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.”
“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.”
“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.