Yearly Archives: 2016
One of the hypotheses posited on this blog is that the preoccupation with the end of the world is in reality a displaced existential, and altogether far more internal crisis. Where you can see climate alarmism, you can see a crisis afflicting the individual, organisation or institution which promotes alarm much more clearly — a decline that is far more vivid than any climate change signal. Today, we see the proof of that hypothesis, in the terminal decline of The Independent newspaper.
Back in 2014, the death of The Independent was half-jokingly forecast right here on this very blog, for a little earlier than it actually happened.
But then again, perhaps it wasn’t premature — arguably The Independent has been dead for a while, it’s lifeless corpse kept twitching by desperate attempts to revive it…
— Leo Hickman (@LeoHickman) February 12, 2016
Speaking of dead tree media attempts to flog dead horses…
The failed leader of the ailing political party is to pow-wow with the failing newspaper’s prognosticator in chief, about the political failure of the attempt to rescue ailing governments from their failures..
Are we failing to grasp clear global consensus on how to tackle climate change? Join former leader of the Labour party Ed Miliband and best-selling author and Guardian leader writer George Monbiot as we debate the implications of the historic Paris agreement.
As has been observed here, the externalisation of internal existential crises as climate crisis is a phenomenon we can see in politics, as well as in newspaper circulation figures. Miliband represented the worst of political party machinery failing to ‘engage’ with the public… The more detached from ordinary people and ordinary life politicians and political parties become, so the more they seek legitimacy in ideas that are beyond the senses of ordinary people, and the more they locate power above democratic control on the basis of seemingly ‘global’ risks. The Guardian has hitched itself to that cause, because it too is incapable of making sense of the world — the thing that people turn towards newspapers for. Thus, the Guardian has tried to assert itself as more than a newspaper, such is the extent of its identity crisis, after such a question mark emerges over its status as such, its circulation figures dropping so violently.
Of course, the same could be said of other broadcasting and print media’s struggles to sustain their identity as they, too, struggle to make sense of the world. But the Guardian’s attempts to reinvent itself is, first, of more interest to us critics of such things as giant, undemocratic political projects, and second, perhaps the epitome of such a struggle. The futility of that struggle is reflected both in the fact of it putting forward such mediocre characters — abject, proven failures — as intellectual giants, and the raw numbers…
The Press Gazette reported last month:
Guardian News and Media to slash £54m from annual budget to curb losses
According to The Guardian, GNM is expected to lose more than £50m in the year to the end of March, more than double last year’s total.
As of April last year GNM parent company, Guardian Media Group, had £838.3m in the bank thanks largely to the sale of Trader Media Group.
According to The Guardian, this investment fund has been depleted by more than £100m and currently stands at £735m. At the current rate of spending GNM will run out of money within the next eight years.
Last month print sales of The Guardian fell 7 per cent year on year to an average of 165,672 and The Observer fell 6.2 per cent to 189,383.
If I understand the figures correctly, then, the Guardian lost approximately £1,000 per daily copy ‘circulated’ in the last year.
For a paper that lectures the world on economic and environmental sustainability, that is truly a remarkable loss.
A premise of democracy that I believe is worth defending is that it is incumbent on those seeking either change or for the status quo to be sustained to define and defend their arguments, even against robust criticism, and even against seemingly stupid and evil opinion. Needless to say, I also believe that this principle is entirely absent from the green argument. Instead, the environment’s putative voices have preferred to question the intellectual capacity and moral character of their critics, no matter how big a question mark it puts over their own hearts and minds. The most significant development in this regard seems to be the recruitment of cognitive and behavioural sciences into the climate debate, with their own ‘standards’ of evidence. Yet more recent developments have shone more light on this dark tendency.
While I was putting together the previous post, I was interested in where David Grimes was taking his claims from. For example, Grimes wrote:
Conspiratorial beliefs, which attribute events to secret manipulative actions by powerful individuals, are widely held  by a broad-cross section of society.
The basis for this claim was a 2008 paper by Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, called simply ‘Conspiracy Theories‘. As was pointed out, Sunstein and Vermeule’s claim was itself second hand. More troubling, the second hand evidence had little academic rigour itself, and moreover tried to establish belief in conspiracy theories in an area that had seen a massive incident in its very recent history. Any traumatic private or public event is bound to seed the formation of such beliefs. The failure of any public institution to do what people expect of it will rightly raise questions about that failure, prompting hypotheses in lieu of convincing attempts to avoid responsibility. We should therefore be suspicious of research which looks at the phenomenon of ‘conspiracy theories’ which takes no account of their context. What is its motivation?
The abstract of Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper reads as follows,
Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law. The first challenge is to understand the mechanisms by which conspiracy theories prosper; the second challenge is to understand how such theories might be undermined.
I believe we have answered the question ‘why do conspiracy theories prosper’. One only needs to look as far as the caricature of the conspiracy theorist to understand that the condition of conspiracy theorising is a relationship of distrust.
The character played by Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory was the archetypal conspiracy theorist: able to accumulate lots of information, but inclined to over-associate and to marshal the facts accordingly. As the film shows, the conspiracy theorist’s paranoia, demeanor and distrust of all forms of official authority isolate him, further fuelling his alienation. The whack-job has no credibility.
But rather than probing the reasons for the phenomenon of distrust in society, the paper’s motivation is more interesting: ‘the second challenge is to understand how such theories might be undermined’. Why is this a challenge? What kind of threat is the lonely, isolated nutter?
