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More Cambridge Climate Conspiracy Theory Theorising

I wrote about a major five-year project by Cambridge University on Conspiracy Theories and Democracy, financed by the Leverhulme Trust, here and here, noting how scepticism about the official version of climate science figured prominently in their research on conspiracy theorising. In another article I noted the existence of two other research groups based at British universities researching conspiracy theorising, one financed by the British government and one by the European Union. Both of these also singled out climate scepticism as a conspiracy theory which threatened the fabric of democracy.

I pointed out that identifying climate scepticism (and also suspicion about the harmful effect of vaccines) as conspiracy theories is a stretch. There are a thousand ways of criticising current climate science and the political and media hysteria surrounding it. Of course, there are conspiracies in the vast fetid swamp of climate science, as when Professors Jones, Mann and others conspired to hide data, distort the science, and destroy emails which would have revealed how they had broken the rules of the IPCC; but that’s not the main complaint of climate sceptics. The main complaint is they’re wrong about the science. Whether they conspired to be wrong or came to the wrong conclusions independently is of secondary interest.

What these three academic organisations are doing, (either, separately, or in cahoots) is redefining what a conspiracy is. Take any controversial subject X, and replace, in an opinion poll, the statement “I don’t believe X” or “I’m doubtful about X” with the statement that “A small group of influential people are trying to hide the truth about X,” and you have a conspiracy theory.

Imagine that you believe strongly in Brexit, and are annoyed at the failure to deliver it, and someone phones you up and asks you whether you believe that there’s an establishment plot to overturn the Brexit decision. Are you going to say “No. That doesn’t quite capture the nuances of my opinion”? No, you’re not. You’re going to accept the conspiratorial wording of the question in order to express your underlying sentiment. So when someone assents to the statement that “climate change is a hoax” they may be agreeing with Trump’s garbled belief that the whole climate change fuss is a plot to tilt energy policy in favour of China and the developing countries, or, more likely, they’re simply expressing their scepticism in the only way open to them.

The CRASSH research project on Conspiracy and Democracy has been wound up, and a report will be published later. Now another conspiracy research project, also based at Cambridge, has take its place, and it’s also getting exclusive coverage in the Guardian.

The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project is a new survey conducted annually in 23 of the world’s biggest countries, exploring populism, globalisation and attitudes on topics ranging from food, travel and technology to immigration, cultural beliefs and the environment. The Guardian helped YouGov pollsters and University of Cambridge academics at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy to design the survey, and is exclusively releasing the findings.

The 2019 project surveyed 25,325 people in February and March across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. This year’s findings are being published in association with the Guardian’s The new populism series.

Why academics at one of the world’s most prestigious universities should need the help of Guardian hacks to design a survey questionnaire is a question for another day. Let’s look at what they found, which is revealed in a second Guardian article.

Populists across the world are significantly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about vaccinations, global warming and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to a landmark global survey shared exclusively with the Guardian.

The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project sheds new light on a section of the world population that appears to have limited faith in scientific experts and representative democracy.

There’s a graphic in the article which shows homuch more likely “populists” are than the general population to believe a number of conspiracy theories. The results are:

Global warming is a hoax – 120% more likely

Aids invented by CIA – 95% more likely

Harm from vaccines hidden from public – 85% more likely

US government involved in 9/11 attacks – 80% more likely

Secret group of people who rule the world – 52% more likely

Alien contact hidden from public – 50% more likely

Official account of Holocaust exaggerated – 25% more likely

(Percentages are my estimates reading a crappy bar chart with no figures.) But what’s interesting is not the “percentage more likely” figures but the fact that the survey manages to link climate sceptics with Holocaust deniers and believers in an alien invasion, in a scientific study conducted at Cambridge University. Which is the whole point of the research.

Nowhere do the three Guardian articles on the subject link to actual results of the survey. For that you have to go to Yougov and click on “Which conspiracy theories do populists believe?” where you will find that the figures in the Guardian graph are false. But who cares? They’re blobs on a graph, not figures, anyway, and the Guardian has never understood that“120% of” and “20% more than” are the same thing, because they’re thick that way. It’s not just statistics they’re bad at, it’s the English language.

