The theory that climate sceptics are conspiracy theorists has received confirmation from research conducted by an organisation called CRASSH, the Cambridge-based Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, as part of their five-year Leverhulme Trust-funded project Conspiracy and Democracy.
Led by Professor Sir Richard Evans, Professor John Naughton, and Professor David Runciman, this project asked big questions of a big topic at a time when discourses around conspiracy and democracy have become mainstream.
Preliminary results of the research, conducted in the USA and eight European countries, are described in this article in the Guardian by Dr Hugo Drochon titled “Britons are swallowing conspiracy theories. Here’s how to stop the rot” with the subheading “Aliens exist and global warming is a hoax – these unbelievable beliefs are symptoms of people feeling threatened.” Dr Drochon summarises the research thus:
Who believes in conspiracy theories, and why? That is the question asked in a five-year study at Cambridge University. It turns that out 60% of British people believe in at least one of the 10 conspiracy theories we put to them… Our research reveals that belief in conspiracy theories is linked to two things: a sense of threat, and a feeling of being excluded from power… Conspiracy theories allow people to regain a sense of control over their lives: they offer a reasoning for all the crazy and inexplicable things that happen in the world..
with a link to another Guardian article, by senior news writer Esther Addley which adds a bit more detail, analysing six of the conspiracy theories by attitude to Brexit for the UK sample and attitude to Trump for the US. The ten conspiracy theories considered in the research were:
1. The government is deliberately hiding the truth about how many immigrants really live in the country
2. Immigration to this country is part of a bigger plan to make Muslims a majority of the country’s population
3. The truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public
4. The idea of man-made global warming is a hoax that was invented to deceive people
5. Regardless of who is officially in charge of governments and other organisations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together
6. Secret plots that harm the nation are more common in this country than in other countries
7. Even though we live in what’s called a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway
8. Humans have made contact with aliens and this fact has been deliberately hidden from the public
9. The AIDS virus was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret group or organisation
10. The official account of the Nazi Holocaust is a lie and the number of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II has been exaggerated on purpose
Esther Addley adds:
Prof John Naughton, the director of the press fellowship programme at Wolfson College and one of three University of Cambridge professors who led the research, said the study, which began in 2012, had been born out of an attempt to look at the “natural history” of conspiracy theories.
The researchers had tried to be as broad as possible in their definition of the term as “a theory that some actors have conspired to do something covertly, usually something dysfunctional or evil”…
“Conspiracy theories are, and as far as we can tell always have been, a pretty important part of life in many societies, and most of the time that has gone beneath the radar of the established media,” said Naughton. “Insofar as people thought of conspiracy theories at all, we thought of them as crazy things that crazy people believed, [and that] didn’t seem to have much impact on democracy.”
That dismissive attitude changed after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in 2016, he said. “Whatever else you think of Trump, he is a born conspiracy theorist. Trump was a kind of catalyst, in that somehow his election had the effect of mainstreaming conspiracy theories.”
The definition of a conspiracy theory given above seems to accord well enough with the dictionary definition of a conspiracy as a “combination for unlawful purpose”, except for the word “dysfunctional.” Surely the purpose of conspiring is to be functional, i.e. to achieve some purpose, however nefarious? And the fact that they use the word “conspired” in the definition renders it tautologous, and therefore useless. Still, we can see what the three Cambridge professors are getting at, even if they have trouble expressing themselves clearly.
Now consider Professor Naughton’s claim that:
“Conspiracy theories are, and as far as we can tell always have been, a pretty important part of life in many societies, and … insofar as people thought of conspiracy theories at all, we thought of them as crazy things that crazy people believed, [and that] didn’t seem to have much impact on democracy.”
Well the first part is certainly true; the second part, less so. Consider for example the conspiracy theory that Julius Caesar was not murdered by a lone stabber, or that the gunpowder found under the parliament building was placed there by a secret group of plotters who intended to blow up the government. Surely those are conspiracy theories that had an effect on the politics of the day? Of course, these conspiracy theories were true. But they fall under Professor Naughton’s definition. Because it is logically impossible to define “conspiracy theory” in such a way that it must be false. Conspiracies happen. That’s my theory anyway, which is why I’m a conspiracy theorist.
I suggest that if you ask people to name a conspiracy theory, they will mention some concrete event which require explanation, and for which the official explanation is found wanting, suggesting that the true explanation is being covered up. Sometimes, as in the Kennedy assassination and the Skripal poisoning, the official explanation is too absurd to be believed. Sometimes as in the case of the unfortunate death of the mother of the heir to the throne the day before she was due to elope to Egypt and no doubt convert to Islam, the coincidence seems too great. Sometimes the coverup is too blatant, as in the case of President Bush’s secret testimony as to what the Head of the Armed Forces was doing the day his country was attacked. Churchill and de Gaulle didn’t testify in secret as to what they did in the war. Why did Bush? In every case there are rational reasons to doubt whether the governments were telling the truth, unless of course you believe that governments never lie.
