The Grimey "Science" of Conspiracy Theories

by | Feb 2, 2016

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…

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 [1] 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.” [2] 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.” [3] 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.” [5] 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.[6] The most popular account, in these countries, is that 9/11 was the work of the U.S. or Israeli governments. [7]

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 [2].”

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!

He continues…

We shall clarify the working definition of conspiracy theory here as being in line the characterisation of Sunstein et al [1] 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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 [6]. Similarly, a UK study found that climate-change denialism was more common among politically conservative individuals with traditional values [7]. The public acceptance of climate-change conspiracy transcends the typical wide-ranging domain of conspiratorial belief; a 2013 investigation by Lewandowsky et al [8] 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 [17], 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…

Uncertain climate: An investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change

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.


  1. Michael Pyshnov

    Here is the logic of the Grimes paper:

    Imagine that there is a gang of conspirators. Are you able to say if there is actually a conspiracy or not by watching the conspirators to come up with their confessions? Well, if they do, you obviously can start an investigation. But if they don’t, can you be sure that there is no any conspiracy? Obviously, you cannot. But the Grimes paper says that you can. He somehow found that there is a certain probability that a conspirator desires to make a confession, and when the number of conspirators is large, Grimes is able to tell when the conspiracy will be revealed to the public.

    The paper is saying that every “conspiracy theory” is wrong because no one has come up with the confession.

    He also made another mistake: he assumed that each “leak” of information pointing to the conspiracy inevitably results in the failure of the conspiracy, i. e. in a “scandal”.

    I took issue with that last point and wrote a comment to the PLOS journal. My comment was removed in a few hours. But that was not the end of the story. Normally, you would be able to see my comment (a screen shot) and the full story – “PLOS journal scam” at However, there are now some security sertificates on the web and other devices that prevent public from seeing web sites; my site is now blocked. Therefore, I have to give here the full text from my site.

    PLOS journal scam

    Why science is going down the drain? It’s the bizarre science politics, it’s the crooked journals. A rather extreme example of it is below.

    PLOS-One has published a paper by D.R. Grimes (Oxford) debunking all “conspiracy theories” at once, all of them. He says that a conspiracy theory with the alleged large number of conspirators cannot be true because if it were true, some of the conspirators would come forward, “leak” the information and “expose” the conspiracy. He, moreover, gives statistical calculations showing how many years a real conspiracy can survive without a “scandal”. Therefore, he says, conspiracy theories do not describe real conspiracies, but are just crap.

    I wrote my comment on the Grimes paper saying that the paper is wrong. I said, there is no such sure mechanism that will make “a leak” into a scandal, unless mass media decides to make that scandal. I said that corruption in mass media prevents scandals and I gave my experience with Nature magazine (posted at

    My comment lived only a few hours, and was removed. I received no email explaining the reasons. Moreover, my communications with the journal were electronically cut off, I cannot write to them either.

    The journal published another comment that repeated my argument. This comment is titled:
    “Between the exposure and the scandal stands the media declaring what we are expected to believe.”
    My words in the removed comment were:
    “Between the “exposure” and the “scandal” stands the media declaring what should be believed and what should not.”

    Here is my comment, a screen shot:
    Here is the URL of the new comment:

    My comment was at
    Before it was removed, it was seen, according to my stat. counter, by 10 people.

    The text of the two comments is very different: my comment goes to the real tragedy that hit the world of science, while the new comment avoids this. PlOS would not allow publishing the true causes and concrete examples of corruption in science. PLOS journal is a part of this corruption, probably the worst part of it.

    Meanwhile, still another comment has revealed that the mathematical part of the Grimes paper is wrong ( Interestingly, the Grimes paper is receiving great attention and praise around the world.Will PLOS retract the paper? I don’t think so.

    This scam reminds me of the old and forgotten stories from Balkan countries about the tricks of the gypsies or jewish prostitutes. Only this now is a multi-million dollars operation.

    Interestingly, the PLOS journal was founded by some members of the London based charity – COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics), of which I wrote several years ago ( The COPE style was also shockingly deceitful and unprofessional, but for some reason this charitable organisation gained control over 5000 of scientific journals, issuing their Code on publication ethics and collecting the fees from these journals for COPE services. This was when they had no scientists on their board.

    How serious is all this? I don’t think it is serious at all. True, money changed hands, the world received a new “proof” that conspiracy theories are wrong which can be exploited by those who wish to exploit it. Science made a small step farther down the drain. And the gypsies are ready for their new adventures.

    Michael Pyshnov

  2. StewGreen

    Ben, a good start, but it’s a bit long. You could at least sectionalise it, since you know how shallow people are.
    Propagandists have got out this simple meme
    .—— You can now test ‘the validity of conspiracy theories’ with an EQUATION

    …And thus quickly DISMISS those “untrue people” who challenge yours views, by defining your own views as ‘with mainstream authority’ —–

    Yet as ever skeptics like you have to come back with the real full colour world of pages of deconstruction.
    That’s the simplicity of propaganda vs the complexity of truth seeking.

