I don't know if you saw the wonderful conspiracy theory from the sockpuppeting ex-mod at WUWT, dbstealey (who has also posted as Smokey, D Böehm, D Böehm Stealey, and 'dbs, mod'). Anthony's staunchest ally, fan and WUWT moderator and attack dog, dbstealey, wrote not long ago that the KGB inserted Pope Francis as the head of the Catholic Church:
June 15, 2015 at 7:23 pmHis notion that Pope Francis is a KGB sleeper agent is right up there with the best of the multitude of zany conspiracy theories that Anthony Watts promotes on his denier blog.
...After Pope John Paul II faced down the Soviet Union, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was targeted by the KGB/FSB. They have a lot of patience. The current Pope is the result. Now they have their puppet in the Vatican.
Conspiracy ideation is virtually mandatory for climate science rejection
Conspiratorial thinking is the norm on denier blogs. It's virtually a pre-requisite for rejecting climate science. The science must be a hoax, or scientists are fudging the data or it's a communist plot. You don't have to go far into the comments to see examples. Here's a typical recent comment from WUWT:
June 16, 2015 at 9:12 am
So, deliberate fraud, then. Maybe you guys need to call these people out with a ‘Comment’ piece? Not just aimed at WUWT readers, but for a wider audience. What these people are doing is (imo) criminal.
That comment could be about anything relating to climate science. (In this case it referred to a recent NOAA paper.).
Almost every time Anthony Watts copies and pastes a press release about a new scientific paper, he prefaces the title with the word "claim". That's a trademark dogwhistle to his readers that science is not to be trusted. Any and all published science is to be treated not with scepticism but with deep suspicion. "Climate science is a hoax" is not just a caricature of a conspiracy-theorising fake sceptic, it's something that deniers actually say. For example, this time from an article, not merely a comment, at Anthony Watts' blog WUWT:
In the long run, the climate scare will be revealed as the most expensive hoax in the history of science.
Deniers don't like it very much when people make fun of their conspiratorial thinking. They like it even less when it's taken seriously and examined by scientists. Still less when that examination is published in the scientific literature.
Conspiracies about a paper about conspiracy theorising
A couple of years ago a paper (LOG12) published in Psychological Science drew the wrath of climate science deniers all over. It was all about how free market ideology was a predictor of climate science denial as well as some other science, such as that HIV causes AIDS, and that smoking causes lung cancer. The paper also found that over and above endorsement of free markets, endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories predicted rejection of climate science and other scientific findings. It also found that acceptance of science was strongly associated with the perception of a consensus among scientists.
LOG12 was called "NASA faked the moon landing—therefore,(climate) science is a hoax: an anatomy of the motivated rejection of science." It got a huge amount of attention in the deniosphere. There were all sorts of conspiracy theories about it. It was quite amazing to watch them unfold. A lot of people on climate blogs were talking about all the new material that deniers were offering to students of cognitive science.
The LOG12 authors didn't just notice the reaction. Some of them got together and used it to continue their studies into conspiracy theorising. In this case they used the material offered by the protesters to study the evolution of conspiracy theories. They published another paper called "Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation".
Frontiers editors allow themselves to be intimidated by denier bullies
In turn, Recursive Fury got deniers so incensed that a small number of them pestered the editors of the journal that published it. Their intimidation succeeded in getting Frontiers to retract the paper. The retraction wasn't on any ethical grounds. The journals own expert panel had no objections and it got ethics approval from the University of Western Australia. Nor because there was any flaw in the work itself. The editors piked, fearing litigation. The University of Western Australia didn't budge and housed the paper on its website.
As an aside, it is shocking that an academic journal would allow itself to be intimidated in this way. Of course it should be just as shocking that anyone would attempt to stifle scientific work - but as you know, deniers have no morals when it comes to anything related to climate science - they lie, defame scientists and more. That same publisher, Frontiers, allowed an HIV denial paper to remain - reclassifying it as "opinion" - in the same way that Anthony Watts publishes Tim Ball's crazy conspiracy theories and slimy articles as "opinion". (Frontiers journals are accumulating black marks as quickly as they are losing their editors.)
