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Conspiracy: by the Cambridge Three

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.

14 thoughts on “Conspiracy: by the Cambridge Three

  1. They could have examined the “all CAGW sceptics are in the pay of big oil” conspiracy. How would they have dealt with that when as we all know it is true?
    Which reminds me, I must go to the bank and pay those cheques in.

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  2. Meanwhile, Google still confirms that the sole user of the phrase “climate science is a hoax” is one S. Lewandowsky, about whom scientists know little (except that he is a white male science denier in his early 50s).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So the illiustrious academics at the peak if education have spoken. They are people who represent those who have run education for the last 50 years or so. And their paper tacitly admits that their class has blown it, raising a couple of generations of gullible kooks.
    They also demonstrate by their mediocre, derivative work that the academy has joined in with those they condemn.
    Instead of actually asking skeptics what they think, these “academics” spend their time fabricating strawmen and red herring arguments.
    They have created a fictional version of skeptics that is as delusional as any UFO story tellers going on about MIB or how the Illuminati are in cahoots with aliens and the trilateral commission.
    Only the UFOols are more entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You would have thought that Les Cambridge trois could have found better things to do. What a utter waste of time, money and (potential) talent. Why THREE Professors? To ensure a consensus?

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  5. Geoff:

    “…the origin of the idea of global warming as a hoax originates with the title of a book by Senator Inhofe”

    There’s a widespread narrative of global warming as a hoax / scam / fraud etc stretching back to long before this book (2012), and some of which are orthodox folks using it to label skeptics who hold no such views, but this is far from all of it. I came across many references when trawling for catastrophe narrative examples, but didn’t save any links as this wasn’t my target. They stretch back at least into the mid-nineties, before that there wasn’t too much internet anyway. They very likely come ultimately from an instinctive reaction against the overbearing culture of the catastrophic, whose imperatives have found their way into so much of society now; but while understandable in this context the hoax / scam narrative is still wrong. There is some background on the more complex Trump / hoax thing here: https://judithcurry.com/2016/11/13/trumping-the-climate/

    Re impact on democracy, conspiracy theories always have the potential to rise from obscurity and impact democracy in a big way. It requires only that such a theory gets taken up by a major culture on the rise. A big part of the early rise of the national socialist party in early 20th century Germany was its leader’s crazy conspiracy theory that Jews and Bolshevik’s had lost Germany the first world war by undermining the home front. This appealed to the damaged pride of the army and later the masses, and was much expanded upon later, of course. While most conspiracy theories lurk in obscurity, they can explode in popularity give the right cultural opportunity (and usually, serious social instability for whatever reason).

    Re ‘a sense of threat, and a feeling of being excluded from power’, this is likely to be true. But I presume they failed to mention (please correct me if I’m wrong) that if there’s an unusually high wave of conspiracy theories that are also more widespread, it’s generally because the threats and the exclusion from power are real, i.e. the elites have abused their position and are doing stuff that is not healthy for the majority of society. While the great majority of such amplified conspiracy theories will still be wrong (the main driver is instinctive reaction – innate scepticism – not reason), as indeed they also are in more normal circumstances, their presence is still indicative of a serious issue with society (and frequently, elite roles in same).

    Indeed, to use any such theories to delegitimize large slices of society who have genuine concerns and issues by implying they’re all crazy, is not only highly irresponsible and wrong, it will inflame the situation still more, possibly even to the point that the small numbers believing in any of the way out ones could suddenly explode per above. Not a situation anyone wants, including said academics; it won’t help them to (incorrectly) think they were right about crazy folks when a horde is burning their books and axing their jobs.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. andywest,
    Your comment makes me think about elites abusing the idea of “conspiracy” to help themselves avoid dealing with pesky issues.
    One can imagine the assignment of motive and deficiency the French royalist supporters applied to their deplorables in those late 18th century years.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Geoff, but if the three esteemed Professors can “see no evil….”, how can they even contemplate the existence of any conspiracy theory? Don’t you acknowledge the sheer evilness of climate change denial?
    But you made me smile.

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  8. Inholfe’s book is perhaps more nuanced than the title suggests..

    He thinks catastrophic global warming is a hoax..
    and is perfectly happy that the earth has warmed by a degree in the last century..
    and when I say ‘thinks’ does he really think a hoax, or is that just a bit of political rhetoric?

    Reading his book it is mainly against dumb policies, and perhaps the trap he falls into, he thinks that some of these policies are so dumb, there must be an alternative motive.. rather than the people promoting the dumb policies, really really believe/are scared by global warming and offer dumb policies.

    People never actually seem to read the books, that get condemned, so you don’t have to (read it)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. At the end of ANDY WEST’s article https://judithcurry.com/2016/11/13/trumping-the-climate/ which he links to in a comment above (14 Dec 18 at 12:16 pm) is this 2016 quote from Andy Revkin:

    So if you’re a working-class family, and dad has to drive 50 miles to get to his job, and he can’t afford to buy a Tesla or a Prius, and the most important thing to him economically to make sure he can pay the bills at the end of the month is the price of gas, and when gas prices are low that means an extra 100 bucks in his pocket, or 200 bucks in his pocket, and that may make the difference about whether or not he can buy enough food for his kids — if you just start lecturing him about climate change and what’s going to happen to the planet 50 years from now, it’s just not going to register.