Taking the professors’ definition, and bearing in mind that few of the conspiracy theories in the survey refer to specific events, it seems very doubtful that many of the ten items can be considered as conspiracy theories at all, and it’s certain that none of them are typical examples of the genre.
Theories 5 and 7, stating that there is “a single group of people who secretly control events” and that “a few people will always run things” are simply assertions of the common belief that we live in an oligarchy, a perfectly reasonable political thesis. Similarly, number 6. “Secret plots that harm the nation are more common in this country than in other countries” is simply an expression of an opinion, the truth of which is impossible to determine a priori, unless you have knowledge of the number of secret plots in numerous countries. In what way does a belief that there are more secret plots in country A than in country B make you more conspiratorial than if you believe the opposite?
Most of the conspiracy theories offered are simply variations on the theme “the government is hiding the truth about X.” Since you can replace X with any subject of current concern, you can construct as many conspiracy theories as you like, and always find someone who believes one or other of them. And since governments do often hide the truth about things, many of them will be true.
Beneath the conspiratorial sentence construction there often lies a simple truth. Take theory 1.“The government is deliberately hiding the truth about how many immigrants really live in the country:” which, like many of the conspiracy theories offered, seems designed specifically to winkle out the politically incorrect deplorables among us. Obviously, the true number of immigrants, legal and illegal, is extremely difficult to determine, not to speak of their future intentions, which will determine their effect on society. Have they come to settle? Will they integrate and become citizens like any other, or will they return home after contributing to society by doing some ill paid job that no-one else would do? Who knows? From there to accusing the government of hiding the truth is a short step, particularly when you’re answering a long questionnaire on the telephone.
Similarly with theory 3 on vaccines and 9 on AIDS. Serious doubts about the safety of vaccines and the origin of AIDS were expressed by experts and relayed in the press. The respondents to this survey weren’t expert on these matters. An opinion given to a pollster doesn’t claim to be any more than an opinion. The only way of deciding whether this survey reveals conspiratorial thinking would be to conduct a parallel survey asking questions on the same subjects, without the conspiratorial framing: “Do you believe that vaccines are safe? That the Holocaust happened? That aliens have landed? Etc. Given that only 4% of Britons believed the AIDS conspiracy theory and 2% the Holocaust one, I doubt whether results would be very different. In other words, being sceptical about X, where X is some generally accepted proposition, is much the same thing as believing in a conspiracy to hide the truth about X. Theorising about conspiracy theories is redundant.
Which brings us to climate change. “The idea of man-made global warming is a hoax that was invented to deceive people” is a pretty weird formulation of the sceptical position. As far as I know, the origin of the idea of global warming as a hoax originates with the title of a book by Senator Inhofe, and was taken up and garbled in a famous tweet by President Trump. It is not surprising therefore that the highest number (17%) agreeing with this statement was in the U.S. In Europe, belief in global warming was correlated with – climate, with twice as many Swedes and Poles as Portuguese believing it to be a hoax. (“Global Warming in Sweden: Not Many Deaths.”)
It’s difficult to escape the idea that these conspiracy theories were chosen specifically with the current political atmosphere in Britain and the USA in mind. Professor Naughton’s statement, quoted above, that:
“That dismissive attitude [that conspiracy theories were crazy things that crazy people believed] changed after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in 2016”
suggests as much. And the breakdown provided in the Guardian article, by Brexit attitude in the UK and by support for Trump in the US, demonstrates that on the issues highlighted in the article, (immigration, Islamic takeover, vaccines, global warming, world control and secret plots) the deplorables are truly crazy people who believe crazy things.
Now, if I were three Cambridge professors coming to the end of a well-funded five year project and sharing the almost universal horror (in the circles in which I move) at current events, I suppose I might just be tempted to hatch a plot to spice up my conclusions with a survey portraying my political opponents as nut jobs.
That’s not evil, but it might prove to be dysfunctional.
I wrote to Dr Drochan of Nottingham University asking if the research was being published in some academic form and he kindly provided a link to the survey results, which can be found here:
He also mentioned a book to which he has contributed a chapter, on the 2015 data gathered for this project, i.e. before Trump and Brexit. The book is “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them” edited by Joseph E. Uscinski (the lead author with Lewandowsky and Douglas of the OUP article on Climate Change conspiracy theory.) The contents page can be found here. Chapter 10 “In Whose Hands the Future?” is by Stephan (shaping tomorrow’s world) Lewandowsky. The book is due out on 27th of December.
Guess what I’ve asked Santa to put in my stocking.