Anthony Watts decided deniers suffer a pathological affliction
One of the complaints on denier blogs was that the study "pathologised" individuals. Let's revisit what Anthony Watts wrote about Recursive Fury, the original:
Equally bad, Lewandowsky’s naming people in a science paper as having a psychological affliction without their consent was just another means to an end. Better to get the “deniers” out of the way while the slimetroopers march toward their claimed noble cause of saving the world.Nowhere in the paper is there a suggestion that any individual has a psychological affliction. The paper counters any notion that the study "pathologised" individuals. It was a thematic analysis. As the authors explained:
In a thematic analysis, the focus is exclusively on content as opposed to the construction of a single "story" or analysis of linguistic structure. Emphasis in thematic analysis is on 'what' is said, rather than `how', `to whom', or 'for what purpose'.There are a few conspiratorial themes in the WUWT quote (see below): spot the Persecuted Victim, even though Anthony Watts was barely mentioned in the original Recursive Fury paper. (A few of his articles rated a mention in the list of comments in the supplementary data.) His "just another means to an end" would meet the "Nefarious Intent" criterion. As would the "Better to get the "deniers" out of the way". Taken together with the whole article of Anthony's, one might see that "Nothing occurs by Accident" is woven throughout.
Following the retraction, cognitive scientist Dr Katharine Blackwell wrote:
Believing in a conspiracy theory is not a psychological disorder, any more than a religious belief is. Analyzing either kind of belief certainly pushes people’s buttons, but identifying someone as a conspiracy theorist is not all that different, from a cognitive psychological standpoint, than identifying them as believing in a god. It’s a belief they have shown through words or actions. The difference is whether it’s a label they would like to have or not, but neither one is a mental disorder.
Dr Blackwell linked to an article by Brian Dunning from Skeptoid, arguing the same. If people want to wear the label of "conspiracy theorist" they are free to do so. Just as they are free to wear the label "climate science denier". If they don't want their words to be interpreted as conspiratorial thinking then they could learn a lot from this paper.
Recursive Fury reborn as Recurrent Fury
Today, a new version of Recursive Fury has been published. It has the title Recurrent Fury. The work has been expanded. The paper describes two additional pieces of research that confirm the original analysis. It's also got two extra authors, Professor Scott Brophy of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Professor Elisabeth Lloyd of Indiana University. The two new authors were quite independent of the original work and were asked to validate the original study, which they did.
paper describes three studies:
- Study 1: Thematic analysis, which is the original Recursive Fury. The authors analysed blog articles and comments having conspiratorial themes related to LOG12. This was a depth analysis, which produced 172 items for the research. The researchers grouped these into categories based on that in the literature on conspiracy ideation. They also identified a new classification, which they called "Unreflexive Counterfactual Thinking".
- Study 2: Recreating classifications. In this work, the blogosphere was examined again and a whole lot of additional items were added. These were combined with a subset from Study 1, and the larger set of 508 items were classified into groupings of like conspiratorial thinking. The aim here was to test that the classifications were robust. That is, if the final classifications from this larger study was similar to that in Study 1, it would support the original analysis. And it did.
- Study 3: Blind test of conspiracist criteria. In this study, PhD students wrote scholarly criticisms of the moon-landing paper (written especially for this study by PhD students who were unknown to the authors). These were mixed in with the conspiratorial comments. Then a different lot of people classified the items in the combined set according to the conspiracy criteria. The purpose here was two-fold. It provided another independent test of the classification of the conspiratorial items. Plus, by comparing scholarly criticisms with conspiratorial comments, it showed that there was a difference between conspiratorial comments and scholarly criticism. This is despite the fact that the PhD students who wrote the scholarly criticisms were asked to be as sharply critical as possible of LOG12, the original paper. In other words, they were asked to nasty more than nice :)
Studies 2 and 3 were blind studies. The people doing the work weren't aware of LOG12 or the purpose of this study. In Study 2, the people who classified the items were led to believe the data was fabricated for the exercise. That is, they didn't know that the material was written by real people.
