Imagine if the government announced that those who disagreed with its policies or who refused to accept everything it said as the gospel truth were irrational creatures suffering from persecution mania. Imagine if there was a group of scientists who announced that this was so, and that they could prove it and would display their proofs in the scientific literature, where no-one else except other scientists would be able to contradict it.
Well there is such a group. And they’re organised. And they’re out to get us.
When the story of the original Lewandowsky “Moon Hoax” paper broke, my reaction was one of anger and disbelief that such obviously crap research by some obscure, obsessed professor from the University of Western Australia, with its crap survey methodology, crap statistics and crap reasoning should be taken seriously in the mainstream press.
A year later, following the utter demolition of Lewandowsky’s research in a campaign on sceptic blogs which one journalist (the only one to my knowledge to have expressed the smallest iota of scepticism with respect to Lewandowsky’s work) described as “literally the worst flame war I have ever seen on the Internet”,
with one of his papers revised and delayed for six months [so that, in the scientific literature, (Lewandowsky 2113a) has become the follow up paper to (Lewandowsky 2113b) and with (Lewandowsky 2113a) twice revised and still “removed” from the journal’s site pending enquiries], Professor Lewandowsky has crossed the world to become Professor of Psychology in the University of Bristol, thanks to a five figure sum (in sterling) provided by a government-funded scheme to attract academic talent, topped up with a medal from the Royal Society. On his way he stopped off to give a talk at at the annual conference of the prestigious American Geophysical Union, and found the time to write a third paper reporting the results of yet another survey on the subject of climate sceptics as conspiracy theorists, plus a paper co-written with Michael Mann about the awful things that happen to Professors at the hands of climate sceptics, plus write numerous articles and give numerous interviews at Huffington Post, the New Yorker, the New Scientist, etc.
But why carry on attacking this idiotic charlatan? Why not let his patently absurd work be quietly forgotten?
One blogger, rather more statistically skilled than I (and much politer) who won’t forget is Steve McIntyre, who has turned up another absurdity at
Lewandowsky in his “Recursive Fury” paper stated that “conspiracy theorists often subscribe to contradictory beliefs at the same time – for example, that MI6 killed Princess Diana, and that she also faked her own death”, citing an article by Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton, all of the University of Kent.
Steve Mcintyre went to the bother of obtaining the data for the Wood et al paper, first requesting it from Wood, then, when the author prevaricated and then failed to answer emails, via an FOI request to their university. Steve discovered that the number of respondents to his survey who believe that Diana is both alive and dead is zero, and that the paper’s thesis is based on a rather simple statistical fallacy.
A number of interesting facts emerge in the comments to Steve’s article:
1) Brandon Shollenberger quotes from a letter he had already independently sent to Wood, explaining his error with admirable clarity
2) Bob Koss notes that Wood and Douglas have a new paper out: “What about building 7? A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories” which cites their “Dead and Alive” paper, and also Lewandowsky’s “Moon Hoax” and “Recursive Fury” papers.
3) Commenter Sue notes that Lewandowsky was one of the reviewers of Wood and Douglas’s “Building 7” paper.
4) A Scott notes: “Michael Wood was one of the original reviewers of the ‘Recursive Fury’ paper. I emailed and asked him, to the extent he was comfortable, if he would comment on his being removed as a reviewer after initial publication. He cordially and timely responded indicating he had issues with the paper, asked for revisions, but they were not made, hence he asked to be removed as a reviewer. ‘Recursive Fury’ also listed Wood’s paper as a reference.”
5) Brandon Shollenberger says that he pointed out to Lewandowsky and Oberauer that they had made precisely the same statistical fallacy over a year ago in a comment to their own article at
6) A Scott discovers a blog entitled “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories”
run by Mike Wood and three other PhD researchers at University of London (Goldsmiths) and the University of Kent.