I was wondering where I had heard Sunstein’s name before, but it didn’t occur to me to look until after the post. Amazon provided the answer…
We are all susceptible to biases that can lead us to make bad decisions that make us poorer, less healthy and less happy. And, as Thaler and Sunstein show, no choice is ever presented to us in a neutral way. By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society. Using dozens of eye-opening examples the authors demonstrate how to nudge us in the right directions, without restricting our freedom of choice. Nudge offers a unique new way of looking at the world for individuals and governments alike.
‘Nudge’ always sounds bland enough. But it always seemed to me to treat people as means, rather than as ends. Indeed, ‘nudge’ is always presented as making it easier for people to do the right things. But when was that really the responsibility of the state, and if the state assumes responsibility for making sure people do the right thing, what autonomy is the individual really left with? When does a ‘nudge’ become a shove?
Nudge became especially popular under the previous coalition government, which established a ‘Behavioral Insights Team‘ (BIT), also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’. BIT claim:
We use insights from behavioural science to encourage people to make better choices for themselves and society.
I believe that the right and proper rejoinder to such a mission statement is ‘Foxtrot Oscar’. While the interventions it proposes may seem trivial, it represents one of the concerns that his blog has highlighted, about the transformation of the relationship between individuals, the state, and increasingly, academia. Suffice it to say that the latter’s recruitment into matters of public policy is wholly regressive, anti-democratic and assumes far to much about its own rectitude, not to say about its ability to better understand the choices individuals make than they.
“Choice architects” thus became flavour of the month with governments throughout the Anglosphere. Sunstein himself was made a chief of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs by his personal friend, Obama, to nobody’s delight (not even greens’).
The psychologist-as-bureaucrat, then, isn’t a mere reflection of the increasing tendency towards official intrusion, not merely into the private sphere, but into the mind. And mirroring this is the academy’s increasingly unhealthy interest in mind-probing, too, as means to understanding what’s happening in society, and how to intervene.
The point here, which is made here often, is that the ‘politics is prior’ to a great deal of climate research — that the presuppositions of environmentalism are routinely passed off as the ‘finding’ of studies which invariably ‘show’ precisely what the green perspective already held with. The head-shrinking of the public by… let’s call them ‘psychocrats’… is the broader phenomenon which either encompasses, or at least overlaps with what we have seen in the climate debate, most notably from the likes of Lewandowsky.
That is to say that we can see the politics loading researchers’ questions. The cognitive scientists seeking roles for themselves in policy-making circles would, no doubt, see this as a conspiracy theory… But the questions should be asked, nonetheless, with or without the protection of a tin foil hat: is it just a coincidence that an otherwise not-particularly-remarkable academic has found such favour amongst policy-makers? Are the insights yielded by psychocrats’ research really a sound basis on which to reorganise public institutions? And are psychocrats not using their science as a vehicle for a particular form of politics?
The anxious psychocrat can relax; the point here is not to credit him or her with sufficient nous to have organised a conspiracy, but that they are the useful idiots of people who look up to them as intellectual giants. The point, then, is to put the psychocrat’s anxiety under the microscope — just as we would with any ideology or doctrine that governments embrace.
Grimes and Sunstein have both been bothered by the fact that people not believing the right things seem to present a problem for policymakers. The obvious problem here is that such a worry presumes their own infallibility. Grimes, for instance, as well as much other politically-motivated research into the phenomenon of ‘denial’ (the examples of Lewandowksy and Chris Mooney were given in the previous post) takes belief in climate science as a proxy for belief in science — that to take a sceptical view of climate science is to be ‘anti-science’. The is easily debunked: we can find seemingly respectable scientists and scientific institutions involved with, and fueling most conspiracy theories. The interesting point, however, is the corollary of presuming oneself right is to presume the other is stupid.
More trouble for the pscyhocrat has emerged (hat-tip to Paul Matthews) and is summarised over at Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition blog…
First, as science comprehension goes up, people become more polarized on climate change.
Still not surprising; tha’s old, old, old, old news.
But second, as science comprehension goes up, so does the perception that there is scientific consensus on climate change—no matter what people’s political outlooks are!
Accordingly, as relatively “right-leaning” individuals become progressively more proficient in making sense of scientific information (a facility reflected in their scores on the Ordinary Science Intelligence assessment, which puts a heavy emphasis on critical reasoning skills), they become simultaneously more likely to believe there is “scientific consensus” on human-caused climate change but less likely to “believe” in it themselves!
One thing that is clear from these data is that it’s ridiculous to claim that “unfamiliarity” with scientific consensus on climate change “causes” non-acceptance of human-caused global warming.
But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The idea that public conflict over climate change persists because, even after years and years of “messaging” (including a $300 million social-marketing campaign by Al Gore’s “Alliance for Climate Protection”), ordinary Americans still just “haven’t heard” yet that an overwhelming majority climate scientists believe in AGW is absurd.
These new data, though, show that acceptance of “scientific consensus” in fact has a weaker relationship to beliefs in climate change in right-leaning members of the public than it does in left-leaning ones.
I can come up w/ various “explanations,” but really, I don’t know what to make of this!