How conspiracy theories evolved
The reporting of the original thematic analysis is much the same as in the original Recursive Fury paper. The researchers analysed the conspiratorial reaction to LOG12 (the "moon landing" paper) in the blogosphere. The "recursive" in the original title has a particular meaning. The authors defined recursive as any potentially conspiracist opinion that related to LOG12 or the authors or any unsubstantiated or potentially conspiracist allegations relating to the study's methology, purpose or analysis. (Another Recursion definition: if you don't get it, see Recursion.)
- Nefarious Intent or Questionable Motives (QM): Assuming that the presumed conspirators have nefarious, or at least questionable, intentions.
- Persecuted Victim (PV): Self-identifying as the victim of an organised persecution.
- Nihilistic Skepticism or Over-riding Suspicion (OS): Refusing to believe anything that doesn't fit into the conspiracy theory, which in turn can be any hypothesis that can be described as conspiracy ideation. It doesn't have to be a grand conspiracy theory.
- Nothing occurs by Accident (NoA): Weaving any small random event into the conspiracy narrative.
- Something Must be Wrong (MbW): Switching liberally between different, even contradictory conspiracy theories that have in common only the presumption that there is something wrong in the official account by the alleged conspirators.
- Self-Sealing Reasoning (SS): Interpreting any evidence against the conspiracy as evidence for (or of) the conspiracy.
- Unreflexive Counterfactual Thinking: These included several hypotheses that were "built on a non-existent, counterfactual state of the world, even though knowledge about the true state of the world was demonstrably available at the time".
Anyone who has read comments to a newspaper or blog article about the moon-landing paper (LOG12) would have come across comments that fit one or more categories above. Anyone who's read comments about Recursive Fury Version 1 (2013) would also have come across such comments. You don't even have to go to climate science denying blogs. People posted them all over the place. Visit ShapingTomorrowsWorld.org or RetractionWatch.com and read the comments.
This latest paper is very long. The authors discuss each criterion in some detail. For example, they point out that criterion one (Nefarious Intent or Questionable Motives), and two (Persecuted Victim) are corollaries of each other.
Deniers as Persecuted Victims (and heroes)
Recently Anthony Watts, who runs a denier website WUWT, published more than a dozen articles protesting a new scientific paper from scientists at NOAA. He alleged fraud and lying (Nefarious Intent and Questionable Motives). He even wrote an email to the scientists accusing them of fraud. When his email was published (here), rather than own his baseless attack for what it was, Anthony twisted the situation and took on the mantle of the Persecuted Victim. He was particularly upset that his false and defamatory allegation was noticed by Andy Revkin in his DotEarth blog at the New York Times.
There was another theory at WUWT, which built on Anthony's Persecuted Victim ideation, in true recursive fury fashion. It was written by the same person who theorised that the KGB planted Pope Francis as head of the Catholic Church. Anthony Watts' lapdog, dbstealey wrote on June 15, 2015 at 3:40 am
...Revkin is a journalist, and he knows Peterson pretty well. Is there any doubt in your mind that they got their heads together, and came up with an action plan? Is there any doubt that Revkin understood what Peterson was planning to do with Anthony’s letter? Journalists ask questions. It’s what they do.
I think Revkin wass in on the whole thing from the beginning, and he knew what Peterson was planning. As Pat Frank points out, Peterson transformed Anthony’s private critical opinion into a manufactured public attack. It was deliberate. And of all the blogs to send it to, they decided on Hotwhopper...
So the conspiracy theory evolved from the NOAA scientists telling lies and committing fraud, to a "manufactured public attack" by Andy Revkin, who conspired with one of the scientists to publish a nasty email written by Anthony Watts. (The theory didn't go quite as far as, say, claiming that HotWhopper caused Anthony to write the email in the first place - or not yet at any rate.)
Playing the victim card allows people to big-note themselves as "heroes" to their fans. As the authors of Recurrent Fury write:
At least tacitly, people who hold conspiratorial views also perceive themselves as brave antagonists of the nefarious intentions of the conspiracy; that is, they are victims but also potential heros.