    So that’s where the French Yellow Vest protesters got their inspiration. It wasn’t Russian bots, but the ex-environment correspondent of the New York Times.

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  10. ANDYWEST2012 (14 Dec 18 at 12:16 pm)

    conspiracy theories always have the potential to rise from obscurity and impact democracy in a big way. It requires only that such a theory gets taken up by a major culture on the rise.

    Certainly. And the same can be said of rumours, fake news, mass hysteria, moral panics, government-funded nudge campaigns, and all sorts of other ideas, theories and opinions, true or false. The point is, before investigating these phenomena, it would be handy if researchers defined what they’re talking about. The researchers at CRASSH, a research centre with its own website http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/ involving 84 academics and administrators has spent five years on a project researching Conspiracy and Democracy http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/ involving twenty researchers and visiting scholars, run by three Cambridge professors, and they can’t even come up with a definition.

    “A conspiracy theory is a theory that some actors have conspired…” A first year student would be failed if he wrote that. Why should Cambridge professors get away with it? Because they all write for the Guardian and can get masses of free publicity for their research? Because it’s financed by the Leverhulme Trust, and the tax-deductible moneypots of dead millionaires have replaced the Church as a source of moral authority? Because the research handily demonstrates that Trump supporters and Brexiteers are knuckle dragging loonies? Because Cambridge Professors are thick?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Geoff:

    “And the same can be said of rumours, fake news, mass hysteria, moral panics…”

    In part because these all overlap. A conspiracy theory can crystallise from rumours, can be propagated by a fake news angle, and can cause hysteria, which depending upon the domain may have a significant moral component (and often picks one up if it survives long enough even if it didn’t start with one, as part of the emotive amplification).

    “…it would be handy if researchers defined what they’re talking about…”

    Absolutely.

    “Why should Cambridge professors get away with it? ”

    They shouldn’t, of course. But I guess it’s too convenient a framing to get serious challenge in academia, which is what is supposed to happen, and such challenge may also attract stigma, as has occurred with a range of topics / issues upon which current biases in academia are prevalent.

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  12. Is it OK to be a foaming-at–the mouth conspiracy theorist when you are a failed scientist?

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  13. Here’s some more about the three professors, known on the CRASSH site as PIs, or “principal investigators:”

    John Naughton gives his take on the CRASSH research in a third Guardian article at
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/25/populism-and-the-internet-a-toxic-mix-shaping-the-age-of-conspiracy-theories

    Conspiracy theories .. conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news… More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.

    And here he is one month later (still in the Guardian) with his own favourite tinfoil hat conspiracy theory
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/23/social-media-existential-threat-idea-democracy

    Two years after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, we’re finally beginning to understand the nature and extent of Russian interference in the democratic processes of two western democracies. The headlines are: the interference was much greater than what was belatedly discovered and/or admitted by the social media companies; it was more imaginative, ingenious and effective than we had previously supposed; and it’s still going on.

    Runciman gives his views on climate science and conspiracy theories here, viewed by 320 people.

    The full 40 minute talk is here

    and back in 2014 in this talk at Cambridge University
    https://www.sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1727329?format=mp3&quality=high
    in which he does point out that there are conspiracy theories on both sides, mentioning Montford’s “Hockey Stick Illusion” and Oreskes’ “Merchants of Doubt” as “conspiratorial” works. He does at least demonstrate some knowledge of the on-line debate, even though he dismisses it as “crazy, fringe stuff,” as if it doesn’t really matter whether Steyn, Montford and Delingpole are right, and Oreskes and Mann are wrong or vice versa (he refers to all of them in the introduction to his talk.)

    Sir Richard Evans does not appear to have a dog in the climate fight, but, in a critique of an article by Peter Hitchens
    https://www.newstatesman.com/Peter-Hitchens-Phoney-Victory-World-War-II-Delusion

    he does say:

    Hitchens leaves all of this completely out of his account and unfortunately relies on a handful of off-beam, eccentric studies of prewar diplomacy, like the work of the Europhobe and climate change denier Richard North..

    That a historian of the third Reich should use the term “denier” about someone who questions the seriousness of the problem of global warming does seem a bit odd. On the CRASSH site sir Richard gives quite a reasonable definition of “conspiracy” (but not of conspiracy theorising)
    http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/blog/what-is-a-conspiracy/
    though elsewhere he seems to believe that it means believing in non-existent conspiracies. You can imagine where that definition might lead to – the perversion of social science by researchers with the same clearly expressed political views assimilating real concerns about real problems (academic misconduct, uncontrolled immigration) with unpleasant fantasies such as Holocaust denial. No doubt the professors are aware of the danger.

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