Yougov is reporting that results of the survey will be published 7th May. So far, they haven’t. I’ll be commenting there as soon as I’ve posted this article. 

Next stop, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.  They reported on 7thMay that:

YouGov, the international research and data analytics group headquartered in London, has released a new study on globalisation and populism in partnership with the Guardian and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University… The first set of findings have been published in the Guardian.

But their link goes here which is simply the Guardian’s populism page. So that’s three reports at the Guardian, one at Yougov, and one at the Cambridge Bennet Institute announcing results for the beginning of May – but no results that I can find, simply comments on the results.

But what is a populist, anyway?

According to a third Guardian article on the research:

The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as a thin-centred ideology that separates society into two antagonistic groups – “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” – and that insists politics should be an expression of the general will of the people.

Working with academic advisers, the Guardian used this definition, which is widely used in political science, to identify a cohort of survey respondents with strong populist views.This populist cohort included all the respondents who answered “strongly agree” to both of the following statements:

  • My country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them.

  • The will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics.

Think about this for a moment. It’difficult to see who would disagree with the second statement: The will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics,” except perhaps the King of Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Brunei. I agree with it, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini would have agreed with it, and it’s enshrined in the Constitutions of the USA and France and no doubt most other countries.

The first statement is a supposed statement of fact, which should, in any reasonable research project, be divided into two statements: 1) “My country is divided between ordinary people and the elites” and 2) “The élites are corrupt and exploit the ordinary people.” The first part, I would suggest, is true for absolutely any society on the planet, and the second is more or less true depending on where you live. The Guardian adds:

China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were not included in the populism analysis because YouGov conducts only certain kinds of research in those countries. 

By which they mean that they were banned from asking the questions in those countries. (Fair enough. I’m all for Saudi Arabia banning YouGov from conducting their weasel-worded propaganda in the Kingdom, just as long as they don’t crucify the interviewers.)

So who, according to YouGov and the Guardian, is not a populist? Answer: those who believe either that the will of the people should not be the highest principle in this country’s politics; or, that their country is not divided between ordinary people and the corrupt élites who exploit them.

You can hum and haw about the last one. But, importantly, you can more easily hum and haw in a country where the corrupt élite is not likely to send someone knocking at the door at midnight. Personally, I’d hesitate long before answering. My response would depend on how I was feeling on the day, probably. What’s clear is that the definition includes among the non-populists only those who believe that there is no division between élite and the people, or who are satisfied with the way the élite is treating them; and that the populists include everyone who is not satisfied.

In defining populists as democrats who are dissatisfied with the behaviour of the elites which govern them, researchers have unwittingly defined non-populists as basically either the sheep, or the élitists who are leading them.It’s Uversus Them, as scientifically defined by Cas Mudde.

[So who is this Cas Mudde, whose definition of populism has been adopted by the Guardian, YouGov, and Cambridge University’s Bennet Institute? According to Wikipaedia:

He was a visiting scholar at the Janet Brindle Institute for Ethics and visiting associate professor in the political science department at De Pauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. From 1999 to 2002 he was Assistant Professor at the University of Edinburgh, and from 2002 to 2010 he was Assistant and later Associate Professor at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Since 2010, he has been teaching a first year seminar on the Radical Right movement in Europe at De Pauw University. He is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Georgia‘s School of Public and International Affairs.

I’m the last person to pooh pooh an academic’s CV, but, let’s face it, someone who puts his first year seminar subjects on his Wikipaedia page is not exactly Bertrand Russell.]

So there you have it. You’re either Us or Them; either happy with the world the way it is (at least in terms of the relations between the people in it, which doesn’t preclude dissatisfaction with the relation between people and the planet) or you’re a populist (or possibly the Sultan of Brunei.)

Us” is YouGov, the Guardian, and the University of Cambridge. “Them” is climate deniers, holocaust deniers, and (to quote from an interview in the Guardian by Tim Adams with Guy Verhofstadt)

.. the stormtroopers of the Brexit party, and those who get their news from a bloke in his underpants in a bedsit in Northampton or a troll factory in Nizhny Novgorod.