Not just potential heroes. Some "persecuted victims" proclaim their hero status loud and clear, just in case anyone doubts it. Only yesterday, in his article claiming climate science is a pact with the devil, Anthony Watts complained about being persecuted and how he's a hero for rejecting climate science and sliming scientists. He's not at all shy about claiming "hero" status. (Is there a category of narcissistic conspiracy ideation?)
Something Must be Wrong and Self-sealing reasoning
One of the long-lasting classic conspiracy theories revolves around the theft of thousands of emails stolen from the University of East Anglia. There were quite a few conspiracy theories circulating at the time in the deniosphere. Deniers quote-mined what they regarded as a treasure trove, twisting snippets of text into "hoax" and "scam" and "fraud". There were something like eight or nine separate enquiries (counting those on both sides of the Atlantic), all of which found any accusations of wrong-doing were baseless. The conspiracy theorists couldn't let it go. Rather than accept the overwhelming evidence that there was no evidence of wrong doing - not in the emails and not in the work of the scientists - they spun some more. Not only were scientists faking it, but the people who ran the separate enquiries became part of the scam, in their mind. Even today, you'll still occasionally come across people writing how the enquiries were a "whitewash". This comment at WUWT is from April this year: "hopefully it wont be another white-wash like the climategate email ‘inquiry’".
That comment is arguably on a thread relating to a spin-off conspiracy theory. The over-arching conspiracy theory favoured by the denialati is that climate science is a hoax. One (essential) spin off is that global surface temperature records are "fudged" to support the "hoax". The Global Warming Policy Foundation, a denier lobby group in the UK, is conducting an "enquiry" of its own. It's more spin than "enquiry" - a transparent attempt to disrupt the UN climate negotiations taking place this year. The GWPF "enquiry" has no time limit and its terms of reference are framed as denier-speak. The GWPF wouldn't have to ever finish the enquiry. Setting it up was sufficient to add uncertainty and doubt, if only in the minds of people who harbour the conspiracy theory that climate science is a hoax.
Nefarious Intent or Questionable Motives
Recurrent Fury describes how, in the climate science denial blogosphere, Professor Lewandowsky (and to a much lesser extent co-authors John Cook and Mike Marriott but not Klaus Oberauer that I've seen) is the big bad villain who has at best questionable motives or worse, nefarious intent. These villains are out to persecute innocent bloggers (Persecuted Victims) by publishing nasty papers about conspiracy theories. You'll have noticed that the people who complain are:
- owning that they reject mainstream science (big bad professor is persecuting we heroic science deniers) and
- owning that they are prone to conspiracy ideation (we are the ones being persecuted for having conspiracy theories).
Each of the comments collected (the paper describes how this was done) were examined and assigned to one or more of the above criteria (or no criteria) and assigned to a recursive hypothesis (which were developed during the analysis).
The main recursive hypotheses are listed in Table 3 of the report. I've rewritten them below together with the associated conspiracy criteria (expanding the acronyms) - so now you can analyse and categorise conspiracy ideas more easily :)
|Survey responses were "scammed" by warmists||Questionable Motives, Persecuted Victim, Something Must be Wrong, Self-sealing reasoning|
|"Skeptic" blogs not contacted||Questionable Motives, Over-riding suspicion, Persecuted Victim|
|Presentation of intermediate data||Questionable Motives, Over-riding suspicion, Something Must be Wrong, Unreflexive Counterfactual Thinking|
|"Skeptic" blogs contacted after delay||Questionable Motives, Over-riding suspicion, Something Must be Wrong, Nothing occurs by Accident, Unreflexive Counterfactual Thinking|
|Different versions of the survey||Questionable Motives, Something Must be Wrong, Unreflexive Counterfactual Thinking|
|Control data suppressed||Questionable Motives, Nothing occurs by Accident|
|Duplicate responses from the same IP number retained||Over-riding suspicion, Something Must be Wrong|
|Blocking access to author's website||Questionable Motives, Persecuted Victim, Nothing occurs by Accident|
|Global activism and government censorship||Questionable Motives, Persecuted Victim, Self-sealing reasoning|
Table 2 in the paper is illuminating. It lists the main blogs that responded to LOG12 (the moon-landing paper) and the number of Google hits for "Stephan Lewandowsky", and blog articles about LOG12 between 28 August and 18 October 2012. You can see from the number of blog articles, that two of the sites that were most obsessed with LOG12 were WUWT and climateaudit, which are known here at HotWhopper for their conspiracy theorising, among other things.