Kahan could save himself some head-scratching by reading this blog, of course. One can take the fact of the consensus for granted without committing to any of the imperatives greens would say it generates. The point being that there is a great deal between observing the effect of CO2 on the planet and claims about what it means — distance which has been obscured by many green advocates’ use of the consensus without regard for its actual substance. Kahan should have realised it, because he’s a relatively able critic of the 97% strategy. That is to say that the paradox is not that so many recalcitrant climate sceptics also hold with ‘the consensus’, but that researchers who aimed to measure the public’s understanding of climate have been largely ignorant to the nuances of the debate, if not extremely partial players in the debate.
Ask a stupid question, as they say…
… And you will get a stupid answer. Thus the psychocrat’s estimation of the public in fact measures only the mind that authored his own facile hypothesis. The more stupid the researcher, the lower his estimation of the public, and concomitantly, the greater utility his work has to psychocracy. This should remind us of Lewandowsky’s attempt to argue otherwise.
Back in 2014, Lewandowsky and Richard Pancost wrote
It is an unfortunate paradox: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance. And if you don’t know much about a topic, you’re unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance.
Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.
Lewandowsky was attempting to deploy the alledged Dunning-Kruger effect — which claims that people who do less well in tests of their knowledge over-estimate their performance — in his latest salvo in his war on climate scepticism. Sceptics, he argued, were stupid, and thus over-estimated themselves. But it was Lewandowsky who was claiming too much expertise, as was pointed out here.
The professor of psychology makes bold claims. He believes that he understands the entire world’s relationship to the natural world. He believes he understands the natural world, and professes expertise in climate science. And he believes he knows how society should be organised. Surely he is a true Renaissance Man… A polymath… A Renaissance Polymath… Or he is an epic blowhard?
The point of all this is that the pscyhocrat’s real project is to deny democracy. Not purposefully, and not out of some clearly defined malevolent intent, but through bad faith, nonetheless — hubris, at best — the aim is belittle ordinary people, and to elevate whichever university has been canny enough to establish a School of Psychocracy.
What that tendency costs us is the real dynamic that helps us to filter out good ideas and beliefs from the bad — the public contest of ideas. It fosters a condition of mutual cynicism between people and official institutions — the very thing that brings forth conspiracy theories. The upshot of which is that confidence in authorities that we turn to for knowledge — the academy — will be undermined. The slower that the academy responds to the bullshit from within its own corridors, the longer and deeper will be its decline in the public estimation.
I am under orders to make these posts shorter. To to save 3,000 words from what is essentially a bootnote… Sunstain has authored a number of books of interest here.
Mr. Sunstein is author of many articles and books, including Republic.com (2001), Risk and Reason (2002), Why Societies Need Dissent (2003), The Second Bill of Rights (2004), Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005), Worst-Case Scenarios (2001), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler, 2008), Simpler: The Future of Government (2013) and most recently Why Nudge? (2014) and Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas (2014). He is now working on group decisionmaking and various projects on the idea of liberty
Chiefly amongst these is his attack on the precautionary principle. What I suspect, however, from reading the blurbs, is that rather than wanting to depart from the Precautionary Principle, Sunstein wants to own it more completely. ‘Risk’ being at the centre of his perspective, we can see Sunstein as a victim of Risk Society, and his work very much belonging to that movement, more of which can be read about here and here.
David Robert Grimes has emerged from Lewandowsky’s shadow, again, to go forth increase and multiply the bullshit/batshit/bad science quotient of the social and behavioural sciences — as if they needed it. Grimes’s new paper On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs has caused quite a splash and a stink, both of which are clues as the quality of what caused them.
Briefly, Grimes believes that conspiracies and their exposure can be understood mathematically, thus, any enduring conspiracy theory must ergo be bunk. The more massive the conspiracy theory, the greater the chance of exposure. It follows, however, that any paper which proclaims to be “indebted to Profs. Stephan Lewandowsky…” must also contain a massive mathematical black hole. And so it was discovered by stats sleuths who are not known for sympathy with climate scepticism… At Little Atoms, Martin Robbins explained,
It’s a nice idea. Unfortunately the answer is a resounding “no”, and the resulting paper ends up being a sort of case study in how not to do statistics. Inevitably media outlets loved it, and so now news feeds are full of headlines like: “Most conspiracy theories are mathematically impossible,” “The maths equation threatening to disprove conspiracy theories”, “Maths study shows conspiracies ‘prone to unraveling’” and so on and on.
Most peculiarly of all, whereas Grimes’s intent was, in the mannar of Lewandowsky, to direct bad faith at climate sceptics, it was the faithful who first picked up on his work and ran with it, taking the principle as proof of the Resurrection.
Quantum mechanic, Jonathan Jones was amongst the first to point out the error, and submitted a comment to the Journal, PLOS One.
The easiest way to see that the result is nonsense is to look at the failure curves in figure (1). By definition these failure curves must be monotonic. This is most easily seen by plotting 1-L, the survival fraction, which MUST be monotonic downwards. In medical terms the non-monotonic curves correspond to a situation where dead patients spring back into life if you wait long enough.
I thank Adam Jacobs (@statsgukuk) for bringing this paper to my attention and pointing out the underlying flaw, and Ruth Dixon (@ruth_dixon) for helpful discussions,
But there was a deeper issue highlighted by Jones…
What really matters here is a basic failing of the @PLOSONE reviewers to pick up an obvious error
— Jonathan Jones (@nmrqip) January 29, 2016
This has been made here before. Science — or more precisely, its institutions — demonstrably have failed to do what is expected of them, and what is claimed they do. In this case, to weed out error, bias, and that sort of thing… Things which in fact seem routine in a great deal of academic discussion of climate change — especially when it has emerged from the social, cognitive and behavioural sciences. But more broadly, the failure isn’t just one of process as such, but to sustain a debate.
