A Conspiracy Unmasked


Apparently, as a ‘climate denier’ (i.e. someone who rejects the probability that human-induced global warming will lead to worldwide, significantly damaging changes to the climate) I am signed up to believing a number of conspiracy theories. The biggest is that it’s all a scam cooked up under the banner of the United Nations to usher in an era of socialist one-world government, and underneath this there are bubbling away any number of lesser plots, involving cabals of scientists all networking furiously on a global scale to supress real data and true knowledge, all to further the higher aim. Apparently.

Actually, I don’t believe there are any global warming conspiracies at all. Sure, I know there are some nutters out on the fringe (as there are in every sphere of activity) who claim all of the above is true, and more. But all I see are a group of run-of-the-mill scientists, driven by their political leanings and a desire to be part of a Big Cause, acting in individual ways that seem rational to them, supported by extremely political activists, and all of them suffering acutely from noble cause corruption. A gravy train has been created and everyone, from third world governments to individual activists and researchers, wants to ride it for as long as possible. Sure, from time to time a few scientists get together on the quiet to fudge some data or methodology to make sure they get the answer they want, but to label such activities as full-blown conspiracies would be to flatter them. I’m sure this happens in every branch of science.

This idea that deniers are all a bunch of tinfoil hat wearing crazies has recently been turned on its head in a manner that is astonishing, extremely amusing and also sheds light on the motivations of those that make such claims.

Let’s begin our story with a simple, well known fact: that 97% of scientists agree that dangerous global warming is happening and is man-made. It’s a fact that is cited everywhere, sadly with even NASA not immune. We know it’s a fact because it was revealed in a scientific paper (Doran and Zimmerman 2009) which published the results of a global survey of over 10,000 scientists.

The problem is of course that this mythical number of 97% isn’t a fact at all. Once the method used to obtain this result was picked apart, it was discovered that actually, of 3,146 scientists who responded to the survey in the paper, the authors discarded the answers from all but 77. Only two questions had been asked; only a fool would have disagreed with the first and many fierce critics of the whole global warming jamboree would still have agreed with the vaguely-worded second. The whole thing was a joke.

The fact that this paper had been pulled apart by internet bloggers clearly rankled with those of alarmist tendencies. It was time to launch an attack against these ‘deniers’. Stephan Lewandowsky lead a team that put together a paper which purported to demonstrate that those who believe global warming is not dangerous are also more likely to believe conspiracy theories such as the idea that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings. (It should be noted that Lewandowsky as lead author is a psychologist, not a physicist or any other practitioner of the ‘hard’ sciences. Being convinced of the dangers of man-made global warming, his team had clearly decided to support their pre-existing views as far as they could within their own field of study.)

Their paper (Lewandowsky et al 2012, or ‘Moon Hoax’ as it came to be called) produced much cheering and finger pointing from their supporters. I mean, the ‘deniers’ had been scientifically identified as a bunch of conspiracy theorists who probably believed Kennedy was shot by aliens. What could be better?

Oh dear. I hate to break it to you, dear reader, but this paper was just as bad as the first one. It claimed to be based upon an online survey that had been posted at web sites that were popular with ‘deniers’. Except it wasn’t. It had only been posted at minor blogs or those that were alarmist themselves. This left the whole thing open to the suspicion that many recipients would have been alarmists entering answers they thought real ‘deniers’ would give. You know, for a bit of a laugh. The entire methodology was fundamentally flawed in other ways and yet again a tiny number of results massively skewed the conclusions.

Meanwhile, in response to heavy criticism of the original ‘97%’ paper, another group of scientists lead by John Cook, an associate of Lewandowsky, decided to come at it from another angle. As far as they were concerned, the answer they wanted (that an overwhelming majority of scientists supported their own views on global warming) was beyond doubt. All they needed was another way to prove it. This time they decided to look at previously published scientific papers on global warming. Their new paper (Cook et al 2013) claimed to have reviewed nearly 12,000 papers and found that 97% of them agreed with their views. Note that it’s 97% again! It’s clearly a magic number.

Unfortunately for Cook and his fellows it soon emerged that their reviewing method was shoddy at best, and the authors of some of the papers they claimed supported them came out publicly and stated the opposite. It was another shambles, but the authors’ activist supporters had already seized on the paper as further scientific proof of the ‘consensus’.

So what does a psychologist like Lewandowsky do when he is so keen to prove his intellectual opponents wrong but instead shoots himself in the foot? In this case he changes his socks and reloads his gun. The new ‘sock’ turned out to be yet another paper. Now I must admit ‘Recursive Fury’ has the best title ever for a scientific study, if nothing else. But otherwise it has turned out to be a train wreck of the first order.

Lewandowsky and Cook got together and had the bright idea to show that ‘deniers’ had started to create brand-new conspiracy theories regarding the online furore over the Moon Hoax paper, thus proving what a bunch of total nutters they were. To twist the knife further, their new paper would actually identify individuals and diagnose them (via the medium of their internet comments) with various psychological disorders. I mean, Lewandowsky already knew the ‘deniers’ were crazy, so he was just proving it scientifically, right? To make sure he got some nice, meaty comments to work with, Lewandowsky started goading ‘deniers’ online, and the resulting paper was accepted for publication by Frontiers in Psychology. Job done.

