Lew’s Thinking

I’ve submitted a paper “Lysenko was Wrong: therefore Lewandowsky should be Sectioned” to “New Frontiers in Psychological Science” and they’re considering it for publication.

Only joking. The real title is “Ideational Conspiracism among Theorisers of Conspirationist Ideation: A Meta-Study”. (Note to Lewandowsky, Mann et al., before they write another paper about death threats to scientists: “sectioned” doesn’t mean what you think it means).

I analysed the second part of the Lewandowsky, Cook, Marriott & Oberauer paper “Recursive Fury” (the “discourse analysis” assembled from quotes on blogs by Cook and Marriott) at


[Cook and Marriott are the Laurel and Hardy of Climate Psychology. Or is Cook playing Baldrick to Lewandowsky’s Blackadder? And who, in that case, is Oberauer?]

I promised then to analyse the front bit, the part where Lewandowsky defines the Six Signs by which You Can Tell  a Conspiracy Theorist.

Yes, there are Six Signs detailed at “Recursive Fury”, and Three Versions of the Paper. 666. It all fits!

[There was an excellent exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland  this summer on witchcraft where you could see editions of the “Malleus Maleficarum” and similar material. I think it’s coming to the British Museum: - well worth a visit]

A lot has happened in the last two months, including two new Lew papers and a series of articles by Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit showing how Lew manages to summon up correlations from sample sizes of zero. The latest is at


The first of McIntyre’s articles led to a paper by Wood et al. which makes the same error, and comments there led me to a group of young British psychology researchers on conspiracy theorising whose work is discussed at


I commented there and got an amicable and useful reply from one of the authors, Rob Brotherton. I started explaining what I thought was wrong with Lewandowsky’s definition of conspiracy theorising there, then realised it was much too long for a comment, so I’ll do it here, marking my own territory as it were.

*       *       *

The section of “Recursive Fury” entitled “Conspiracist Classification Criteria” (pp 10-12) lists the six criteria making up Lewandowsky’s definition of Conspiracist Ideation.

1) The first is Nefarious Intent, of which Lewandowsky says: “First, the presumed intentions behind any conspiracy are invariably nefarious (Keeley, 1999): Conspiracist ideation never involves groups of people whose intent is to do good, as for example when planning a surprise birthday party. Instead, conspiracist ideation relies on the presumed deceptive intentions of the people or institutions responsible for the ‘official’ account that is being questioned (Wood, Douglas, & Sutton, 2012). There is evidence that climate denial is infused with this assumption of nefarious intent, for example when climate science and research on the harmful effects of DDT are interpreted as a globalist and environmentalist agenda designed to impoverish the West and push civilisation back into the stone age (Delingpole, 2011).” 

Keeley’s paper is the musings of a philospher on the meaning of conspiracy theorising, and his observation of its nefarious intent seems to me unobjectionable. (Wood, Douglas, & Sutton, 2012) is the unpublished paper “Dead and Alive” whose main conclusion, (people who believe Diana was murdered also believe she faked her own death) Steve McIntyre has shown to be based on a sample of zero respondents. Delingpole is a humorous blogger. I don’t know what he’s doing here, except perhaps marking the fact that Lewandowsky doesn’t like him.

2) Persecution-Victimisation. Lewandowsky continues:

“A corollary of the first criterion is the pervasive self-perception and self-presentation among conspiracy theorists as the victims of organized persecution. The theorist typically considers herself, at least tacitly, to be the brave antagonist of the nefarious intentions of the conspiracy; that is, the victim is also a potential hero. The theme of the victimization of conspiracy theorists or their allies features prominently in science denial, for example when isolated scientists who oppose the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS are presented as persecuted heros and are likened to Galileo. (Kalichman, 2009; Wagner-Egger et al., 2011). We refer to this persecution-victimization criterion as PV for short.”

The references are to Kalichman, S. C. (2009). “Denying AIDS: Conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and human tragedy”. (a book which I haven’t seen) and Wagner-Egger et al (2011). “Lay perceptions of collectives at the outbreak of the H1N1 epidemic: heroes, villains and victims.”  Here is the abstract:

“Lay perceptions of collectives (e.g., groups, organizations, countries) implicated in the 2009 H1N1 outbreak were studied. Collectives serve symbolic functions to help laypersons make sense of the uncertainty involved in a disease outbreak. We argue that lay representations are dramatized, featuring characters like heroes, villains and victims. In interviews conducted soon after the outbreak, 47 Swiss respondents discussed the risk posed by H1N1, its origins and effects, and protective measures. Countries were the most frequent collectives mentioned. Poor, underdeveloped countries were depicted as victims, albeit ambivalently, as they were viewed as partly responsible for their own plight. Experts (physicians, researchers) and political and health authorities were depicted as heroes. Two villains emerged: the media (viewed as fear mongering or as a puppet serving powerful interests) and private corporations (e.g., the pharmaceutical industry). Laypersons’ framing of disease threat diverges substantially from official perspectives.”

