Lewandowsky’s Favourite Conspiracy Theory

The Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Climate has a new article on Climate Change Conspiracy Theories by Joseph E. Uscinski, Karen Douglas, and Stephan Lewandowsky. I’ll be writing about it later in depth, but first a digression on its first author Joseph E. Uscinski, author of a standard textbook on conspiracy theories.

He has 6 sources listed in the bibliography of the new Oxford Climate article, quoted 33 times in the text. By far the most frequently cited source, quoted 27 times, is his book, “Uscinski, J. E., & Parent, J. M. (2014). American conspiracy theories. New York: Oxford University Press.”

Professor Uscinski is an expert on conspiracy theories, but not on climate change. His book mentions climate just three times: first on p.13, where he says: “Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues found that free market ideologies predicted endorsements of climate change conspiracy theories,” referencing Lewandowsky’s “Moon Hoax” study; then on p.27, where he mentions “those who support the oil and coal industry and who do not want discussion of climate change and alternative fuels…” and finally on p.29, where he goes into a bit more detail about climate change conspiracy theories:

Perhaps the most well-documented evidence of backlash involves psychology professor Stephan Lewandowsky [ref. Recursive Fury] He and several colleagues examined the link between conspiratorial thinking and the rejection of climate science. [ref. Moon Hoax]. Upon publication of their findings, conspiracy theorists accused the authors of a plot to smear climate change skeptics by fabricating data, misanalyzing the findings and purposefully biasing their study so as to achieve a preordained conclusion. Some accused the corporate media and the Australian government of being in on the ruse as well. Conspiracy theorists even conjectured as to which of the co-authors was the stringpuller behind the plot.

Maths prof Kevin Judd is the mastermind behind [the study]. He is apparently a brilliant mathematician, chess and go player and computerwhizz. He is a typical reclusive mad scientist. There is no doubt he is behind [the studies].” [ref. Recursive Fury]

This is the only example that Uscinski gives of a climate conspiracist theory, and he gets it wrong. Professor Judd is not the co-author of any study, though he’s an associate of Lewandowsky and Cook at the University of Western Australia, as you can see in the photo. (Judd is on the left.)

The comment comes from


and is cited in the retracted Lewandowsky paper, “Recursive Fury,” where it appears in the following context:

A commenter sought to clarify the extent of this presumed conspiratorial activity, claiming that:

It’s mostly a 3-man show: Lew [Lewandowsky], Cook and UWA maths professor Kevin Judd, who is the real strategist behind all this”


Kevin Judd’s apparent leadership role in this conspiracy was reinforced in a subsequent comment:

As local I can confirm that the Maths Prof Kevin Judd is the mastermind behind UWA AGW. He is apparently a brilliant mathematician, chess and go player, and computerwizz. He is a typical reclusive mad scientist. There is no doubt he is behind all UWA”


The first comment in the extract above is by Robbo, a frequent commenter at WUWT, and it has been truncated by Lewandowsky, removing the detailed evidential material and thus making the quote sound vaguer and more conspiratorial than it is, a standard practise of Lewandowsky throughout “Recursive Fury.”

The second comment is quoted correctly and in its entirety in “Recursive Fury”, but, bizarrely, it has been truncated and doctored in order to change its meaning in Uscinski’s book. In Uscinski’s version the first few words, “As local I can confirm that the” have been dropped, and “UWA AGW” and “all UWA” have become “[the study / the studies].”

While it would make sense for Uscinski to add an explanation in square brackets of the terms “UWA” (University of Western Australia) and “AGW” (Anthropogenic Global Warming” for a readership to whom the initials wouldn’t be familiar, it makes no sense to change the meaning of the quote by replacing these terms with “[the studies].” On the other hand, if he received the quote in this form from somewhere, that would explain his mistaken belief that Judd was one of the co-authors of the studies in question.

So if he didn’t get the mangled quote directly from “Recursive Fury,” the paper he cites, maybe he got it from from “Recurrent Fury,” Lew’s later, doctored, self-plagiarised version of the retracted “Recursive Fury” paper? The quote does appear there, but in an even more mangled form:

X’s apparent leadership role in this conspiracy was reinforced in a subsequent comment by a local who confirmed, with “no doubt”, X’s role as “mastermind” and typical “mad scientist.”

Uscinski can’t be faulted for citing the “Recursive Fury” paper, since it was retracted in 2014, the year his book was published. But why truncate and doctor the quote in such a way as to change its meaning? It is, after all, the only piece of evidence in his whole book for the existence of climate conspiracy theorists. And why choose this quote, out of dozens available?

One possible clue is in this article at SkepticalScience, written jointly with John Cook, in which Lewandowsky announces:

Recursive Fury documents a whole spectrum of conspiracy theories. As you get further into the paper, the conspiracy theories become broader and more extreme until you get to my personal favourite – maths professor Kevin Judd being the grand poobah of the “global climate activist operation” at the University of Western Australia.

