Sources of the Climate Conspiracy Theory Conspiracy Theory

Ben Pile had a dense and wide-ranging article last week at Climate Resistance on a paper by Grimes on the impossibility of conspiracy theories.

I left a rather snide comment (which I regret) to the effect that the article was too long, and covered too many topics for easy commenting, and he’s come back with a rather shorter one on a paper cited by Grimes (and by everyone else in the field, including Lewandowsky of course): Conspiracy Theories by Sunstein and Vermeule (2008).

Ben’s interest in the Sunstein & Vermeule paper arises from the fact that it is the source for Grimes’ claim that: “Conspiratorial beliefs, which attribute events to secret manipulative actions by powerful individuals, are widely held by a broad-cross section of society.”

And sure enough, he finds reasons to doubt the validity of this in the paper’s sources (opinion polls in New York and the Middle East after 9/11). In the second article he goes on to criticise Sunstein for his involvement in government “nudge” campaigns intended to “improve” the behaviour of citizens, one of several nefarious activities of what Ben describes as the “Psychocracy”.

Here I’ll look at another aspect of the Sunstein and Vermeule paper: its importance as the source of the theory that climate sceptics are conspiracy theorists.

First, it should be pointed out that the Sunstein & Vermeule paper is not all bad, in the way that Grimes and Lewandowsky are. There are no attempts to prove conclusions already arrived at by bogus statistical methods based on badly constructed surveys. Sunstein & Vermeule are professors at law schools. They believe in rational argument, and by and large that’s what they deal in, if you’ll excuse them a few unsupported assertions such as that “those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence” and that “those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a crippled epistemology” (where is political correctness when you need it?)

Well, yes, it is pretty bad. But it’s not actually fraudulent, as Lewandowsky’s Moon Hoax paper was.

So what do Sunstein & Vermeule have to say about climate change? Just this:

“Conspiracy theories are a subset of the large category of false beliefs, and also of the somewhat smaller category of beliefs that are both false and harmful. 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.”

and this:

“Conspiracy theories create challenges that are distinct from those posed by false but dangerous beliefs (recall the belief that prolonged exposure to sunlight is good for you or that climate change is not occurring).”

Forget the fact that no-one in the sceptic community claims that “climate change is neither occurring nor likely to occur.” We’re used to this kind of straw man argument. It shows up the bad faith or the limited intelligence of those who claim to analyse our “crippled epistemology,” and that’s all. The important thing is that Sunstein & Vermeule state explicitly that climate scepticism per se is not a conspiracy theory.

However, they do mention in their Definitional Notes, in a list of the “most prominent and influential conspiracy theories,” the view that “the theory of global warming is a deliberate fraud.” And their source for this theory is Senator Inhofe’s July 28, 2003 speech to Congress, from which they quote: “With all the hysteria, all the fear, all the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? I believe it is.”

Lewandowsky picks up this happy conflating of “hoax,” “fraud” and “conspiracy” in his paper NASA faked the moon landing—Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science, citing Inhofe as a source for his claim that:

“Rejection of climate science has also long been infused with notions of a conspiracy among scientists.”

and that:

“In the climate arena, the conspiracist ideation that all of the world’s scientific academies have conspired together to create a “hoax” known as global warming has demonstrably found traction in American mainstream politics.”

in both cases citing Inhofe’s 2012 book, which indeed has the word “conspiracy” in the title.

But Lewandowsky can hardly have been relying on a book published in 2012 for his assertion that “Rejection of climate science has also long been infused with notions of a conspiracy among scientists, in a paper reporting on research done in 2010. His reliance on the Inhofe “hoax” reference must come from the Sunstein & Vermeule paper, which he cites several times.