Of course, the moment that the identified individuals became aware of the paper, they started complaining to Frontiers. It is a basic standard of all psychological research that human subjects may only be identified with their permission, and obviously Lewandowsky had just ridden a coach and horses through such ethical considerations. Some freedom of information requests to the University of Western Australia, where Lewandowsky was working at the time, eventually revealed that he had received permission to go ahead with the research only on the basis that there was no interaction with the subjects, which had clearly not been the case. It also turned out that one of the experts that Frontiers had asked to review and check the paper before publication was a student with no relevant expertise.

A month after first posting it up Frontiers removed the link to the paper, while they investigated the objections. After a year in limbo, Frontiers decided to retract the paper. Their statement said that there were no academic or ethical problems with the paper, but the “legal context is insufficiently clear”. Cook and Lewandowsky’s supporters immediately jumped into print claiming that Frontiers had caved in to legal threats orchestrated by bands of deniers and in doing so had chickened out of standing up for academic freedom. Turning on Frontiers in this way was a big mistake.

In response Frontiers released a statement saying that they had received no threats, that some of the complaints against Recursive Fury “were well argued and cogent” and that it did not “sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects.” They also revealed that Lewandowsky et al had been given an opportunity to rework the paper to remove any identification of individuals, but that the authors’ attempt to do so had not been adequate. Hence the retraction.

The ever-enthusiastic Dana Nuccitelli (a co-author of the second 97% study) shot back that Frontiers were lying that Lewandowsky had not adequately modified the paper, that Frontiers had indeed yielded to the possibility of legal action and in doing so had thrown the authors under the bus. Which they had, but for different reasons, i.e. the paper was not fit to be published. Dana also hinted darkly that legal action against Frontiers from the authors themselves might follow.

Such are the passions that global warming engenders that some staff at Frontiers resigned in protest that Recursive Fury had been retracted. However, the editor in chief then weighed in, issuing a further statement that noted that “Science cannot be abused to specifically label and point out individuals in the public domain.” (And this from an organisation that believes in the dangers of global warming.) Frontiers had clearly handled the retraction badly; it had emerged that the original retraction notice, blaming legal issues alone, had been drawn up in agreement with the authors. Only when under attack from them had Frontiers admitted the real reasons.

Given the anger generated by the retraction fiasco, it is easy to forget just how flawed the central concept of Recursive Fury is. The idea that particular psychological conditions can be diagnosed via cherry-picked online comments on a single, very emotive topic is utterly laughable. Cook and Lewandowsky were also so sloppy in their work that amongst other errors they even managed to label a senior Met Office climatologist as a conspiracy theorist, apparently unaware he is a lead author of United Nations climate change reports.

This sorry story has taken Lewandowsky, Cook and Nuccitelli on a perfectly circular journey from labelling their opponents as conspiracy theorists to generating their own theory that Frontiers in Psychology had caved in to non-existent legal threats. The vituperative anger displayed by all three towards those they label ‘deniers’ instantly discounts any pretence on their part to be dispassionate seekers after objective truth. There is heavy irony in their claiming that the imagined legal threats to Frontiers were a suppression of academic freedom, but later hinting at legal action against Frontiers themselves.

The point of the Moon Hoax paper was to tar ‘deniers’ as cranks, and the point of Recursive Fury was to ‘scientifically’ label high profile ‘deniers’ as mentally unstable. That Frontiers, despite their explicit request, were never presented with a paper that didn’t identify specific individuals, clearly demonstrates that this was the only reason for the paper to exist. Lewandowsky et al preferred to see it retracted rather than stripped of its true purpose. The whole approach is directly equivalent to the Soviet practice of branding anyone who disagreed with communist politics as mentally deranged.

Nature will roll ahead and the climate will do whatever it is going to do, regardless of how each side of the debate manages to characterise the other (i.e. ‘deniers’ against ‘alarmists’). But on the political and economic side of things this characterisation is crucial, for it will sway the opinions of many, many people, and in turn influence the decisions of politicians of all hues. That is why this story matters, and why I wrote it.


2 responses to “A Conspiracy Unmasked

  1. It’s a pity engineers don’t have more say in how the world is run. If we did it would be a lot more rational and hence more pleasant for all.

    Cook, Nuccitelli and Lewandowsky are charlatans. What’s worse is that they know they are but see a bandwagon upon which they think they can travel to fame and fortune. I see that Team Obama congratulated them on their 97% nonsense, but then the CAGW story folds nicely into the “Progressive” cause. Political science at its most naked.

    Nice article, thanks.

  2. Lewandowsky et. al have science upside down. A traditional view of science is that conjectures are generated from theory that are then tested against the real world. In physics these conjectures are from extending existing theory and tested by experiment. The conjectures that stand out are those that are the most far removed from the existing body of knowledge. Most of the crazy conjectures will turn out to be wrong, and might even be rejected before they are confronted with the real world experiment. But occasionally there will be those hypotheses that are wildly at odds with existing consensus that are verified by experiment. Those turn out to be revolutionary.
    Lewandowsky et. al, like many cranks before them, get their notion of truth second and third hand. Second hand, a conjecture is accepted due to expert scientists agreeing that it seems to be a believable conjecture. Third hand, a conjecture gains validity due to disagreeable people with errant ideas (scientific or political) rejecting the hypothesis. These people cannot are so blinkered that the mere suggestion that some disagree with accepted conjectures is evidence to those conjectures.

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