But what of the commenter who has been chosen by Lewandowsky as his all time favourite conspiracy theorist? Here is the comment as it appears at WUWT, just as Lewandowsky correctly quotes it:

Donald Woerd September 12, 2012 at 11:25 pm

As local I can confirm that the Maths Prof Kevin Judd is the mastermind behind UWA AGW. He is apparently a brilliant mathematician, chess and go player, and computerwizz. He is a typical reclusive mad scientist. There is no doubt he is behind all UWA.

It looks as if it was written hurriedly, since there’s an “a” missing between “As” and “local,” (an “a” thoughtfully provided by Lew in the anonymised reference in “Recurrent Fury” to “a local who confirmed, with ‘no doubt’, X’s role..”) and it ends abruptly: “All UWA.” All UWA what?

But who is Donald Woerd, the author of the comment? He is clearly close enough to Professor Kevin Judd to know his hobbies, and holds him in high esteem. He’s also clearly having a laugh, replying sarcastically to the comment by WUWT regular Robbo, a much truncated version of whose comment Lewandowsky quotes in “Recursive Fury” (see above.) Lewandowsky apparently didn’t get the joke when he chose the quote as his “personal favourite” example of conspiracy theorising.

Donald Woerd is Donald Duck in Dutch. So the question becomes: who among Kevin Judd’s colleagues at the University of West Australia’s Climate Centre would choose the Dutch name of a cartoon character for his nom de plume in order to make a once-in-a-lifetime venture on the internet in order to poke fun at WUWT commenters and their supposed conspiracy theorising?

On Googlesearch, the only sign of his existence is his single comment at WUWT, except for six references in Dutch to the Disney character. A cartoon character who makes one comment on a blog and then disappears for ever hardly counts as a “denizen of climate blogs” – the supposed subject of Lewandowsky’s research.

So a sarcastic remark by some unknown joker from the University of Western Australia has been chosen by the world’s leading expert on climate conspiracy theorising as his personal favourite example of a climate conspiracy theory, and the pseudonymous author, who has never been seen on climate blogs before or since, has had his words immortalised in the standard reference book on conspiracy theory. Well done Donald Duck. Well done Professor Lewandowsky and Professor Uscinski. And well done Oxford University Press, publishers of Professor Uscinski and of the peer reviewed Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Climate.


12 thoughts on “Lewandowsky’s Favourite Conspiracy Theory

  1. My knowledge of Dutch is scanty – I lived and worked in Amsterdam between 1998 and 2003 – but eend is the usual word for duck. Woerd is a word I did not recognise but, yes, it means drake. Unless you are are talking about Richard of that ilk, drake is not a very frequently used word in English. Curiouser and curiouser


  2. The article is a very long and involved one, so Geoff has done a great job in researching a very particular aspect that illustrates the mounds of dross that superficially passes for well-researched scholarship. The only part that is quite skilful is avoiding the wider realities. Another is how you identify a conspiracy theory. This from the article’s definition a conspiracy theory.

    While conspiracy refers to actual events, conspiracy theory refers to an accusatory perception that may or may not be true. Telling the difference is sometimes difficult, and epistemologists have yet to settle on a standard test by which to distinguish them.

    We need expert philosophers to identify a conspiracy theory, but they have no standard method. Although Wikipedia can be very unreliable, it does provide an alternative perspective.

    A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes an unwarranted conspiracy generally one involving an illegal or harmful act carried out by government or other powerful actors. Conspiracy theories often produce hypotheses that contradict the prevailing understanding of history or simple facts. The term is a derogatory one.
    According to the political scientist Michael Barkun, conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. Another common feature is that conspiracy theories evolve to incorporate whatever evidence exists against them, so that they become, as Barkun writes, a closed system that is unfalsifiable, and therefore “a matter of faith rather than proof”.

    A conspiracy theory contradicts prevailing understanding or simple facts. Basically, a motive for people rejecting a conspiracy theory is that its bullshit, or there are simpler explanations. Not much different to some people’s rejection of climate or consensus doggerel. The idea of the universe governed by design, and therefore nothing is unexplained, gets fairly close to the belief that there must be a reason for every bit of data and every weather event. If “we” cannot explain something it does not exist.

    The idea of the universe governed by design, and therefore nothing is unexplained, gets fairly close to the belief that there must be a reason for every bit of data and every weather event. If “we” cannot explain something it does not exist.

    Even worse for the Lewandowsky crew, conspiracy theories incorporate whatever evidence exists against them, so that they become — a closed system that is unfalsifiable, and therefore “a matter of faith rather than proof”. 