So what exactly was Inhofe saying in that quote about a “hoax”, which Sunstein & Vermeule interpret as “fraud”, and finally as a conspiracy theory? Inhofe started his very long and well-documented 2003 attack on warmism by saying:

“I am going to expose the most powerful, most highly financed lobby in Washington, the far left environmental extremists”

and he ends with:

“What could possibly be the motivation for global warming alarmism? Since I have become the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, it has become pretty clear. It is fundraising. Environmental extremists rake in millions of dollars, not to solve environmental problems but to fuel their ever-growing fundraising machines… With all the hysteria, all the fear, all the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? I believe it is.”

He’s talking about lobbying, an activity indulged by absolutely everyone under every political system on the planet.

There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance in the minds of Environmentalists which makes them believe that they are not as other men are. To be accused of using their hundreds of millions of tax deductible revenues for anything so base as jockeying for influence must have come as a terrible shock to them. Just as it must be a shock to a cognitive psychologist to be accused of having the same blindness to his own ideological prejudices as everyone else. But they must realise somewhere in the purity of their souls that affecting a horrified reaction to the accusation of lobbying would just make them look silly. So they turn a quite banal accusation, something that normal people would discuss normally with their opponents – into something truly shocking – an accusation of conspiracy – and at the same time transform their critics into tinfoil hat types suffering from crippled epistemology whose views can be ignored.

It’s a cheap trick, but an effective one – if you’ve got hundreds of millions to spend on it and the support of all the scientific bodies on the planet.


  1. Knaves or fools? Not a conclusion any Englishman enjoys coming to, to say nothing of Canadians such as Mr. Steven McIintyre, an endearing feature of whose blog is a continual helpless search for a polite equivalent of ‘lie.’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Geoff, this is an interesting find. A key paper, cited by Grimes and by Lewandowsky, makes hardly any mention of climate change, except to say that climate scepticism doesn’t depend on any kind of conspiracy theory. This very much undermines the arguments of Grimes and Lewandowsky – not that there was much argument left after Jonathan Jones and Ben Pile had finished with them. (Well, in fact it was Ben’s find, but it was rather buried in his post and he didn’t make much of it.)

    Incidentally, there are two versions of the Sunstein & Vermeule paper. There is the one you llnk to, just called “Conspiracy Theories”, which is a draft or working paper, and there is the final published version called “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures“, as cited by Grimes. This version is slightly shorter and only mentions climate once. The second bit about climate starting with “recall the belief…” isn’t there. Sadly, the bit about the Easter Bunny in the draft version also didn’t make it to the final version.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Forget the fact that no-one in the sceptic community claims that “climate change is neither occurring nor likely to occur.”True in the sense that climate is and always has changed. But on the other hand the sceptic community is chock full of people who deny that anthropogenic climate change (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW) is happening. And Sunstein & Vermeule most certainly meant AGW. So your point is false.

    And one cannot have a discussion with the sceptic community about more or less any aspect of climate science without one or more of them saying that they don’t believe what the science says because NOAA or NASA or the MO or BEST or the Team or Father Christmas fiddles the numbers to make warming look worse. Or are you telling us that you believe (as normal people do) that the surface temperature records are honestly collated, adjusted and computed with the aim of creating the very best indication of temperature, that the reason no sceptic papers are published is that nobody writes any sceptic papers worth publishing and that climate models have been written with the honest intention of studying climate and have not been deliberately biased warm?


  4. RAFF
    You say: “Sunstein & Vermeule most certainly meant AGW. So your point is false.”

    But my point is addressed at what they say, not what you say they most certainly mean. So my point is true.

    Do you never wonder why defenders of the consensus almost never say what you think they almost certainly mean? Are they to lazy to type out the word “anthropogenic”? Or could there be some other reason?

    You say: “ cannot have a discussion with the sceptic community about more or less any aspect of climate science without one or more of them saying that they don’t believe what the science says because […]”

    But you’re having such a discussion right now. And the reason I haven’t mentioned temperature adjustments (and rarely do) is precisely so that we can have such a discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Paul Matthews
    Thanks for the link to the finished article, which would cost me $38, so I’ll stick to the draft, complete with the Easter Bunny. (And the elves. Does he mention the elves in the peer-reviewed version?)

