The LSE’s US website is serialising a book edited by Professor Uscinski of the University of Miami chapter by chapter. Last year they gave space to Professor Lewandowsky, which resulted in an article titled: “A New Tool Can Help Us Determine Which Conspiracy Theories Are False and Which Might Be True.” in which he argues that conspiracy theories represent a philosophical challenge because exposure to them “can undermine people’s trust in government services and institutions.”
Well, quite. The theory that members of Trump’s election campaign conspired with Russia to swing the election undoubtedly undermined the trust of many people in the presidency. This false conspiracy theory was disproved by a painstaking enquiry, resulting in the Mueller Report, and Americans are now firmly united behind their president.
All except about 95% of academics in American and British universities that is. What is is about these people that they refuse to accept the evidence that their opposition to Trump has been proven to be based on false premisses? Let Professor Lewandowsky explain:
One promising approach to classifying conspiracy theories has been to shift the focus to the people who believe in them, rather than on how these theories are justified by those people.
This is known to philosophers as the ad hominem approach. It worked against Socrates and Giordano Bruno, so I guess it will work for the academic readers of the LSE website.
There is much evidence that people’s cognition is “optimal” in many circumstances… Even when confronted with esoteric tasks, such as estimating the duration of the reign of Egyptian Pharaohs, people are surprisingly well-attuned to the actual quantities.
Well, bully for the common man. That’s nice, coming from Lew, who usually bows to expert opinion and refuses on principle to discuss his work with anyone who isn’t an acknowledged domain expert. In the case of Pharaonic reign lengths, the only surviving peer-reviewed evidence from a domain expert is that of the Egyptian priest Manetho who reckoned the length of reign of the first Pharaoh as 737 years and nine months. But that shouldn’t faze an expert like Lew, who included a respondent in one of his studies who was more than 30,000 years old.
Lew goes on to list four characteristics of a conspiracy theorist, so you’ll know one if you see one. I’ve numbered them below for ease of reference:
1) People who believe in conspiracy theories typically exhibit an almost nihilistic degree of skepticism, to the point of distrusting more and more knowledge-producing institutions.
2) This overriding and immutable suspicion of the “official” account leads to several consequences. It may prevent the person from recognizing that some events occur by accident or are simply trivial. The way that conspiracists think means that they often believe that nothing occurs by accident; any random event is re-interpreted as evidence for the theory.
3) A further consequence of immutable suspicion is that a person may abandon specific hypotheses when they become unsustainable, but those corrections will not compromise the overall abstraction that “something must be wrong” and that the official account is based on deception. At that higher level of abstraction, neither the validity of any particular hypothesis nor the coherence of the theory matter. What matters is that there must be a conspiracy. In consequence, conspiracy theories are often incoherent.
4) Finally, and perhaps most crucially, conspiracists’ thought processes are inherently self-sealing, such that contrary evidence is re-interpreted as evidence for the theory. This reflects the assumption that the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy… the more the conspirators must want to hide the truth.
Lew accompanies each characteristic with an example, as follows:
1) It is not unusual for climate deniers to distrust the official temperature record based on a long catalogue of presumed improprieties by bureaus of meteorology around the world.
2) For example, the fact that Timothy McVeigh fled the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing in a car without license plates is interpreted as proof of his innocence and that he was framed by federal agents.
3) It is not uncommon for climate deniers to be equally convinced that global temperature cannot be measured accurately and that there has been global cooling or the last 10 years.
4) (e.g., climate scientists being exonerated of wrong-doing) … (i.e., investigations were rigged by George Soros to exonerate the scientists).
Imagine you’re an ordinary reader of the LSE website. So far in this article about conspiracy theory you’ve read references to 9/11, the Contra scandal, Watergate, the CIA… You know where Lew is coming from. Then suddenly – wham! – climate change. Three times.
Taking each of Lewandowsky’s claims in turn:
1) Mentions by climate deniers of “presumed improprieties by bureaus [sic] of meteorology around the world” (e.g. the excellent Paul Homewood and Steve Goddard) are invariably accompanied by evidence, in the form of records of changes in historical data etc. Lewandowsky never cites specific examples, never says: “There’s nothing wrong with the temperature record in Uruguay, and here’s why..”
Why not? Because he doesn’t know. He doesn’t care. And the last thing he’s going to do as a scientist is quote a specific example. Someone might verify it, for Gaia’s sake.
3) The claim that climate deniers believe both that global temperature cannot be measured accurately and that there has been global cooling or the last 10 years is linked to a paper by Lewandowsky Cook and Lloyd called: “The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Mechanics of the Rejection of (Climate) Science: SimulatingCoherence by Conspiracies”
I’ve reread the paper, looking for mentions of cooling, and found this claim in the abstract:
Hence, claims that the globe “is cooling” can coexist with claims that the “observed warming is natural” and that “the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us.”
and this example of two incoherent arguments in Table 1:
Global temperature does not exist / It cooled in mid-century.
