Climate change sceptics more likely to be conspiracy theorists
'Scared Suspecting Man Wearing A Foil Hat Against Dark Stormy Sky' [Shutterstock]

Research confirms previous findings which caused fury among sceptics of human-caused climate change

Do you think the Apollo moon landings might have been faked or that Britain's Royal family maybe, just maybe, conspired to assassinate Princess Diana because they didn't like her very much?

How about that other conspiracy theory, where there really is this secret New World Order group with designs on global domination.

Maybe you're up for that other chestnut that has the US government knowing beforehand about the September 11 attacks but letting them happen anyway so as to have a good excuse to bomb Afghanistan?

If you answered yes to any of these conspiracy theories then a new study published today has found that you probably also think the science of human-caused climate change is some sort of hoax and you might think too that there's no good evidence for vaccinating children.

The study, titled "The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science" and published in the journal PLOS ONE, also finds another strong predictor for the dismissal of the science of human-caused climate change.

That is, if you're a conservative who believes the world runs best when businesses operate in a "free market" with little government interference, then the chances are you don't think human-caused climate change represents a significant risk to human civilisation.

The new study is led by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, and follows his previous study which caused the metaphorical head of the climate science denial blogosphere to explode.

That study was carried out while Professor Lewandowsky was at the University of Western Australia and was published last year in the journal Psychological Science. While it carried the more provocative title NASA Faked the Moon Landing—Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science  the conclusions were near identical.

Sceptics rejected Professor Lewandowsky's initial findings largely because he had used questionnaires posted on climate blogs to gather the data.

Participants were self selecting, which sceptics argued could have skewed the findings. As if to confirm that paper's findings, some sceptics even came up with conspiracy-type complaints about the research (this prompted another science paper from Lewandowsky that's currently the subject of an ongoing complaint from some sceptics).

None of those accusations can be used to criticise this new study, Professor Lewandowsky says, because the questionnaire was carried out by a third-party professional survey company using a sample that was representative of the US population. By email, he said:

There are some other more subtle differences, and despite all that, the results are pretty much identical: Free-market worldviews are strongly associated with rejection of climate science and conspiratorial thinking is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested, albeit to varying extent.

This is a pervasive pattern now that has been shown multiple times in the literature by a number of different authors. I am now fairly convinced that wherever there is science denial, there is also a conspiracy theory waiting to be aired.

In the new study, which surveyed the views of 1000 people in the US, Professor Lewandowsky and his co-authors write that people's worldview "constituted an overpowering barrier to acceptance of climate science". Professor Lewandowsky told me:

I cannot be sure of the causality, but there are multiple lines of evidence that suggest that the involvement of worldview, such as free-market principles, arises because people of that worldview feel threatened not by climate change or by lung cancer, but by the regulatory implications if those risks are being addressed by society. Addressing lung cancer means to control tobacco, and addressing climate change means to control fossil-fuel emissions. It's the need to control those products and their industries that is threatening people with strong free-market leanings.

Many "think-tanks" and organisations around the world which reject or underplay the risks of human-caused climate change do also advocate "free market" principles. Many have accepted funding from fossil fuel interests and rich conservative philanthropists.

In Australia, that would be the Institute of Public Affairs. In the UK, you have the Institute of Economic Affairs. In the US, there are multiple free market advocacy organisations who reject the need to act on human emissions of greenhouse gases, such as the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute.

But the research is careful to point out the findings don't mean that conservatives are, by extension, more likely to exhibit "conspiracist ideation" which the study categorises as a style of thinking rather than a distinct personality trait.

But the study says the two groups do share a habit of engaging in what's known as "motivated reasoning" - the tendency to accept without criticism any evidence that suits your belief while you ignore or reject the evidence that challenges what you think.

For example, climate science sceptics might laser-in on the fact that in September, the amount of floating sea ice in the Arctic "recovered" from the previous year's record low. Yet the same group ignores how 2013 still delivered the sixth lowest level on the satellite record and perhaps the sixth lowest in more than a thousand years.

Don't mention the 275,000,000,000 tonnes of ice every year that's "very likely" been melting from the world's glaciers between 1993 and 2009.

This "motivated reasoning" might also cause some to view the latest United Nations climate report as yet more evidence that climate science is an elaborate cloaking device for lefty socialists to take over the world while they melt the world's ice with a top secret invisible ray gun.

[Image: "Scared Suspecting Man Wearing A Foil Hat Against Dark Stormy Sky" via Shutterstock]