In many respects, Lewandowsky’s and similar work, if not climate science, is the vindication of many sceptical criticisms of climate science, and the wider academic and scientific enterprise, as I pointed out on Spiked following the ‘recursive fury’ affair:
Lewandowsky demonstrates that academic institutions do not produce dialogue that has any more merit than the petty exchanges — flame wars –that the internet is famous for. Dressing political arguments up in scientific terminology risks the value of science being lost to society — its potential squandered for an edge in a political fight. After all, if Lewandowsky’s work is representative of the quality of scientific research in general and the standards the academy expects of academics, what does that say about climate science and the quality of the scientific consensus on climate change? If the scientific argument about the link between anthropogenic CO2 and climate change is only as good as Lewandowsky’s claim that ‘Rejection of climate science [is] strongly associated with endorsement of a laissez-faire view of unregulated free markets’, then perhaps climate sceptics should be taken more seriously.
The difference of course, between internet flame wars and cod cognitive science (codnitive science?), is the mathematical apparatus Lewandowsky, and now Grimes, use to obscure, or even to manifest their own prejudices. They would no doubt claim that this is a conspiracy theory, but it seems obvious that the over-emphasis on exotic statistical techniques is the same kind of sophistry and obscurantism as the excessive use of Latin (or German expressions in sociology) in day-to-day speech and text. In the case of Lewandowsky, the use of structural equation modelling (SEM) dazzled any would-be critics, whereas the sample size (never mind the method by which the samples were obtained) really didn’t warrant such a method.
One Twitter assailant recently tried to make the point that, since I didn’t have a working understanding of SEM, I was not well placed to judge Lewandowsky’s work. It might be true, were the results of the SEM so transparently different from what a more straightforward analysis would tell us. But it was as if SEM were telling us that 2 + 2 = 999. Ditto, Lewandowsky’s earlier claim that “uncertainty is not your friend” and that “all other things being equal, greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought” (amongst other statements) ‘arise from simple mathematics’, in fact ‘arose’ out of simple wordplay after the abuse of statistical methods. Lewandowksy was defended in comments and elsewhere on the basis that the term ‘expected’ has nuanced meaning in statistics, which were beyond my understanding. ‘Simple mathematics’ had nothing to do with it, and Lewandowsky’s adventures with methodologies continued…
… And that lax attitude towards method was borrowed by others hoping to intervene in the climate debate, to make statements about climate change ‘deniers’. It’s as though calculus could be used to show that ‘climate sceptics are pooh-pooh heads, nerr nerrr nerr nerrrr nerr’.
The question is, then, to what extent should those of us without the necessary technical expertise be intimidated or alienated by its use? The answer is surely how much the claim any paper makes requires an understanding of the method. Do we need an understanding of degree-level statistics to understand the claims being made in Grimes’s work on conspiracy theories?
Grimes has been the subject of a post here before. In 2014, he claimed in the Guardian that “Denying climate change isn’t scepticism – it’s ‘motivated reasoning’“.
The grim findings of the IPCC last year reiterated what climatologists have long been telling us: the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, and we’re to blame. Despite the clear scientific consensus, a veritable brigade of self-proclaimed, underinformed armchair experts lurk on comment threads the world over, eager to pour scorn on climate science. Barrages of ad hominem attacks all too often await both the scientists working in climate research and journalists who communicate the research findings.
And as was pointed out here, Grimes had not understood the consensus properly, and worse, not understood sceptics’ objections to the putative consensus at all.
The IPCC, of course, do not make quite such a claim. Grimes produces a grotesque and value-laden over-simplification. Of the thousands of lines of evidence evaluated by the IPCC, the response from the sceptics is not, as Grimes would have it, a simple negation of a single proposition, but instead consists of a range of criticisms and questions, about each of them.
Even if Grimes accurately presented the scientific consensus, he still doesn’t explain the debate, because he does not even attempt to explain the sceptic’s counter-position. There is no scientific debate in the world where this would be acceptable to the academic community. Yet this mythology persists, and is sustained, in large part by academics.
Grimes, in other words, was picking a battle with the climate sceptics in his head. The sum total of his attempts to understand the debate is as follows:
Grimes has no right to claim insight into the arguments of climate sceptics. A fitting analogy to Grimes shutting himself from the objects of his study would be a climate scientist smashing his own thermometers, satellite data, etc.
His new paper begins:
Conspiratorial beliefs, which attribute events to secret manipulative actions by powerful individuals, are widely held  by a broad-cross section of society.
Is this true? Moreover, is it the best way to begin to understand the phenomenon of ‘conspiratorial beliefs’? The authority of the claim seemingly lies in a paper from political theorists, Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, which can be downloaded here. The paper doesn’t in fact measure the breadth or depth of adherence to conspiracy theories, but does refer to them…
In August 2004, a poll by Zogby International showed that 49 per cent of New York City residents, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, believed that officials of the U.S. government “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.”  In a Scripps-Howard Poll in 2006, with an error margin of 4 percent, some 36 percent of respondents assented to the claim that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center or took no action to stop them.”  Sixteen percent said that it was either very likely or somewhat likely that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.”