I've also added the current Alexa ranking - denier blogs have slipped a lot since their heyday (and since Alexa changed the system). Thought I'd rub that in :) (More here.) [I just remembered that the decline in WUWT's Alexa ranking spawned conspiracy ideation too, with Anthony's headline reading: "Smells fishy: Alexa’s data blunder hits Drudge, WUWT, mostly favors leftist news sites over conservative news sites". Added by Sou 9:55 pm 8 July 2015.]
Google hits a
Blog posts b
|Alexa Rank July 2015|
Notes: The blog australianclimatemadness.com is not among the top-30 "skeptic" sites but was a principal player in the response to LOG12 because its proprietor launched several freedom-of-information requests. Junkscience.com and climatedepot.com reposted content from other blogs but published no original content of their own. Sites identified with an asterisk were among the five sites contacted by LOG12 with an invitation to participate in the study. None did.
Recurrent Fury describes numerous examples of conspiracy weaving. The recursive part is any hypotheses that were spawned by LOG12 that was related to the methodology and results of LOG12. Here are some of them:
Survey responses were scammed - If you were around at the time the moon-landing paper came out, you'll have been enthralled by the numerous allegations of fakery and more. Steve McIntyre was one of the main bloggers who ran with the "survey responses were scammed" theory. I made a list of some of them at that time that Recursive Fury was withdrawn by the editor of Frontiers. This "scammed" conspiracy theory evolved and spun off in different guises, including, as the paper reported
"The scamming theory was also explicitly supported by the presumption that the LOG12 survey was intentionally designed to make "skeptics" look like "nutters".As if it needed a paper or anyone outside the deniosphere to do that. There's more:
Finally, without a priori specification of what constitutes faked responses, the scamming hypothesis is in principle unfalsifiable: there exists no response pattern that could not be considered fake by an innovative theorist. This potentially self-sealing attribute of the hypothesis (criterion SS) may explain its longevity.
Some comments related to the "scamming" notion also exhibited a possible incoherence that is characteristic of conspiracist discourse (Wood et al., 2012), for example by referring to the data from LOG12 as "badly-collected" and "totally-invented" (DC 15) in the same argument. It is not clear how data can be both invented and collected.You might recall also how deniers decided that the authors were lying when they said that denier blogs had been invited to post the survey. There's a delightful section in this paper that discusses how that conspiracy theory evolved. At one point, the authors write how eventually, after the authors got approval to identify the bloggers who were invited, and did so, this conspiracy theory faded. However:
First, the hypothesis that bloggers were not contacted was abandoned gradually. For example, one blogger opined that even if the blogs had been contacted, S.L. must have known that they would refuse to post the link because the results would have been distorted to try to "harm skeptics." [DC 99].3 This statement explicitly imputes a pervasive stance of suspicion among "skeptic" bloggers (criterion OS) because the statement presumes that any blogger would assume that the survey intended to "harm skeptics." This statement also illustrates the self-perception as a victim of persecution.Hah! Inviting deniers to participate was all a plot to hurt the poor little deniers. Circles within circles as they circle the wagons.
Confirming the analysis
This second paper, Recurrent Fury, includes two follow-on pieces of research, both of which confirm the original analysis. The further work was described as:
- Study 2: Recreating classifications
- Study 3: Blind test of conspiracist criteria
Study 2: Recreating classifications
4th year students were recruited to do the analysis. None of them knew the authors or knew about LOG12 (yeah, there are people in the world who don't know of its existence :D) They could classify each item in the list of 508 comments under one or more of the 38 hypothesis, or none of them and they could add new hypothesis categories.