7) Sue links to an article linking to a special edition of PsyPAG Quarterly, published by the Psychology PostGraduate Affairs Group, with articles by all four blog authors and others, entirely devoted to the psychology of conspiracy theories.
I’ve left a comment there, and another on an article about Lewandowsky’s research at
These four young researchers and their colleagues and PhD supervisors are very conscious of the fact that theirs is a new and growing field. The very first article in PsyPAG Quarterly, “An introduction into the world of conspiracy” by Christopher Thresher-Andrews, asks: “What is a ‘conspiracy theory’?” and replies to his own question thus:
“… in its broadest sense, a conspiracy theory is an accusation that the crime of conspiracy has taken place. However, there is something more unique [sic] and complex in what we culturally assume a ‘conspiracy theory’ to be (and as psychologists, find the most interesting). What exactly constitutes a conspiracy theory is itself a topic of debate both within psychology and further afield in sociology and political science. Rob Brotherton’s article in our special issue aims to explore these issues in more detail, highlighting the difficulties of studying something that we have yet to fully define. Broadly, psychologists feel that conspiracy theories are worth studying because they demonstrate a particular sub-culture of often heavily political activism that is at odds with the mainstream view. Conspiracy theories are unsubstantiated, less plausible alternatives to the mainstream explanation of an event; they assume everything is intended, with malignity. Crucially, they are also epistemically selfinsulating in their construction and arguments.”
[The emphasis is mine, of course, and it’s a heavy heavy emphasis, possibly linked to some heavily political activism, or possibly linked to my awareness that my views are at odds with the mainstream view.]
Thresher-Andrews goes on to quote Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay on “the Paranoid Style in American Politics” and Goertzel’s 1994*
sociological opinion piece published in a journal of microbiology, and then (Wood, Douglas & Sutton, 2012) – the very paper discussed by McIntyre which claims to analyse the thoughts of people who don’t actually appear in the survey – who don’t actually exist, in fact.
*[Wrong. Goertzel 1994 is a proper survey of belief in conspiracy theories]
In the second article, “Towards a definition of ‘conspiracy theory’”, author Robert Brotherton says:
“I define conspiracy theory as an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensationalistic subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation.”
So we now have two definitions of conspiracy theories. One says they’re unverified, the other says they’re unsubstantiated; one says they’re implausible, the other says that they’re less plausible; one says they’re at odds with the mainstream view, the other that they’re based on weak kinds of evidence.
But who decides what is the “mainstream view”? Who decides that the evidence is weak, or that the theory is implausible or unverified? Brotherton has the answer:
“The term [conspiracy theory] usually refers to explanations which are not regarded as verified by legitimate epistemic authorities. The theory […] is invariably at odds with the mainstream consensus among scientists, historians, or other legitimate judges of the claim’s veracity.”
So what’s particular about being outside the mainstream that makes it a defining characteristic of a conspiracy theory? Brotherton has the answer to that, too:
“In conspiracist rhetoric, the mainstream explanation is usually termed the official story. This disparaging label is intended to imply that the explanation is merely an account that happens to be proffered by some official source, and so should not be trusted. Indeed, a conspiracy theory need not offer a coherent, fleshed-out alternative scenario. It may simply be based around the allegation that something is wrong with the official story.”
[So, by attaching the disparaging label “official story” to the, er, official story, conspiracy theorists indicate that the official story is not to be trusted. And so they are outside the mainstream. Or something.]
The references for this insight are Wood et al (“Diana Alive or Dead”) and Lewandowsky et al (“Recursive Fury”).
There’s 56 pages of this stuff in the PsyPAG Quarterly special edition alone, plus 33 articles at http://conspiracypsych.com/ offering more of the same
The authors are young and bright and doubtless expecting to be professors in twenty years time. They’ve got plenty of time to hone their concepts and define exactly who has the right to consider themselves mainstream, who’s in the consensus and who’s out, who’s a legitimate judge and who isn’t.
And who are we to say they’re wrong?