  3. geoffchambers

    Please correct: beadings = beheadings and Goertze = Goertzel (three times).

    Please please go back to writing a fascinating article every week, instead of one indigestibly long article every two months. There’s material here for six articles at least. There are maybe a few dozen people in the world able to comment knowledgeably on it. I’m one of them, but it will take me some time to gather my thoughts. We need you Ben.

  4. Beethoven

    There’s an anecdote about Euler; he was in the middle of a debate about god’s existence when he wrote an equation and said “therefore god exists”. The debate was over.

    This is the same situation, the author “chooses” the mathematical model to fit the result he wants. Overall this paper is a tautology. At best it can be defended by saying that is “mathematical speculation” but nothing more.

    I’d also like to note that the maths are not wrong. The function L that he uses is not the one in his equation (1) but the one in equation (3) which depends on t and N(t) and need not be monotone. The problem of this paper is not the math, is that this is sheer speculation to the point of being a tautology

  5. Craig Loehle

    When one observes a group of people taking collective action of some sort, it is not necessary to invoke “conspiracies”. For example, when in the US 80 to 100 yrs ago there was strong prejudice and laws were passed against blacks (the Jim Crow laws) and redlining of real estate was established, there was no single place that a meeting was held among “conspirators” most of whom never met nor communicated. They simply as individuals and small groups took actions consistent with their prejudices.
    Likewise, when sceptics have their papers rejected or jobs threatened or there is “consensus” there need not be any “conspiracy” –it is groupthink, people who agree with each other acting as a mob (the green blob if you will). No need for secret meetings.
    On the other hand, Mann keeps talking about fossil fuel funded conspiracies…

  6. Craig Loehle

    Michael: to follow up on your point, let us posit a true conspiracy, such as insider trading or a bank heist. The more people involved, the more likely that one of them will spill the beans, post pictures of the cash on Facebook, talk in their sleep–and indeed many crimes are solved that way. In one horrific crime in Chicago where 7 people were executed in a fast food robbery, years later one of the 3 (I think) criminals admitted it to his girlfriend, who was so horrified she called the cops.
    But a MOVEMENT, whether eugenics or anti-vaxxers or pro or anti immigration is not a conspiracy. It is a group of people who agree with each other. There are no secret meetings, no secrets, and often the true intentions are in fact stated in public. For example some prominent climate change personalities have admitted in speeches and books that the purpose of their activities is to end capitalism or destroy the West. They DID leak their intentions, that it isn’t about the climate at all. Prominent feminists have proudly admitted that their purpose is to destroy marriage.
    In the surveys cited above, the questions asked of people are not really that informative. People are suspicious about the government, and as it turns out they have a right to be. It used to be a sign of paranoia to believe the government was watching you, then it turned out they are in fact recording license plates and capturing every email. Are people perhaps right to be a little paranoid? And general paranoia is easily misinterpreted in such surveys.

  7. geoffchambers

    Grimes insists several times that his assumptions are “intentionally optimistic for conspirators” (meaning that he’s chosen figures that favour the keeping secret of a conspiracy). Then in Table 2 he lists the minimum number of conspirators for three scientific conspiracy theories. The minimum number in the case of the climate change conspiracy theory is – wait for it – 405,000.

    It’s not even bad science. It’s beyond stupid. It’s infantile game-playing in the bushes. As Ben discovered, it’s impossible to refute because it’s impossible for a normal human being to read further than the first paragraph without wanting to throw up.

    How to deal with this stuff? As those of us who have challenged Lewandowsky have discovered, peer reviewed science is impervious to criticism. Barry Woods and I have got scores of comments up in prestigious public places (Psychological Science, Nature, Chris Mooney’s, Retraction Watch..) pointing out that Lewandowsky is a liar and a charlatan. The fact sits there, unchallenged and ignored, like a bogey hanging from the nose of an absolute monarch. How to wipe the nose of the tyrant?

  8. Q

    Thanks for your piece Ben. Recommend this:
    which is a reasonable approach to why people believe in conspiracy theories and correctly identifies trust as the key issue, concluding:
    “The mathematics of inference suggests that scientists frustrated by their failure to bring others round to their way of thinking should spend less time deriding the “irrationality” of their opponents and focus instead on
    building trust.”

  9. Kevin Marshall (Manicbeancounter)

    As I realized in a very heated comment exchange a couple of weeks ago, the climate community does not engage. Lewandowsky employs his own special skills as a cognitive psychologist to nullify the opponents. There is nothing that annoys people more than clearly than false accusations, deliberate misinterpretations of ones views and shifting the argument.
    We should be clear that good science aims to make very clear statements that are not contradicted by the evidence. So long as I recharge the battery and pay the monthly bill my mobile phone works. Yet it requires thousands of scientific hypotheses to be true. It will not stop functioning if there are not a team of people communicating the belief of scientists in the science, to contradict physics or materials science deniers.



  1. Sources of the Climate Conspiracy Theory Conspiracy Theory | Climate Scepticism - […] Pile had a dense and wide-ranging article last week at Climate Resistance on a paper by Grimes on the…

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