to explain away the scientific consensus as arising from a conspiracy among scientists. Indeed, this possibility is supported by a large body of research. The question asked by a statistical model reversing the direction of prediction is: Do people who reject established scientific propositions tend to endorse all sorts of conspiracy theories? We see no theoretical rationale for why one’s attitude towards specific scientific claims should influence one’s general tendency to endorse thematically unrelated conspiracy theories. D&J provide no theoretical rationale for their reversal of the roles of predictor and predicted variable either.

In summary, we are pleased that our work has finally been critiqued in the appropriate forum—namely, the peer-reviewed literature. We profited from this exchange because it forced us to consider our data in new and different ways, and in so doing we were able to show how robust our results are to a number of choices that data analysts might legitimately make. It is only under a fairly specific concatenation of such choices—all of which we believe are sub-optimal—that one of the many associations between variables reported in our paper becomes non-significant.

There is, moreover, one clear point of agreement between us and D&J: The association between conspiracist cognition and the rejection of climate science is relatively small in magnitude. Indeed, the effect explains only about 4% of the variance in our structural-equation models, compared to more than 60% that is explained by endorsement of “free-market” economics. However, just because an effect is small does not mean it is inconsequential: there are several well established and highly consequential effects that are as small as, or smaller than, our reported association. For example, the correlation between combat exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder, and between lead exposure and children’s IQ, explain in the order of only 1% of the variance. They nonetheless have notable public-health implications once scaled up to society as a whole.

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36 Comments


Comments 1 to 33:

  1. Prof Lewandowsky. You seem to have forgotten to link to the (open access) Dixon Jones paper.

    The link is here:-

    http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/03/26/0956797614566469.full
  2. Stephan Lewandowsky at 21:53 PM on 27 March, 2015
    @1: thank you! I was unable to find the D&J paper this morning. The DOI's on the pdf did not work either, which I presume is because Sage sent me the direct link before they registered the DOIs. I will update the post accordingly.
  3. Jose Duartes:

    At no point did Lewandowsky et al. inform the reader that there were only three moon-climate hoax people in a sample of 1145, or that only ten people endorsed the moon hoax to begin with.

    At no point did the authors disclose that only 16 of 1145 people disputed that HIV causes AIDS, 11 disputed the smoking--lung cancer link, or that only 5% and 4% of free market endorsers disputed those facts.

    Such trivial numbers cannot be used draw inferences or run correlations – these could be errant keystrokes, sticky keys, or a few felines. There was no data in this study to support the authors' claims. (Also, the effect proclaimed in the title is not reported in the paper.)
  4. One of the concerns with respect to the original paper - was the title -

    - NASA faked the moon landing therefore [climate] science is a hoax -

    This was considered provocative and inappropriate by many(including Tom Curtis of Skeptical Science) as it was based on 3 respondents to the survey of climate blogs...

    0.26% of respondents.

    of the non 'climate sceptic' respondents to the survey, there were 6 that believed in the moon hoax, equating to:

    0.52% of respondents:

    therefore as 99% of respondents did not believe in the headline conspiracy..This title seems very irresponsible, leading to dramatic headlines in the media...


    Guardian: Are climate sceptics more likely to be conspiracy theorists?


    Guardian: New research finds that sceptics also tend to support conspiracy theories such as the moon landing being faked.


    (and many other such responses, particularly from climate activists) which then resulted in a lot of attention being drawn to this paper, and some anger when it was based on three anonymous people.

    (who may or may not be minors, age has been redacted form the data - and minors WERE included in both LOG13 and the PLOS one paper (10-17 year olds) - for example in the PLOS One paper 2 14 year olds believed in the moon hoax in the survey of the general public, yet age has been redacted from the LOG13 data.

    The percentages on both the survey of the general public and the climate blogs showed the conspiracies were believed in tiny numbers, but there were higher percentages on the survey of the general public, than the surveys of the climate blogs..

    which would show that climate blog readers (sceptical, non sceptical) were LESS likely to believe in conspiracies than the USA general public.

    Will you now release the dataset with the ages unredacted for LOG13, as age IS included in the PLOS One paper of the general public (5 minors were included, and a ~32,000 year old man
  5. S. Lewandowsky -- just because an effect is small does not mean it is inconsequential: there are several well established and highly consequential effects that are as small as, or smaller than, our reported association. For example, the correlation between combat exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder, and between lead exposure and children’s IQ, explain in the order of only 1% of the variance. They nonetheless have notable public-health implications once scaled up to society as a whole. --

    It is good of you to admit that the effect you have observed is weak. But even if we take your paper at face value -- which we shouldn't -- you do not seem to have demonstrated any significant consequence of the 'association between conspiracist cognition and the rejection of climate science'.

