Conspiracy Theorists Are More Likely to Doubt Climate Science

<p><a href="" target="_blank">Suzanne Tucker</a>/Shutterstock</p>

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

In recent years, a persuasive theory of how and why people deny science and reality has emerged. It’s called “motivated reasoning”—and was described at length in Mother Jones (by me) back in 2011. Here’s the gist: People’s emotional investments in their ideas, identities, and worldviews bias their initial reading of evidence, and do so on a level prior to conscious thought. Then, the mind organizes arguments in favor of one’s beliefs—or, against attacks on one’s beliefs—based on the same emotional connections. And so you proceed to argue your case—but really you’re rationalizing, not reasoning objectively.

At the same time, though, other phenomena are also often invoked to explain the rejection of science on issues like climate change, evolution, and vaccinations—phenomena that may (or may not) be fully separable from motivated reasoning. One of the most prominent of these: conspiracy theorizing.

Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, who studies conspiracy theorists

So what’s the relationship between the two? In my recent Point of Inquiry podcast interview (excerpted below) with University of Bristol psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, it became clear that motivated reasoning and conspiracy mongering are at least in part separable, and worth keeping apart in your mind. To show as much, let’s use the issue global warming as an example.

In a recent study of climate blog readers, Lewandowksy and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor of being a climate change denier is having a libertarian, free-market world view. Or as Lewandowsky put it in our interview, “The overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their worldview or their ideology.” This naturally lends support to the “motivated reasoning” theory—a conservative view about the efficiency of markets impels rejection of climate science because if climate science were true, markets would very clearly have failed in an very important instance.

But separately, the same study also found a second factor that was a weaker, but still real, predictor of climate change denial—and also of the denial of other scientific findings such as the proven link between HIV and AIDS. And that factor was conspiracy theorizing. Thus, people who think, say, that the Moon landings were staged by Hollywood, or that Lee Harvey Oswald had help, are also more likely to be climate deniers and HIV-AIDS deniers.

“Clearly, for a number of people…conspiratorial thinking determines their rejection of science,” explained Lewandowsky in our interview.

Indeed, there are distinct personality or dispositional factors that have been associated with a tendency towards conspiratorial thinking—including paranoia and a sense of disgruntlement, or being unhappy with how society is treating you. Furthermore, conspiratorial beliefs tend cluster together. “If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, they’re likely to believe in others as well,” explained Lewandowsky on the podcast. “There’s a statistical association. So people who think that MI5 killed Princess Diana, they probably also think that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act by himself when he killed JFK.”

This makes conspiracy theorizing a kind of “cognitive style,” one clearly associated with science denial—but not as clearly moored to ideology.

For an excerpt of the relevant part of our interview, listen below (for the full show click here):

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend