FAQs for PLoS1 paper by Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Oberauer

This post contains FAQs and answers to the paper by Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Oberauer that was published in PLOS ONE in 2013, entitled The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.

The abstract of the paper is reproduced below, and because PLOS ONE is an open access journal the paper itself can be accessed here:


Background: Among American Conservatives, but not Liberals, trust in science has been declining since the 1970’s. Climate science has become particularly polarized, with Conservatives being more likely than Liberals to reject the notion that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the globe. Conversely, opposition to genetically-modified (GM) foods and vaccinations is often ascribed to the political Left although reliable data are lacking. There are also growing indications that rejection of science is suffused by conspiracist ideation, that is the general tendency to endorse conspiracy theories including the specific beliefs that inconvenient scientific findings constitute a “hoax.”

Methodology/Principal findings: We conducted a propensity weighted internet-panel survey of the U.S. population and show that conservatism and free-market worldview strongly predict rejection of climate science, in contrast to their weaker and opposing effects on acceptance of vaccinations. The two worldview variables do not predict opposition to GM. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, predicts rejection of all three scientific propositions, albeit to greatly varying extents. Greater endorsement of a diverse set of conspiracy theories predicts opposition to GM foods, vaccinations, and climate science.

Conclusions: Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested. We highlight the manifold cognitive reasons why conspiracist ideation would stand in opposition to the scientific method. The involvement of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science has implications for science communicators.


Q: What are the theoretical reasons for conducting this research?

A: There is a long-standing tradition of epistemological enquiry in philosophy that seeks to differentiate between justifiable (and potentially scientific) knowledge on the one hand, and conspiracy theorizing on the other—a problem that turns out to be quite nuanced and tricky. Those efforts have recently been augmented by empirical work in cognitive science, which seeks to analyze conspiratorial thinking into its constituents and seeks to identify associated psychological predictors. The present paper fits squarely within this theoretical tradition.


Q: What are the pragmatic implications of this research?

A: The public has a right to be informed about the risks societies are facing, from issues such as climate change or the introduction of GM foods to often-fatal diseases that are preventable by childhood vaccinations. Sadly, the public is currently prevented from exercising that right, especially as it relates to climate change, because the media coverage in many countries fails to reflect the overwhelming and strengthening scientific consensus. In addition to the widespread misleading representation of scientific issues in the media, there are cognitive and motivational factors that cause some people to deny well-established scientific facts, such as climate change or the benefits of vaccinations. Because such denial, when sufficiently vocal, can exacerbate the media misrepresentations, this alone renders the present research important. Moreover, its importance is enhanced by the well-known fact that people cannot readily dismiss misinformation unless they are provided with reasons for why false information was propagated in the first place. Thus, for the public to regain its right to accurate knowledge of the risks we are facing, it must also understand what motivates people to deny those risks.


Q: Are all skeptics “deniers”?

A: No. Scientists are skeptics and they use the peer-reviewed literature for vigorous debate. However, climate scientists no longer debate the fundamental fact that the globe is warming from greenhouse gas emissions, and in the medical community, doubts about the efficacy of vaccinations no longer have much intellectual respectability. Beyond such fundamentals, the submission portals of journals remain wide open for skeptical debate. Denial differs from skepticism because it usually side-steps the peer-reviewed literature and replaces skeptical analysis with the noise of talkfests or blogs.


Q: Is there no room for debate?

A: Of course there is. Science is debate, but that debate takes place in the scientific literature and at scientific conferences. In the history of science, we are not aware of a case in which a serious scientific issue was adjudicated by tabloid journalists or their modern-day equivalents such as blog commenters. Anyone truly interested in scientific debate can contribute to it by submitting papers to the relevant journals for peer review.


Q: Do the results imply that people who reject scientific findings should be silenced?

A: No. Far from it, everybody is most welcome to contribute opinions and potential data (in the form of blog comments and hypotheses) to the public sphere. However, the public has a right to be informed about why people voice such hypotheses and how they differ from sound scientific reasoning. Out latest paper places some emphasis on the difference between scientific reasoning and other modes of cognition in the Discussion.


Q: What is most surprising about our results?