But nowhere in the text is a denier quoted as claiming the existence of global cooling. Lew has made this up, put it in the abstract of his paper, and then used the paper as evidence to back up his argument. That’s science folks. Lewis Carroll wrote academic articles too, but not like Lew’s.
Lew’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ paper is the perfect proof that a social scientist, like Humpty Dumpty, can make words mean just what he chooses it to mean.
“The question is,” said Alice, “Whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
4) The conduct of the two British investigations into Climategate (not counting the Parliamentary Inquiry, which was cut short because of an election) was so blatantly corrupt that anyone claiming that the scientists were exonerated is what is commonly referred to in libel case law as jacentum stercore, or a lying shit. Which term applies to every environmentalist or environmental journalist who has referred to the affair, and every academic except Dr Grundmann of Birmingham.
There is a nugget of truth within the turd quoted at 4) above, however. When Lew speaks of the conspiracy theorist’s belief that “…the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy … the more the conspirators must want to hide the truth” he is pointing us to a verity understood by the same common man who is better at guessing the average reign length of an Egyptian Pharaoh than your domain expert: that the more fervently the defenders of some false news insist that it’s true and that its critics are conspiracy theorists, the more likely that they’re hiding something.
On George Soros, I think Lew is joking, but what about? And how would you tell? And why Soros? What is Lew getting at?
Having listed four criteria for identifying a conspiracy theorist, Lew comes to the nub of his argument – his cunning plan for determining who killed the Kennedys (all four of them, or only one? Not sure.) And whether the fact that a Cambridge professor on a million dollar retainer from the CIA kept accidentally bumping into members of the Trump election campaign and offering them jobs, meetings with attractive oriental ladies etc. was just one of those funny coincidences, as the FBI spokesman claimed, or something more – conspiratorial … ?
Oh, you haven’t heard that one? Wait till the Department of Justice report comes out, and then even the Guardian will be reporting that there’s a conspiracy theory going the rounds …
And here’s Lew’s nub:
What do these criteria for conspiracist cognition—nihilistic skepticism, seeing pattern in randomness, incoherence, self-sealing reasoning, and a few others not mentioned—buy us?
I argue that they help us in at least three ways. First, they can be clearly operationalized. Naive judges have successfully used those criteria to differentiate between scientific critique and conspiracist discourse. This renders the criteria useful in determining the status of potentially contested material. Second, in another study I found that if participants are trained to detect incoherence in an argument, they subsequently become more resilient to false argumentation that is common in conspiracist rhetoric.
Finally, and perhaps more controversially, I suggest that these criteria may allow us to infer the likely truth value of a conspiracy theory.
And that’s it? That’s it. Except that the claim that “naive judges have successfully used those criteria to differentiate between scientific critique and conspiracist discourse”links to the article: “Recurrent Fury: Conspiratorial Discourse in the Blogosphere Triggered by Research on the Role of Conspiracist Ideation in Climate Denial” by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Scott Trophy Elisabeth A. Lloyd, and Michael Marriott.
And what the naïve judges were differentiating between was not “scientific critique and conspiracist discourse” but what Lewandowsky defined as scientific critique and a series of brief quotes purporting to come from blog comments which Lewandowsky had made up.
Naive, the judges? I’ll say so. But they weren’t the same common folk who got the reigns of the pharaohs right. They were PhD students. And they correctly identified Lewandowsky’s made up quotes as being shit.
Which is proof that Lew’s paper is proof that Lew can tell one when he sees one. Or something. According to the LSE’s US blog.
With a bit of effort I discovered that the LSE US blog really does have links to the London School of Economics, and that the acronym didn’t stand for Lewandowsky’s Self Estimation. But there’s no email address, no editors, or indication of who is responsible for publishing this drivel. Unlike a normal blog, it’s just Out There, one of 61 blogs administered by one of the world’s most prestigious social science faculties, just publishing stuff, who knows what or why.
How do you point out to an organisation like the London School of Economics that they’ve published a load of shite based on a turd of a paper containing fabricated evidence plagiarised from a retracted paper which defamed people who pointed out the ludicrous errors of a previous paper, all three papers being the work of the same lying shit of a professor whose presence at a prestigious British university is due to a generous grant from the Royal Society?
And is it worth the bother?
Lewandowsky once co-edited a book of academic papers about our use of torture during the Iraq war. I have never done anything as courageous or worthwhile, and for that I salute him.