    Combat-related PTSD and the consequences of lead exposure are not the same category of thing as the claimed correlation of conspiracy ideation and climate scepticism. The former two are health consequences of known risk factors, whereas the latter phenomenon is simply thought, with no obvious cause that hasn't been the subject of controversy since humans first started thinking about thinking, and with no obvious consequence. We know why exposure to extremely violent and hostile situations can lead to a deterioration of mental health, and we know why exposure to lead can affect children's development. And we can agree that these things are very real problems, which can be and should be avoided.

    But perhaps thought is dangerous, on your view. So what are the consequences of a small statistical correlation between conspiracist cognition and the rejection of climate science -- especially where 'conspiricist cognition' and 'climate science' remain ambiguously, broadly, and poorly- defined terms, and the mechanism of their correlation is understood only as an statistical effect?

    Well, luckily, your own data and argument show us almost no consequence whatsoever -- the conspiracy theory was not transmitted to the remaining sceptics. On your own argument, a few conspiracy theorists are entirely inconsequential. If the correlation between conspiracy ideation and scepticism of climate science is weak, there is no consequence for the wider debate about climate change policy, or for its outcome.

    At best, your study is interesting only to people who take an interest in conspiracy theories or conspiracy theorists, but not to anyone interested in understanding the pschyo-social aspects of the climate debate. Conspiracy theorists are more likely to be climate change sceptics, perhaps. But even then, this is easy to explain. Climate change is a dominant global political narrative. It is axiomatic that such narratives are what people who are prone to conspiracy ideation will become preoccupied with, and will take an unorthodox view of.

    The environmental movement gives us ample examples of precisely this effect. This group is nothing if not vocal about its members own personal feelings of alienation from contemporary life and industrial, capitalist society. One of the ideas most commonly reproduced by this group is the conspiracy theory that large oil interests have funded and promoted climate scepticism, to derail domestic and international climate policies, in spite of scant evidence either of these arrangements themselves, or the material effect on policy-making. Oil is to many parts of the environmental movement what the CIA's mind-control rays are to the comic-book conspiracy theorist. Climate policies are their tin-foil hat.

    This returns us to consequences and interventions. One way of challenging that widespread misconception and to mitigate its influence in the public sphere is to openly debate with people who believe it, to interrogate their claims and establish what is real and what has been presupposed or imagined. But the preferred mode of engagement by some academics who have taken it upon themselves to bring their academic insights to influence the public debate, is to turn would-be counterparts in a debate into objects of study, allowing their own presuppositions and misconceptions -- and worse -- to be passed off as academic inquiry.
  6. Why on Earth, having moved on to the Mother Country (and let me just add good riddance), are you still posting this bilge on a website funded by Australian taxpayers?
  7. Thank you, Prof Lewandowsky, for this summary of your Reply to our Commentary.

    We have posted our responses to your Reply at mygardenpond.wordpress.com.

    I will make just one point here.

    You say that the respondents to the panel survey all passed an ‘attention filter question’. This, however, has no bearing on whether you should remove the respondents who answered ‘neutral’ to all climate and conspiracy questions from the panel dataset as (inexplicably) you set ‘select the answer 3 (neutral)’ as the attention filter. That particular attention filter question seems a poor choice, as it will not exclude the well-known behaviour of survey respondents to select the central answer of a Likert Scale to mean something other than ‘neutral’ (such as ‘don’t know’, ‘have no opinion’ or ‘am not paying attention’). (Kulas et al. 2008, cited in our Commentary, goes into this type of behaviour in more detail).

    Our result does not depend on removing those respondents, but we wished to point out that doing so makes the bivariate linear relationship non-significant. The figures in our Commentary include all 1001 respondents.

    Ruth Dixon and Jonathan Jones
  8. James In Footscray at 06:10 AM on 23 April, 2015
    #5 Hi Ben, Lewandowsky's analogy says a lot: endorsing free market economics is similar to experiencing trauma and inhaling lead.
  9. Climate change denialists love a good conspiracy theory.

    Top scientists start to examine fiddled global warming figures
    The Global Warming Policy Foundation has enlisted an international team of five distinguished scientists to carry out a full inquiry

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/11561629/Top-scientists-start-to-examine-fiddled-global-warming-figures.html

    So you've got a birther, Steve Goddard, feeding the Prince of Charlatans (asbestos, smoking) Christopher Booker.
  10. I would like to see a study of correlations between the rejection of climate science and various forms of intellectual dishonesty, that would go beyond the anecdotal observations of comments like #6 and #8 (and, to a lesser degree, #3-5).
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