Grimes reports these already second hand figures Nth hand. There is deeper problem here, for the following understanding of ‘conspiracy theories’, and it should be very obvious. It should be as obvious as a pair of huge skyscrapers, aircraft crashing into them, igniting balls of flame, the murder of 3,000 people, followed by more than a decade of war, involving many countries, the descent of many countries into civil conflict, and the emergence of a brutal religious cult that posts videos of beheadings to the internet.
The least sensible place to begin polling people to measure the prevalence of ‘conspiracy ideation’ in society is at ground zero. People in New York likely had very good reason to ask whether agencies had done their job — doubts about which are the first condition of conspiracy ‘ideation’. That is not to say that there is any merit in ‘truther’ conspiracy theories, but that a massive, painful event, to which most people in the City would likely have some kind of personal connection, is going to skew any statistical test of what and how people to think — the very ground that reason existed on had been destroyed, just a few years earlier.
The enormity of such an event to people living near it fractures people’s understanding of the world, and tests their faith in government and its institutions, for obvious reasons.
Sunstein & Vermeule continue, with polls from elsewhere, but which are no less remarkable for their being distinctly troubled times or places…
Among sober-minded Canadians, a September 2006 poll found that 22 percent believe that “the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden and were actually a plot by influential Americans.”  In a poll conducted in seven Muslim countries, 78 percent of respondents said that they do not believe the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs. The most popular account, in these countries, is that 9/11 was the work of the U.S. or Israeli governments. 
The poll of Canadians is surprising, but there’s no way to see if Sunstein & Vermeule have accurately reported what they, too, only read in a newspaper. Again, they report second hand, and not necessarily from rigorous sources. Reference #5 links not to the poll but to a Reuters article. The poll, taken by Ipsos, is behind a paywall. But we can glean a bit more from the poll’s sponsors, the National Post, which also reported
More than one in four people — 28% — reported that in comparison to everything else that has taken place in their lives, the attacks were “life altering” and they have “never been the same since.”
Researchers purporting to investigate conspiracy theories — i.e. Grimes and Lewandowsky — claim that they emerge as clusters, and that political ideology ‘predicts’ conspiracy theory ideation. But a better predictor of people’s views of the world might be things that happen in the world, which demand but defeat explanation. Yes, the who and what of the 9/11 attacks are straightforward, but the why, and the response, and the rest of what followed are far from transparent.
By 2006, across the West — or at least the populations of the ‘coalition of the willing’ — the War on Terror had transformed people’s understanding of the world, and relationships between individuals and the state. Thousands of families had lost sons. Across the ‘Muslim world’, hundreds of thousands of civilians had been killed in conflict, and in several countries, social order had almost entirely collapsed, and what there was was sustained only by military occupation. Other countries were identified as belonging to an ‘axis of evil’. The notion, then that 9-11 was some kind of ‘inside job’ may well have been the vulgar form of the observation that terror had become, not only a pretext for war, but also a pretext for aggressive domestic policies and a new role for the state. The observation that politics in Britain, at least, became more remote from ordinary people in the post-911 world, is not a conspiracy theory.
That is to say that context is overlooked when making simplistic judgements about ‘conspiracy theories’. They do not form in vacuums, but in vacuums of power, and in chaos, where the world is hard to understand. To ignore this fundamental dynamic of ‘conspiracy ideation’ is to completely eschew reason, and to embrace something far more irrational than any conspiracy theory.
The fact that people in Muslim countries might not accept the official account of what happened on 9/11 either should be no surprise. The paper cited by Sunstein & Vermeule is here [PDF]. Here are the poll’s results in a table.
The text under the table explains:
Roughly 80 percent of the overall sample don’t believe that Arabs committed the September 11 attacks, and the breakdown by country is shown in the second column of Table 1
Well, hold on a minute… 80% of respondents, perhaps. But there is some fairly radical difference between the individual countries where polling took place. Not to relativise the point about context too much, but the War on Terror spilled over into these countries, with far-reaching consequences for politics across the region, and there was a growing feeling that the Western allies were aggressors. Are we really talking about conspiracy theories here? It simply doesn’t seem to be a safe proposition to me, to report opinion near war zones as ‘conspiracy theory’.
Nonetheless, Grimes continues.
“Belief in one conspiracy theory is often correlated with belief in others, and some stripe of conspiratorial belief is ubiquitous across diverse social and racial groups .”
The basis for this claim is Ted Goertzel’s Belief in Conspiracy Theories, published in Political Psychology in 1994.
A survey of 348 residents of southwestern New Jersey showed that most believed that several of a list of 10 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.
It is though Grimes cannot read. The paper concludes:
Most respondents are inclined to believe that several of a list of conspiracies are probably or definitely true. The tendency to believe in conspiracies is correlated with anomia, with a lack of trust in other people, and with feelings of insecurity about unemployment. It is also more common among black and hispanic respondents than among white respondents, at least for this New Jersey sample. The correlations with minority status do not disappear when anomia, trust level and insecurity about unemployment are controlled, although it is true that minorities in the sample are more anomic, distrustful and insecure about their job opportunities.
The finding of Goertzel is almost the opposite of what Grimes claims — trust, insecurity and anomia are predictors of ‘conspiracy ideation’, and which are also prevalent amongst certain social classes and racial groups more than others.