Turns out that around 10% got turfed as not being classified. Of the remainder, there was acceptable consistency of results from the different participants who did the categorisation. When it came to comparing the results with Study 1 there was high correlation. This study 1 was confirmed independently
If a table emerged similar to Table 2 (see above), then that would be taken as support for the Study 1 analysis. It did, with high correlation.
Study 3: Blind test of conspiracist criteria
Study 3 was particularly illuminating, and showed that there is a big difference between scholarly criticism and conspiracy ideation.
Then, the researchers set up another group of 25 people to analyse 86 items. Each person got the 43 items from the scholarly critiques, plus 43 items randomly sampled from Study 1 or Study 2 (the conspiratorial-style comments).
The 86 items (43 randomly drawn from either Study 1 or Study 2 plus 43 from the PhD students) were mixed up so the people analysing them didn't know their origin.
The 25 people were asked to classify the items by answering a set of questions below each item. About half the 25 (I guess it was split 12/13) were given a set of 86 with only 43 Study 1 only plus 43 PhD items and half were given the broader set of 86 with 43 Study 2 plus 43 PhD items.
They were shown one of the 86 items at a time and, for each, one of the following question at a time, which they were to answer on a scale of 0 to 9.
To what extent does the commenter:
- believe that the scientists acted with questionable motives (Questionable motives)
- express deep-seated suspicion? (Suspicion)
- perceive himself/herself as a victim of scientists or research? (Victim)
- firmly believe that there must be something wrong with the research? (Something must be wrong)
- offer a reasonable and well thought out criticism of the research? (Reasonable critique)
So to sum up, the original analysis has been supported by two additional studies taking quite different approaches in each one. In particular, it strongly refutes any notion that the study "pathologised" individuals and showed that there is a big difference between scholarly criticism (from the PhD students) and conspiracy ideation (Study 3 above).
The publication of the reborn paper should put an end to denial that denier blogs are a source of lots of conspiratorial thinking. But of course it won't. Deniers enjoy playing Hero/Persecuted Victim by those of Nefarious Intent way too much.
References and further reading
Lewandowsky, Stephan, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Scott Brophy, Elisabeth A. Lloyd, and Michael Marriott. (2015). "Recurrent fury: Conspiratorial discourse in the blogosphere triggered by research on the role of conspiracist ideation in climate denial." Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3 (1). doi: 10.5964/jspp.v3i1.443. (open access)
- Restoring Recurrent Fury - Stephan Lewandowsky article about the paper
- FAQ - Recurrent Fury and conspiracy ideation - Stephan Lewandowsky
Lewandowsky, Stephan, Klaus Oberauer, and Gilles E. Gignac. "NASA faked the moon landing—therefore,(climate) science is a hoax an anatomy of the motivated rejection of science." Psychological Science 24, no. 5 (2013): 622-633. doi: 10.1177/0956797612457686 (pdf here) - referred to above as LOG12
Smith, Nicholas, and Anthony Leiserowitz. "The rise of global warming skepticism: Exploring affective image associations in the United States over time." Risk Analysis 32, no. 6 (2012): 1021-1032. DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01801.x (pdf here)
Blog articles from or about the three editors who resigned from Frontiers, after it withdrew Recursive Fury:
- Ugo Bardi, Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Firenze - explaining why he is resigning, and some further thoughts
- Colin Davis, Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol - who spoke with Graham Readfearn of DeSmogBlog
- Björn Brems, Professor of Neurogenetics, Institute of Zoology, Universität Regensburg - explaining why he is resigning, plus some follow up thoughts.
- Conspiracies all the way down: Is your local climate contrarian a kook or a crook? - by Greg Laden
- Climate denial linked to conspiratorial thinking in new study - by Dana Nuccitelli at the Guardian
Selected articles from HotWhopper
- Unbalanced Antagonism: The UWA Vice-Chancellor stands up to a "vexatious" blogger - March 2014
- Recursive furies, hurt feelings or confected outrage - March 2014
- Anthony Watts weakly protests Recurrent Fury - the reaction from WUWT - July 2015