    If you could refute a paper by pointing out that the sources cited say something else, there wouldn’t be a social science paper left standing, as I found when I explored Lewandowsky’s sources for the Moon Hoax paper.

    It’s Alice in Wonderland out there. What: there’s no anti-semitism in Malaysia? (because there are no Jews). There’s homophobia among men who have sex with other men in South Africa? Nobody who believes that Lady Di was murdered also believes that she is still alive? It all fits!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. known fact 54% of psychology students expressed a believe that Princess Diana death was NOT an accident….

    Says the data, from Dead and Alive – Wood et al – cited by Lew in Moon Hoax, shame the author and Lew missed that little fact.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Are they to lazy to type out the word “anthropogenic”? Or could there be some other reason?

    Sure there could. How many ordinary people know the meaning of “anthropogenic”? Not people in your educated circle of friends and acquaintances, but the average people on a London, Birmingham or Manchester street. When I first became interested in AGW I used to confuse the word with anthropomorphic (and I couldn’t have said what that meant either), and I am scientifically literate.

    And the other reason in this case is that Sunstein & Vermeule quite possibly don’t know the word either. Do a test, ask 10 staff in Tesco what it means and report back.

    If you believe there are no conspiracies in AGW, do you agree that climate scientists, journal publishers and organizations such as the IPCC, NOAA, NASA and the Met Office are honestly studying climate and reporting their findings in an unbiased manner.


  8. “Man-made” then. Or do you think that’s too complicated for Sunstein & Vermeule? And if so, what do you think they think they mean? This is not an idle question. Back in the 70s John Holdren thought man was heating the atmosphere directly, by burning things, to the extent of 6° per century. That didn’t hold him back.

    Who said I believe there are no conspiracies? Of course there are conspiracies in AGW. Read the emails. You can read them conspiring to destroy data and emails, bend peer review, get people sacked. Those are conspiracies.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Geoff, your own quote from V&S says:

    “Conspiracy theories create challenges that are distinct from those posed by false but dangerous beliefs (recall the belief that prolonged exposure to sunlight is good for you or that climate change is not occurring).”

    So believing that prolonged exposure to the sun is good is false and dangerous – the corollary being that we should avoid such exposure. A belief that climate change is not occurring is also false and dangerous – if they mean natural changes in climate, the corollary according to Geoff is … what? That we should avoid natural climate change? Do you think they would say believing that CC is not occurring is “dangerous” if there were no consequences from such a belief? If they were talking about changes in climate that occur naturally why would they think it dangerous not to believe in them? We can do nothing about natural changes in climate so how can it be dangerous to ignore them?

    Of course there are conspiracies in AGW.

    So you are yourself a good source of the climate conspiracy theory conspiracy theory.


  10. It’s not my job to tease out the implications of what S and V might have meant, or would have had to have meant in order for their statement to have any sense. Why don’t you ask them what they meant? It’s obvious why you don’t. Because you’re not interested in finding out anything. You’ve appointed yourself a porosecuting counsel, that’s all. It’s very tiresome.

    A conspiracy is a secret agreement between two or more people to do something wrong. Professor Phil Jones asked X to get Y to destroy all emails and said he’d get Z to do the same. That was illegal, and therefore wrong. Grimes, whose quoting of S and V set me off on this, says that a climate conspiracy must necessarily involve 405,000 people. Address your questions to these lunatics.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Me ask what they meant? No need for that, as it is obvious what they meant, Geoff. You are the one having trouble with it because it doesn’t fit your preferred interpretation. Next time you quote someone, make sure you understand what they wrote first.

    Jones is history and unless he had access to the backup servers and archives his deletion was just naive. And unless others complied with his request, his one-man conspiracy is probably as far as any climate science conspiracy goes. Any of the typical conspiracies that are proposed on sceptic sites, corruption of indices, suppression of publication, and the like, would involve thousands of people and would inevitably leak. There is no conspiracy.