Goertzel’s was a small study of just one place — New Jersey — decades ago. To draw from this conclusions about what is (or is not) ‘ubiquitous across diverse social and racial groups’ from this single study is simple bullshit of the first order. There are many reasons why ‘conspiracy ideation’ might have been especially common in New Jersey in the mid 1990s, the country’s recent history just one of them. One such factor considered by Goertzel was the resurgence of interest in the assassination of John Kennedy, presumably provoked by the declassification of certain documents.
We are barely half way through Grimes’s opening paragraph, yet we can already see that he has taken significant liberties with the research he is citing. He takes what the abstract admits is merely “A survey of 348 residents of southwestern New Jersey” to make claims about all society! He takes opinion at Ground Zero and from those on the receiving end of the War on Terror — all but a war zone, in fact, where there is massive social and political upheaval — as representative of of what is ‘ubiquitous’. And that is his starting point! Just two sentences into his paper, and Grimes has outright fibbed!
We shall clarify the working definition of conspiracy theory here as being in line the characterisation of Sunstein et al  as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role (at least until their aims are accomplished)”. While the modern usage of conspiracy theory is often derogatory (pertaining to an exceptionally paranoid and ill-founded world-view) the definition we will use does not a priori dismiss all such theories as inherently false.
Let’s go with the definition of ‘conspiracy theory’… And the intention not to make judgements about them sounds good, right… But it is immediately withdrawn:
However, even with this disclaimer, there are a disconcerting number of conspiracy theories which enjoy popular support and yet are demonstrably nonsensical.
The case which Grimes uses to illustrate the ‘demonstrable nonsense’ is the case of vaccinations…
This is particularly true of conspiracies over scientific and medical issues where conspiratorial ideation can lead to outright opposition to and rejection of the scientific method . This can be exceptionally detrimental, not only to believers but to society in general; conspiratorial beliefs over medical interventions such as vaccination, for example, can have potentially lethal consequence . Conspiratorial thinking is endemic in anti-vaccination groups, with those advocating the scientific and medical consensus often regarded as agents of some ominous interest group bent on concealing “the truth”.
Grimes is wrong to say that conspiracy theories about vaccines lead to either ‘opposition to’ or ‘rejection of’ the scientific method. And it demonstrates furthermore that Grimes simply hasn’t been following the debates he is seeking to shed light on. This is not to say that the anti-vaccine argument has any merit, but that it was not, as he frames it, anti science. In fact, the most prominent anti-vaccine controversy (in the UK, at least) was started by a scientist, promoted by scientific institutions, and then antagonised by their reactions to what they themselves had caused.
In 1998, the Lancet published an article by Andrew Wakefield which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and developmental disorder. As Brendan O’Neill observed, Andrew Wakefield didn’t cause the MMR panic on his own — in fact the Lancet gave his paper legitimacy (just as PLOS now gives Grimes’s nonsense a platform) which was compounded by the witch hunt that the duped journal and scientific medical establishment then threw itself did as much to promote the conspiracy story as did any fraudulent claim by the researcher. The point here is not just about bad PR handling of a case like the MMR affair, it is that something about public and scientific institutions which makes them first prone to garbage, and then to over act in response to its own failing — like rather gracelessly trying to recover from an accidental trip, to save face.
Similarly, it was no less a scientifically-enlightened organisation than the British Medical Association (BMA) who wrote, in 2004 that, ‘of all the available research is that there is very little potential for GM foods to cause harmful health effects’, but that ‘research is still needed in key areas to allay remaining concern about the potential risks to human health and the environment’.
The BMA’s stumbling around with the precautionary principle caused the then president of the Royal Society, Bob May’s blood to boil. But he was not against a little conspiracy theorising of his own. Writing in the TLS in 2007, May said,
Despite the growing weight of evidence of climate change, along with growing awareness of the manifold adverse consequences, there remains an active and well-funded “denial lobby”. It shares many features with the lobby that for so long denied that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer. […] Whoever got things started, this is a ball which ExxonMobile picked up and ran with, shuttling lobbyists in and out of the White House as it did so. Following earlier talks and seeking to exemplify its centuries-old motto – Nullius in Verba (which roughly translates as “respect the facts”) – the Royal Society recently and unprecedentedly wrote to ExxonMobile, complaining about its funding for “organisations that have been misinforming the public about the science of climate change”, and more generally for promoting inaccurate and misleading views – specifically that scientists do not agree about the influence of human activity on rising temperatures.
Not only was the president of the Royal Society actively promoting a conspiracy theory, he was also revising the organisation’s motto, entirely inverting the scientific ethic of ‘on the word of no one’.
Just as it was the UK’s <i>leading</i> scientific institutions which most promotes conspiracy theories, it is its own members which most promote anti science. Bob May’s successor, in his own prognosticating, wrote an entire book about how the power unleashed by science means our chances of surviving the 21st century are just 50/50:
Amazon: For many technological debacles, Rees places much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the scientists who participate in perfecting environmental destruction, biological menaces, and ever-more powerful weapons. So is there any hope for humanity? Rees is vaguely optimistic on this point, offering solutions that would require a level of worldwide cooperation humans have yet to exhibit. If the daily news isn’t enough to make you want to crawl under a rock, this book will do the trick.