It’s pretty clear that this study of the attitudes of  47 Swiss citizens has nothing at all to do with conspiracy theorists seeing themselves as victims. Some poor underdeveloped countries were seen as victims by some respondents in some group discussions in Switzerland, that’s all. There is no mention of conspiracy theorists.

Lewandowsky calls the second criterion “a corollary of the first”.  A corollary is  “a proposition that follows with little or no proof required from one already proven” or “something that naturally follows or results from another thing”. So, according to Lewandowsky, if I accept his first criterion for conspiracy theorising – the unobjectionable proposition that it involves an accusation of nefarious intent – then I must necessarily accept the second, that the conspiracy theorist sees himself as a brave victim. But this is a non sequitur. There is no logical connection between accusing someone of nefarious intent and believing oneself to be persecuted or a victim.

3) Nihilistic Skepticism. Lewandowsky says: “Third, during its questioning of an official account, conspiracist ideation is characterized by “. . . an almost nihilistic degree of skepticism” (Keeley, 1999, p. 125); and the conspiracy theorist refuses to believe anything that does not  fit into the conspiracy theory. Thus, nothing is at it seems, and all evidence points to hidden agendas or some other meaning that only the conspiracy theorist is aware of. Accordingly, low trust (Goertzel, 1994) and paranoid ideation (Darwin, Neave, & Holmes, 2011) feature prominently among personality and attitudinal variables known to be associated with conspiracist ideation. The short label for this criterion is NS (for nihilistic skepticism).”

Keeley is quoted again. I read this essay  last year, but unfortunately it’s no longer available on the net, and you can’t even buy it. It’s a perfectly competent characterisation of what  conspiracy theorising is like, as far as I remember. (Goertzel 1994) is a proper survey, though a localised, small-scale one. Here’s the abstract:

“A survey of 348 residents of southwestern New Jersey showed that most believed that several of a list of ten conspiracy theories were at least probably true.  People who believed in one conspiracy were more likely to also believe in others.  Belief in conspiracies was correlated with anomia, lack of interpersonal trust, and insecurity about employment.  Black and hispanic respondents were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than were white respondents.  Young people were slightly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, but there were few significant correlations with gender, educational level, or occupational category.” 

(You can see why Lewandowsky wouldn’t want to go too much into detail about conspiracists being more likely to be young blacks and hispanics in a survey of the opinions of old white climate sceptics. Goertzel found 69% of his sample believed there was a conspiracy to kill JFK, 41% that Martin Luther KIng was assassinated by the FBI, etc.) I do recommend reading it. It’s a proper scientific paper. It says nothing about nihilistic skepticism though.

I can’t find even the abstract of Darwin, Hannah, Neave, Nick and Holmes, Joni (2011) “Belief in conspiracy theories. The role of paranormal belief, paranoid ideation and schizotypy.” I can buy it, but 28 euros for 5 pages seems a bit steep. What if I don’t like it? 

4) Nothing is an Accident Fourth, to the conspiracy theorist, nothing happens by accident (e.g., Barkun, 2003). Thus, small random events are woven into a conspiracy narrative and reinterpreted as indisputable evidence for the theory. For example, the conspiracy theory that blames the events of 9/11 on the Bush administration relies on “evidence” (e.g., intact windows at the Pentagon; Swami et al., 2009) that are at least equally consistent with randomness. We refer to this criterion, that nothing is an accident as NoA for short.”

From the Amazon description of Barkun, M. (2003). “A culture of conspiracy: Apocalyptic visions in contemporary America”:

“It is well known that some Americans are obsessed with conspiracies [...] Barkun shows how this web of urban legends has spread among subcultures on the Internet and through mass media, how a new style of conspiracy thinking has recently arisen [...] Barkun discusses a range of material—involving inner-earth caves, government black helicopters, alien abductions, secret New World Order cabals, and much more—that few realize exists in our culture. [...] from religious and political literature, to New Age and UFO publications, to popular culture phenomena such as The X-Files, and to websites, radio programs, and more, Barkun finds that America is in the throes of an unrivaled period of millennarian activity…”

“a new style of conspiracy thinking … that few realize exists in our culture … X-Files”?  Where has the author been hiding?

I can’t get hold of Swami, V., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2009) “Unanswered questions: A preliminary investigation of predictors of 9/11 conspiracist beliefs” either. I expect there’s more to it than intact windows at the Pentagon though.