I’m with the bloke in his underpants, and the citizens of Northampton sneered at by the GuardianAnd I’ll go on bleating on about this Orwellian conspiracy to associate us with Holocaust deniers and any other brand of nasties the clever dicks at the Guardian, and YouGov and Cambridge University care to put in their survey, right up to the day of judgement, when the Great Speaker in the Parliament of Historical Truth finally announces:

The underpants have it.”

13 thoughts on “More Cambridge Climate Conspiracy Theory Theorising

  1. Having claimed that the results of the YouGov / Bennet Institute research are not available, I find that they’re being issued in dribs and drabs in accordance with the needs of the Guardian to garner internet clicks. Fair enough. It’s a long time since anyone thought Cambridge University was about imparting fucking knowledge.
    Here
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2019/may/02/leavers-v-remainers-how-britains-tribes-compare
    is a comparison of the opinions of leavers and remainers on a number of questions. To the evident disappointment of the commenting journalist, the Brexiters fail to reveal themselves to be raving racists. The smoothly bulging curves of the graphs are of course false, since they’re representing responses to a simple five point scale question. But the curve to the second question “Do you agree with this statement: ‘My country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt élites who exploit them’?” indicates clearly that most British people, remainers and leavers alike, are filthy Northampton-dwelling underpants-wearing populists. Hooray.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, so the Ministry of Public Enlightenment at Cambridge University, aided and abetted by the Graun journalista, has come to the conclusion that the ‘populists’ are far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about vaccines and climate change, reject science, deny the Holocaust, and believe that the governing elite are, well, elites who think they have the right to govern without the explicit consent of the populace, which, strangely, is made up of a large number of ‘populists’. OMG, I feel a conspiracist ideational attack coming on which is making me feel nauseously populist. Better visit my GP and get vaccinated against fake news.

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  3. Less than a third of Brits think that ‘no deal’ will be a big problem. Obviously, they’re populist science-denying, climate denying, anti-vaxxers who don’t listen to reason and who need to be immunised against fake news because the all-knowing elite have told us that no deal will be a catastrophe and should be avoided at all costs, even if that means abolishing democracy (or what we misinformed commoners think is democracy). The populist proles need to be immunised against the ideological notion that the people are ultimately sovereign and that when a sovereign Parliament elected by the people gives the people the choice to either Remain or Leave, it is not duty bound to uphold that decision in the case where the people voted ‘the wrong way’. Neither is the government required to implement that decision. Populists just don’t understand electoral democracy; they think that their elected representatives should not tell lies and should implement their wishes when they delegate the choice to the population (direct democracy). They think that politicians should honour their promises made to the electorate at elections. LOL. Stupid populists – they also think global warming is fake, aliens walk among us, the CIA invented AIDS and that vaccines do more harm than good. Fortunately, the experts at the Globalist Cambridge Ministry of Public Enlightenment, ably assisted by Graun journalists, can warn us against this scourge of populism, rising on a tide of despicable far right nationalism, which threatens to derail our hallowed democratic institutions.

    https://www.westmonster.com/project-fear-fail-less-than-third-of-brits-think-no-deal-would-have-severe-consequences/

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  4. Intellectual rot in a major university. Swept in and on by the money-bearing tide of CO2 Scaremongering. Well that tide will surely recede one day, and the moral pollution in it will be dramatically diluted. Because ‘dum spiro, spero’ .

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  5. The two questions for the populist test, if asked in isolation, look very much like they’re designed to manipulate, like in a push poll. ‘Corrupt’ and ‘Exploit’ are very strong words (especially since there’s only the choice to apply to the *whole* elite at once), so likely to put many ordinary people off from ticking the box. Maybe this was the intent, i.e. they only wished to pick up a small minority extreme who then could be characterised as ridiculous in further tests on this group. Or at least ‘demonstrate’ that ‘populists’ are a small minority, and not a large swathe of the populace or potential majority, which from various election results does not appear to be the case right now. The second question appears to be largely redundant as nearly everyone is bound to answer yes. So it may rather be a way of encouraging folks not to answer yes to the first question, by still feeling via a yes to this one that they’ve registered some dissatisfaction about will of the people not necessarily being respected. I’d be surprised if neutral polling experts considered this approach wholly appropriate unless other options were available. Per the Guardian link at Geoff’s first comment, if that was the intent it probably didn’t work for either of the Brexit sides because not only are most leavers super pissed off enough with the long impasse to choose the strong option, most remainers are too. Really, other options should have been offered, like ‘out-of-touch’ and ‘no longer serve’ and other angles that explore the ground that a political leadership doesn’t have to be all corrupt, or even largely corrupt, to have firm views nevertheless not reflected by their constituents; they need only to live in a bubble. Populists who want to remove the bubble, or bubbles, by no means have to believe that everyone in it is actively corrupt and exploitative, and a proper profile curve on which a line could be drawn representing this aim, would be a neutral approach. Of course the test could just be inept rather than crafted (and I guess that’s more likely). But if the latter, the fact that it didn’t perform in the UK at this time doesn’t mean it won’t elsewhere.