In other words, Britain’s leading scientific bureaucrats are the most ‘anti-science’, on Grimes’ own terms. Rees can think of more reasons not to do science than to allow it.
You will have seen that the provenance of Grimes’s claim that conspiracy theories reject the scientific method is of course… Lewandowsky. Grimes and Lewandowsky repeat the mistake made by fellow climate warrior, Chris Mooney, who believes that the structures of people’s brains can explain their political beliefs, and that nasty conservatives have something wrong with theirs. Back in 2011, Mooney believed that there was a ‘war on science’. It’s a shrill cry that has been made many times when there has been a debate with a scientific dimension: both sides accuse the other of ‘denying’, and the such like, not just within the climate wars.
But the claim that there are people who are ‘anti-science’ and that there is a ‘war on science’ simply doesn’t stand up to inspection. Whether the dispute is over vaccination, intelligent design, atomic energy, genetically-modified crops or climate change, the unfashionable camp’s complaints are rarely against science, and are indeed framed — at least superficially — in scientific terms. Right or wrong, intelligent design takes the form of an empirical argument, just as Grimes’s argument was used to prove the Resurrection. In other words, the language of science and numbers seems to have usurped the authority of the literal word of the Bible, the church, and so on. Hardly anti-science. Anti-vaccination and anti-GM groups, too, have their scientific heroes, as the Royal Society learned to its cost when it tried to fight a PR war against green organisations in the 1990s and 2000s, and as the Lancet discovered when it created one.
What lies behind Mooney’s, Lewandowsky’s and Grimes’s claim that there is an anti-science movement, is not in fact an argument for, or defence of the ‘scientific method’, but for the authority of scientific institutions which embody it. This was pointed out in my response to Mooney:
Mooney emphasises not simply the scientific method, but the institutional apparatus of scientific practice as its extension as the means to ruling out the subjective influences that may beset a ‘value-free investigation’. ‘Institutionalized skepticism’ (or ‘institutionalised scepticism’, this side of the Atlantic) serves as the filter of bad ideas, presumably by operating according to the principles that Bacon — and philosophers of science since — have laid down, but not merely those principles. Scientific authority, in other words, comes by virtue of some form of social organisation: institutional science. Mooney’s conception of scientific authority begins to look a lot more political now.
And it is now obvious that those lumped into the categories ‘anti-science’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’ in fact claim that the science supports their arguments — they claim the authority of science, not deny it. Moreover, the agents of those causes emerge from within scientific institutions. If Grimes is right then, that ‘there are a disconcerting number of conspiracy theories which enjoy popular support and yet are demonstrably nonsensical’, then at best, that phenomenon in general has nothing to do with pro-vs-anti science.
This speaks to the somewhat bizarre preoccupation those studying ‘conspiracy theories’ in relation to ‘science’ seem to have. Sunstein and Vermeule were at least concerned with political conspiracy theories:
Consider, for example, the beliefs that prolonged exposure to sunlight is actually healthy and that climate change is neither occurring nor likely to occur. These beliefs are (in our view) both false and dangerous, but as stated, they do not depend on, or posit, any kind of conspiracy theory.
Grimes presumably read that, but disagreed.
The logic of Grimes’s claim seems to be, then, that to “deny” what he believes to be the scientific consensus must be to embrace a conspiracy theory to account for its existence. He continues,
the framing of climate-change as a hoax creates needless uncertainty in public discourse, and increases the risk of damaging inertia instead of corrective action. The dismissal of scientific findings as a hoax also has a political element; a 2011 study found conservative white males in the US were far more likely than other Americans to deny climate change . Similarly, a UK study found that climate-change denialism was more common among politically conservative individuals with traditional values . The public acceptance of climate-change conspiracy transcends the typical wide-ranging domain of conspiratorial belief; a 2013 investigation by Lewandowsky et al  found that while subjects who subscribed to conspiracist thought tended to reject all scientific propositions they encountered, those with strong traits of conservatism or pronounced free-market world views only tended towards rejecting scientific findings with regulatory implications at odds with their ideological position.
Climate-change denial has a deep political dimension [7, 8]. Despite the overwhelming strength of evidence supporting the scientific consensus of anthropogenic global warming , there are many who reject this consensus. Of these, many claim that climate-change is a hoax staged by scientists and environmentalists [18–20], ostensibly to yield research income. Such beliefs are utterly negated by the sheer wealth of evidence against such a proposition, but remain popular due to an often-skewed false balance present in partisan media [20, 21], resulting in public confusion and inertia.
To argue that climate scientists merely seek to ‘yield research income’ is not a conspiracy theory. It may be blunt, but accusing researchers of grant-seeking is a judgement about individuals, not an organised attempt to grab political power through illegitimate means. After all, it is no more implausible that researchers research for money than oilmen pull oil out of the ground for the same.