A: The involvement of conspiratorial thinking in the rejection of science is not very surprising, given the existing body of literature that we review in the paper. Similarly, the important role of free-market worldviews in the rejection of climate science is also not surprising in light of previous results—including work by ourselves but even more so by Dan Kahan and Robert Gifford and others. What is surprising, and in our view quite remarkable, is the absence of any role of free-market worldview or conservatism in the rejection of GM foods, and their rather weak (and mutually opposing) role in the rejection of vaccinations. As we note in the paper, these results fly in the face of media speculation which—based on anecdotal evidence—ascribed opposition to vaccinations and GM foods to the political left. We find no evidence for this association concerning GM foods, and only weak evidence in the case of vaccinations. (Vaccinations are a nuanced beast and the article explores those nuances in greater depth.)


Q: Are all “deniers” conspiracy theorists?

A: No. There are many other variables that drive people to deny inconvenient scientific facts. The primary variable in many instances appears to be a perceived threat to people’s worldview: Mitigation of climate change threatens people who cherish unregulated free markets because it might entail corporate regulation or taxes on carbon; vaccinations threaten Libertarians’ conceptions of parental autonomy, and so on. However, even when those primary variables are controlled, there is a discernible conspiracist element to science denial. After all, if a U.S. Senator writes a book entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, then the public is entitled to know how widespread such beliefs are. In fact, our work shows that those beliefs are not exactly widespread: Not only is the number of climate “deniers” relatively small—and highly disproportionate to the public noise they generate—but conspiratorial thinking accounts for only a modest component of the variance in people’s opinions about climate change (although our paper shows that this component is greater and quite substantial for vaccinations).


Q: How might people who reject scientific findings deal with the now fairly well-established fact that denial involves a measure of conspiratorial thinking?

A: Some ideologically-motivated people who oppose the scientific consensus on climate change have recognized that their proximity to conspiratorial thinking is discomforting and have publically distanced themselves from that component of denial, in particular its anti-Semitic element. The present data may provide a further “Sister Souljah” moment.


Q: Where should skeptical members of the public who are confused by the denial campaign turn to obtain further information or to voice their concerns?

A: In addition to the peer-reviewed literature, there are several excellent websites that disseminate  evidence-based information about climate change. I list a few of them here:

There are many additional sources but this sample should suffice for starters. Readers who like their message presented as a video will enjoy this site.


Q: How does this paper mesh with other recent publications, such as the paper by Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac (2013; LOG from here on) that identified conspiratorial thinking among visitors to climate blogs?

A: There has been some recent concern about the replicability of scientific findings, particularly in the social sciences. This concern is valid and it is best met by showing that phenomena replicate, preferably under a variety of different circumstances. Thus, it is important that the famous “hockeystick” graph, which shows that current global temperatures are likely unprecedented in the last 1000 years or more, has been replicated many times. Equally, it is important to establish that the association between science denial and conspiratorial thinking is robust and holds under a variety of circumstances. In addition to the recent work by my colleagues and I, we now have a fairly robust body of research that establishes this association in a number of domains, from climate science to vaccinations to HIV/AIDS. Many of those sources are cited in the PLOS ONE paper. The paper also explains why those associations are not entirely surprising. 


Q: How does this study differ from the one reported by LOG?

A: There are several notable differences—the fact that those differences did not alter the basic pattern of results reveals how resilient the relationships between the various variables are to moderately substantial variations in methodology.

  • Unlike LOG, which relied on visitors to climate blogs, the present study used a representative sample of the American population, and the data were collected by a professional survey firm.
  • Unlike LOG, this study involved a number of additional scientific issues and psychological constructs: We included GM foods and vaccinations, and we separated conservatism and free-market worldviews into two separate constructs.
  • The response options for all items involved a “neutral” option. This differs from LOG, which omitted the neutral option. Both choices have ample precedent in the literature, and each has associated with it some distinct advantages and disadvantages.
  • We included an attention-filter question in the survey and we considered only those participants who passed that attention-filter.
  • We used a different (but related) analysis method in this paper owing to the large(r) number of manifest variables and the fact that the response scale had more categories.