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  6. So calling Cambridge an “elite University” is conspiratorial now.
    Based on the quality of the academic work in the survey it is certainly no longer altogether accurate, is it?

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  7. Wandering round the Guardian’s New Populism site reveals some surprising stuff, like a good article by Jon Henley analysing different populists movements in Europe, making the point that they are highly specific to national conditions, and thus making nonsense of the Guardian’s pop-sociological approach. One article which is linked as explaining how the data was analysed does nothing of the sort. It would seem that the Guardian piggybacked a regular international survey run by the Bennet Institute, merely adding a couple of questions on democracy and élite corruption to enable a “populist” breakdown of the rest of the data. Besides the dodginess of the definition in terms of belief in democracy and élite corruption, the fact of defining it in terms of those who “agreed strongly” with their propositions, and not those who simply “agreed,” makes nonsense of their claim to have established some kind of binary division. It’s all as clear as Mudde.

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  8. Geoff:

    I’m with the bloke in his underpants

    Your support is appreciated.

    I’m in my underpants you see. I’m also wearing trousers and a t-shirt, as it happens, as I sit in the pub after a nice steak.

    For me, to wear underpants is to believe in the existence of an elite. It’s the deepest form of protest there is, not least because it is often hidden to everyone but yourself. To believe that the elite is corrupt is, as you say, a slightly different thing. You certainly have to wear underpants to believe it – at least in the praxis my worldview demands. But the protest may or may not necessitate the shedding of other garments. Authorities vary on that.

    Thank you for keeping us abreast of the latest inanities from my alma mater.

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  9. There seems to be quite an industry in smear-studies of “right-wing populists” and the link with climate scepticism. Someone called Kirsti Jylha (who has form for Lewandowskian survey techniques) recently spoke about this at the Cardiff University Climate Activism Echo Chamber. Our Richard had to explain to her what the issues are:

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  10. If you want to work writing about Conspiracy Theories, it is not what you know, but who you know

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  11. Cambridge University isn’t to blame for this peculiar Guardian six month enquiry into populism. The Bennet Institute and YouGov have an annual survey in 20+ countries covering 60% of the world’s population, and the Guardian has simply bought into it in order to provide some pseudo-scientific backing for their journalists’ opinion pieces. They even have a panel of scientists ready to peer review their articles, most of whom seem to be Dutch, as are the two who are going to analyse the results of their survey.

    The Guardian has had a doomed policy of enlarging their readership to Australia and the USA in order to get it up to a level where advertisers will inflate their hot air balloon and give it lift off to solvability. My conspiracy theory is that they’ve suddenly realised that the biggest English-speaking bloc on the planet is the EU, and they’re aiming to become the official organ of Brussels, stiffened with input from Dutch academics on EU funded research projects. Should make for fun reading.

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  12. “those who get their news from … a troll factory in Nizhny Novgorod.”

    No conspiracy theory to see here – move along – move along

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  13. Geoff:

    Cambridge University isn’t to blame for this peculiar Guardian six month enquiry into populism.

    Mea culpa, alma mater. Dum spiro spero, as John said earlier.

    Paul:

    Our Richard had to explain to her what the issues are…

    And to my surprise eighteen people retweeted me doing so, starting with Steve McIntyre. One never knows what will hit a nerve or scratch an itch. Meanwhile, it’s a sad commentary on the majority of Twitter ‘debate’ that I was surprised not to be blocked by either Sam Varvastian or Kirsti Jylha.

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