Moreover, there is a more sophisticated argument that research grants necessarily encourage a positive view of the ‘consensus’. It is obviously true, for instance, that if you were to apply for a position at or research funding through a university department that specialises in climate research of one form or another, you’re likely to be sent packing. Two of those schools, of course are the School of Psychology and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, both at Cardiff University. Yet researchers from these schools were the authors of one of the articles (number 7) cited by Grimes…
This study presents a detailed investigation of public scepticism about climate change in Britain using the trend, attribution, and impact scepticism framework of Rahmstorf (2004). The study found that climate scepticism is currently not widespread in Britain. Although uncertainty and scepticism about the potential impacts of climate change were fairly common, both trend and attribution scepticism were far less prevalent. It further showed that the different types of scepticism are strongly interrelated. Although this may suggest that the general public does not clearly distinguish between the different aspects of the climate debate, there is a clear gradation in prevalence along the Rahmstorf typology. Climate scepticism appeared particularly common among older individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are politically conservative and hold traditional values; while it is less common among younger individuals from higher socio-economic backgrounds who hold self-transcendence and environmental values. The finding that climate scepticism is rooted in people’s core values and worldviews may imply a coherent and encompassing sceptical outlook on climate change. However, attitudinal certainty appeared mainly concentrated in non-sceptical groups, suggesting that climate sceptical views are not held very firmly. Implications of the findings for climate change communication and engagement are discussed.
That last sentence is key. Whereas we imagine governments in liberal democracies largely to respond to people’s wishes, under the rubric of climate change and other issues, government and its agencies increasingly seek to change behaviour and modify attitudes towards policies that have already been determined. “Communication” means it’s opposite: not a two way street, or dialogue, but giving people the ‘messages’ they need to hear in order to do what the government wishes — an inversion of democratic government. “Communication” is to dialogue what shouting is to a nice friendly chat. And it is under this inverted system that academics’ roles have also been inverted as they have become ‘communicators’. One of the study’s authors, for example, is a director at the Cardiff School of Psychology:
I am Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group within the School. I work on risk, risk perception, and risk communication and as such my research is interdisciplinary at the interface of social psychology, environmental sciences, and science and technology studies. I am currently researching public responses to energy technologies (e.g. nuclear power, renewable energy), climate change risks, and climate geoengineering. I have in the past led numerous policy oriented projects on issues of public responses to environmental risk issues and on ‘science in society’ for UK Government Departments, the Research Councils, the Royal Society, and Charities. I am currently a member of the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Science Advisory Group (SAG), and theme leader for the Climate Change Consortium for Wales.
In more honest times, Nick Pidgeon would have been called a professor of propaganda. He also sits on the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Science Advisory Group (SAG).
The point being made here is not a conspiracy theory. It does, however, claim that the relationships between individuals, the government, statutory bodies and the academy have transformed over the years. And it does claim that there is something unhealthy about this change, which is corrosive to democracy in society, and diversity of opinion within the campus, with consequences for science and for politics. Might it not be the case that what is being responded to is not as much the ‘science’ as such, but the process by which that science has been produced, and, as is observed here, the sheer volume of politics is smuggled out with it?
After all, consider Grimes’s claim that “Climate-change denial has a deep political dimension”. This surely works two ways. There demonstrably is a political dimension to climate change research. And there has been, since at least the early days of the United Nations environmental bodies and their summits, increasing political significance in the environment. That is to say that, whether or not any environmental concern was legitimate, global and powerful political institutions have been established to deal with them. As it happens, however, most of those claims, per Ehrlich, have been bunk. And yet academic researchers have been increasingly drawn into those claims — most latterly, the likes of Pidgeon are brought into government to consult on how best to ‘communicate’.
Consider, moreover, what vexes us climate change sceptics most. Is it, as Grimes claims, ‘the overwhelming strength of evidence supporting the scientific consensus of anthropogenic global warming’ or is it the bullshit passed off as science produced by himself and Lewandowsky, for such nakedly political ends?
To say that the planet has warmed is one thing. To say that the direct impacts of that warming on the world are another. To make claims that the social or economic consequences of those effects are such-and-such is yet another thing. To claim that those effects will be non-trivial is yet another order of claim. To say that those effects will be catastrophic, or even terminal is yet another. Each is a step further away from concrete foundations in science and towards increasingly value-laden and ideologically-loaded presuppositions — the imperatives of climate change. And to say that critics of any step betray their own prejudices doesn’t simply require another leap; it requires a total lack of self-awareness. The point then, is that the likes of Grimes hiding his own political motivations behind statistical methods and the ‘scientific consensus’ isn’t as much the work of a conspiracy as it is simply the expression of bad faith. We can see the transformation of politics and of the nature of ‘policy-oriented’ research. And we can see the bad faith at work in Grimes & Lewandowsky. So why is it not possible to say that political-motivations and bad faith exist in climate science?
If ambiguous concepts like ‘conspiracy theory’ can be the subject of academic investigations with consequence, then so too — and so should — academic bad faith become the subject of a much broader, and no less objective a discussion. There will be no need of elaborate statistical techniques, because it is so easy to demonstrate. If Lewandowskyites want to instead mend science’s authority by making the recalcitrant public the objects of their studies, and to seal themselves off from scrutiny, they could not follow a better course of action that would further demonstrate to the public the bad faith of academic institutions.
That is to say that academic bullshit is enduring, not because of a conspiracy which all academics are party to, but because, as Jonathan Jones pointed out, academic institutions aren’t auditing themselves. Academia is no longer the venue of an exchange of ideas. And academics are being revealed to have very normal, very human traits. Perhaps because of the expansion of universities, qualification inflation the quality of academic research seems to have diminished. Moreover, as there has been pressure on researchers to produce ‘relevant’ research, so the purpose of research has coincided with the policy — if not the political — agenda.
Grimes’s own palpable misapprehension of the climate debate, its players, context and history are an extremely good reason to question climate science.