  3. ManicBeanCounter

    There’s no mystery about what a conspiracy is; it’s “a banding together for a purpose, often secret, usually unlawful.” That’s the Chambers (no relation) dictionary definition, but Oxford is similar. A conspiracy theory is merely the suggestion, or suspicion, that some event is the result of a conspiracy.

    Given the wide nature of the normal dictionary definition of a conspiracy, there are a huge number of conspiracies being enacted, and therefore a huge number of conspiracy theories are true. If tomorrow Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister, it will be as the result of a conspiracy, because people have been banding together in secret to bring it about. Nothing wrong with that. Politics knows no Queensberry rules.

    The Barkun definitions you mention are similar to much of Lewandowsky’s reflections in Moon Hoax, yet I don’t remember Lewandowsky quoting Barkun. So Lewandowsky may be the origin. It will be interesting to explore this.

    Here’s where the Lewandowsky/Barkun/Wikipaedia consensus has led us:

    When Kennedy was assassinated, the forensic evidence was extraordinarily limited compared with what would exist in any similar event nowadays: a few seconds of 8mm film, a report on the condition of a firearm, and a bullet mysteriously found on a stretcher. Things were very different after 9/11. Yet in 1964 serious papers like the Sunday Times were willing to devote several pages to theories which cast doubt on the official version, and this was considered normal. Look at the reactions of the same “liberal” press nowadays to any questioning of the official 9/11 story. The official story is sacrosanct, because some of the people who challenge it are loonies.

    When you say:

    A conspiracy theory contradicts prevailing understanding or simple facts. Basically, a motive for people rejecting a conspiracy theory is that its bullshit, or there are simpler explanations.

    I’m not sure if you’re quoting conspiracy theory theory or expressing your own opinion.

    “It’s bullshit” was the opinion of the cardinals who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, though they said it in Latin. As for simpler explanations, Occam’s razor cuts both ways. The simplest explanation for the assassination of the four most influential leftwing US politicians in the latter half of the 20th century; John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Senator Richard Church, is that each was killed by a lone assassin, with no particular political motive. It’s simple because it suggests that everything that happens is entirely independent from everything else that happens. That in itself is a theory.


  4. Stranger and stranger: “ducks and drakes” (stone skipping) is known as frogs in many divers languages (Lithuanian, Greek &c).


  5. My main objection to both conspiracy theories and accusations of conspiracy ideation is the sloppiness of the definition. As Geoff notes, there are always conspiracies about. By their nature, any plan that isn’t widely publicised is a conspiracy. They don’t need to be universally damaging plans but since most decisions upset/hurt somebody, most are kept secret at some point. It was interesting that Dr Lew removed the question about the Iraq war. Probably because Blair admitted that he’d been ready to take out Sadham regardless of WMD. What WAS a genuine conspiracy theory, was the idea that the war was about Iraq oil. Even a basic economic calculation would determine that it was cheaper to buy oil off a corrupt leader than go to war to secure it. The Iraq war was about emotion, not cold logic. Much though I loath Blair I don’t doubt he thought he was liberating the Iraqis and stopping a dangerous plotter. The sneaky thing to do would have been to turn a blind eye to anything he did to his people and make a deal for cheap oil in exchange for luxuries and low end weapons.

    Logic is what makes most/all conspiracy theories fail. The 9/11 conspiracy requires a great many people to have acted with extreme patriotism, evil intent and greed. One or two maybe, but not all three. Diana’s death begs the question – ‘would the French have covered up the muderous activities of the British heir to the throne?’ Pas une chance mes amis.

    Climate change isn’t a conspiracy, it’s just normal life. It’s a mixture of belief, arrogance, disater porn, self interest, ignorance, altruism… etc. There is a core of truth to it but with layer after layer of bodged additions. The result is an unstable, unappealing mess. It’s not very attractive to the people who built it, let alone the rest of us. But like all these good deed golems, once they’ve been given life, they’re very hard to stop.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Man in a Barrel
    Since “Donald Woerd” only gets 9 hits on google, I assume it’s an old-fashioned term, only used by Dutch language purists. This happens a lot. Laurel and Hardy used to be known as Stanlio e Olio in Italian. The Académie Française is still trying to get us to say “courriel” instead of “email.”

    I’ve written to Professor Uscinski pointing out the errors in his book and OUP article. I’m hoping for a positive outcome, because from his writings, and the glimpse of his book on Amazon, he’s no ideologue, and I imagine the rereferences in the OUP article to the fact that conspiracies appear on both sides of controversies are his work. For example, at
    he says: “50 per cent of Democrats believe that Russia hacked the voting machines despite having no evidence of such.” That’s Trump talk. On the other hand, he goes on to say: “Climate change deniers and creationists typically reach for conspiracy theories to explain why their ideas are not discussed in the mainstream, not included in serious scientific journals, and not endorsed by a consensus of scientists,” so he’s obviously being fed secret messages by someone via a brain implant.


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