5) “Must be Wrong”. “Fifth, the underlying lack of trust and exaggerated suspicion contribute to a cognitive pattern whereby specific hypotheses may be abandoned when they become unsustainable, but those corrections do not impinge on the overall abstraction that `something must be wrong’ and the ‘official’ account must be based on deception (Wood et al., 2012). In the case of LOG12, the ‘official’ account is the paper’s conclusions that conspiracist ideation contributes to science denial; and it is this conclusion that must be wrong. At that higher level of abstraction, it does not matter if any particular hypothesis is right or wrong or incoherent with earlier ones because “ . . the specifics of a conspiracy theory do not matter as much as the fact that it is a conspiracy theory at all” (Wood et al., 2012, p. 5). Thus, the specific claims and assumptions being invoked by conspiracist ideation may well be fluctuating, but they are all revolving around the  fixed belief that the official version is wrong. In consequence, it may not even matter if hypotheses are mutually contradictory, and the simultaneous belief in mutually exclusive theories (e.g., that Princess Diana was murdered but also faked her own death|) has been identified as an aspect of conspiracist ideation (Wood et al., 2012). We label this criterion MbW, for ‘must be wrong’.”

Here he cites three times the still unpublished Wood et al paper which falsely claims that people held mutually contradictory opinions about Diana’s death, and own paper LOG12 (“Moon Hoax”). Even when citing himself, Lewandowsky must get it wrong. I know of no example of his critics challenging “the paper’s conclusions that conspiracist ideation contributes to science denial”. The bit we challenged was the supposed link between conspiracist ideation and climate scepticism.

6) “Self Sealing”: “Finally, contrary evidence is often interpreted as evidence for a conspiracy. This ideation relies on the notion that, the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy, the more the conspirators must want people to believe their version of events (Bale, 2007; Keeley, 1999; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). This self-sealing reasoning necessarily widens the circle of presumed conspirators because the accumulation of contrary evidence merely identifies a growing number of people or institutions that are part of the conspiracy. Concerning climate denial, a case in point is the response to events surrounding the illegal hacking of personal emails by climate scientists, mainly at the University of East Anglia, in 2009. Selected content of those emails was used to support the theory that climate scientists conspired to conceal evidence against climate change or manipulated the data (see, e.g., Montford, 2010; Sussman, 2010). After the scientists in question were exonerated by 9 investigations in 2 countries, including various parliamentary and government committees in the U.S. and U.K., those exonerations were re-branded as a “whitewash” (see, e.g., U.S. Representative Rohrabacher’s speech in Congress on 8 December 2011), thereby broadening the presumed involvement of people and institutions in the alleged conspiracy. We refer to this “self-sealing” criterion by the short label SS.”

Bale, J. M. (2007). “Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics” seems to be a really interesting paper, which I’ll get round to reading one of these days. It has (pp7-9) a useful definition of conspiracy theories.  Nothing in it about “self-sealing” though.

The origin of the term “self-sealing” seems to be the Sunstein & Vermeule paper, “Conspiracy Theories”, though the source of the idea may be Festinger: “When Prophesy Fails” (1956) a classic study of millenarian cults. Sunstein & Vermeule say in the abstract to their article: “A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality [...] Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a “crippled epistemology,” in accordance with which it is rational to hold such theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups.”

Finally, in the discussion of the definition of “self-sealing”, Lewandowsky suddenly starts discussing Climategate, citing Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the corruption of science” and taking him to task for not believing the official exoneration of the scientists involved. Is he implying that Montford’s scepticism is a sign of a “crippled epistemology” and his blog Bishop Hill counts as an “extremist group”?  I wonder if it’s been cognitively infiltrated yet?

                                                         *       *       *

How bad is all this?  Is it worse than someone who disseminates urban legends, quoting something he heard from a bloke down the pub? Time and again Lewandowsky makes an assertion, and gives as his source a paper that says no such thing. It’s like him saying he heard it from a bloke down the pub, and when you interview the bloke in question, you find out he didn’t say what he was quoted as saying, and in fact was talking about a different subject entirely. It’s that bad.

Both Lewandowsky’s “review of the literature”  and Cook’s “discourse analysis” prove to be chock full of misquotes, false reasoning and non sequiturs.

There’s a technical term in psychology for this kind of problem; it’s called “poor reading skills”.

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11 Responses to Lew’s Thinking

  1. John Cook misquotes Howard

    and Brandon takes him apart in the comments


    well worth a read…

    as Cook’s source do not provide the quotes, and it turn out he is ‘characterizing’ what he thinks Howard thinks..

    yet he quoted Howard as if they were Howards exact words..


    He even goth some pushback at SkK, before the locals, explained it all away.


  2. Jonathan Jones
    That’s the one, Thanks. It’s a survey of 120 people. I don’t know how many schizotypes you get in a random sample of 120 Geordies. Enough to pontificate about, no doubt.

  3. Barry Woods
    Thanks Barry. I’ve commented at Climasphere. Nothing like a bit of concerted nefarious intent for stirring things…

  4. alexjc38 says:

    Geoff, re your 4) with Barkun’s “new style of conspiracy thinking”, yes indeed, from that description the author does seem to be downplaying the fact that this stuff has been around for decades, with roots that go back centuries.