  12. “Me ask what they meant? No need for that, as it is obvious what they meant.”

    OK, you go on thinking it’s obvious that they meant something other than what they said. It’s standard practice in discussion of climate science. I’ll go on assuming they meant what they said.

    “Jones is history”

    According to Wikipaedia he’s the Director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and a Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia.

    “his one-man conspiracy is probably as far as any climate science conspiracy goes.”

    “The lone deleter.” Now where have I heard that theory before?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. When you look at the work of Stephen Lewandowsky on climatology it is very easy forget that he is a Professor of cognitive psychology. He understands how false and baseless accusations work. For those falsely accused there is anger that leads to defense, rather than attacking a pseudo-scientific research program and associated policies. The more devoid of content, and more varied, the better. The key evidence is in his never acknowledging that sceptics can have any valid opinions about anything, nor that anything he supports is any way invalid, whether positively or normatively.
    I would therefore propose the best hypothesis of Lewandowsky’s method is to view him as protecting a core of pseudo-scientific ideas from confrontation with the evidence, and dogmatic moral and political beliefs from comparison with more reasonable and mainstream ones. His form of defence is to be as offensive as possible whilst sealed in the ivy towers of academia. He aims with psychology (which others have done by other means) to turn “science” on its head. Normal science tries to make hypotheses about the real world stand on their own, independent of who supports them, or the methods used to derive the results, or the data sets used for confirmation. For instance many thousands of scientific hypotheses need to hold good you the reader to pick up what I have typed into my PC. But in Lewandowsky’s world this only happens because a scientific consensus believes the hypotheses to be true. Conversely under normal science, Prof Tim Flannery’s failed predictions means he is climate activist with no demonstrated understanding of climate. In Lewandowsky’s world he is senior member of the scientific consensus. Flannery’s membership would be cancelled if he admitted he did not know what he was talking about. In Lewandowsky’s terms that would be seepage.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yes Geoff, go on saying how dangerous it is to believe that natural climate change is not occurring. You could spell out the dangers too. That’ll set you apart.


  15. I didn’t say that either. Now can we please stop this silliness. This is not how normal people conduct discussions. I’m not in the dock, and there’s no jury to influence. S & V described belief that climate change is not occurring as a false belief. I pointed out that no known sceptic holds that belief. Thats all.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The silliness is in the little game you and your little band like to play, Geoff. Climate change? Oh, none of us deny that climate changes! Oh you mean anthropogenic climate change? Well of course we mostly deny that but funnily enough hardly anybody ever writes about that.


  17. No. Most sceptics don’t deny anthropogenic climate change either. Wrong again. That’s three or four times you’ve falsely attributed statements to me. From now on I shall ignore you.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Some people came close to asserting that a conspiracy of scientists promoted a linear no-threshold (LNT) model of radiation dose-response for low doses, over the, then dominant, threshold dose-response (of about 700mGy). In fact a group of geneticists, financed by fossil fuel money, eventually changed the consensus within American, and later world science to claim that LNT radiation dose-response (at low dose) had the status of scientific theory. We can say the group promoting this were initially funded by fossil fuel money, and their radiation phobia was instrumental in limiting nuclear weapons tests. That they knew they didn’t have scientific evidence but they bullied and blustered their way to leadership. Decades later, Edward Calabrese showed that neither threshold, nor no-threshold dose-response generally stood at low dose, and that neither model “had ever been properly validated”. Yet this stupidly simple LNT idea attained the status of theory within mainstream science for decades.

    I, myself, assume Hanlon’s Razor:


  19. The difficulty here is that Group-Think isn’t a conspiracy. It’s people who meet each other a lot, aligning their beliefs unconsciously.

    The difference is intentionality.

    I think the vast majority of climate scientists start with Group-Think. Which then, over time, turns into self-defense. They can’t have been wasting their time for the past 20 years of their career – can they?

    Whereas the people lobbying the UN for action were conspiring ….


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