    He must have come across, for instance, The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (which takes a bit of an effort to read, admittedly), published in 1975 and which Wikipedia describes as a “seminal work of conspiracy fiction”.

    On a different note, how’s this for a conspiracy theory on a grand scale?


    In particular, I find it fascinating that the people (according to Wiki) who found themselves carried away by the SRA moral panic were not the sort of stereotypical isolated nutters Lew wants to paint his subjects as. They included “psychotherapists, social workers and police”. For a while, at least, this conspiratorial ideation was part of the mainstream.

  5. Pingback: The Crippling Effect of Over-thinking. Everything. | SoshiTech

  6. Alex: I wouldn’t trust Wikipedia on child abuse, based on what Andrew Orlowski said to me, completely unsolicited, about this issue when I mentioned my appreciation of his critiques of Wikipedia at the end of the Steve McIntyre’s presentation at the GWPF last year. I’ll leave that subject anecdotal and vague here but Andrew sounded as if he has a big story to tell when the time is right.

    I’ve never met Valerie Sinasun of the Tavistock Institute but I have talked to one very sensible-sounding lady of the media who does know her well who also takes the issue of ritual abuse totally seriously. A little while later I was talking to Helen Bamber, founder of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, then based in Kentish Town, close to my home, and not that far away from the Tavistock. I mentioned Valerie’s work caring for the victims of ritual abuse and how controversial it was. Helen simply said “Of course it goes on.” I replied “You would know.”

    I remains anecdotal I know. But there are limits to what polling can tell us about the darkest places in the human heart and the experience of its youngest victims.

  7. Many thanks to Paul Matthews and Steve McIntyre for sending me papers that were missing from my collection, and to Barry Woods for sending me a brand new paper by Swami et al.

    I’ve laboured enough the joke about the prolific Dr Swami and his studies of the appreciation of female buttocks and the sex appeal of dentists. His new study “Lunar Lies: The Impact of Informational Framing and Individual Differences in Shaping Conspiracist Beliefs About the Moon Landings” is a proper survey properly conducted, with proper questionnaires administered in a proper setting to a properly structured sample. As far as I can see, the other studies also are “normal” mini-surveys within the obvious budget restrictions of academic research. None of them present the truly surreal problems encountered in the two Lewandowsky papers.

  8. I appreciate the head post, from which I learned a lot, and the follow-up just now Geoff, showing that others are lending a hand. It’s important but difficult to achieve anything like balance in this area. I was struck by johanna‘s praise for Camilleri yesterday for striking a balance in his novels between ‘conspiracies, superstition, vendettas and ignorance’. A significant achievement in fiction. In the ‘real world’ one could argue TS Eliot’s aphorism that we cannot bear too much reality conspires to make it fall short of the real world.

    The firing of Susan Watts by the BBC today is interesting not just because of her involvement in climate reporting for many years but because of her central role in the David Kelly story in 2003. The following Wikipedia paragraph is I think accurate enough to remind us:

    She had felt under “considerable internal pressure” to back her employers, despite her own misgivings and as a result she was represented by independent counsel at the Hutton Inquiry. There she told Lord Hutton that she regarded Kelly’s remarks about the involvement of Alastair Campbell in the strengthening of claims in the dossier as no more than a “glib statement” and a “gossipy aside” for which Kelly had no evidence. Gilligan had decided to make more of similar remarks drawn from his memory of his conversations with Dr Kelly.

    As well at the forceful debate on Bishop Hill about Watts’ credentials or otherwise as a voice of reason on climate (Ben Pile and artwest being pretty convincing in the argument against for me), I think the above is quite an amusing example for angry climate sceptics because in a sense it forces us to choose between two ‘bad guys’ who many have been convinced have conspired against the truth: the BBC and Alastair Campbell.

    I have tended to take Susan Watts side against the BBC, meaning that I think Kelly’s accusation against Campbell was overblown, something arising out of a false conspiracy theory in the scientist’s mind, you could say, just as Blair’s head of communication has always insisted. The pressure she came under from her employers when Andrew Gilligan made the wrong call on this was totally unacceptable.

    This is just one piece of the Kelly mystery but it illustrates the continual presence of conspiracy and conspiracist thinking in the very small and how hard it is to get at the truth even in the very small.

  9. alexjc38 says:

    @ Richard, it would be very interesting (and also disturbing) to see what emerges, re ritual abuse. As usual, I’ve tended to take Wikipedia a bit too much at face value and the reality, as ever, promises to be somewhat more nuanced.

  10. Andrew Kennett says:

    alexjc38 — as usual I find your comments extra useful but lay off the The Illuminatus! Trilogy its a great book :)

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