The Difference between Skepticism and Conspiratorial Thinking

September 15, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Climate change protest
Photo credit: Julian Osley/CC BY-SA 2.0

A recent study unearths the fundamental differences between skepticism and conspiratorial denial, linking conspiratorial thinking to climate change denial.

We’ve all read those accusatory comments online that denounce climate change as a government hoax to gain more authority, or that a secret elite group (the Illuminati) conspires to control global events to establish a New World Order. Admittedly, some of the arguments are intriguing to consider, but the scientific evidence that refutes these conspiratorial suggestions cannot be overlooked.

Three years ago, social scientists Lewandowsky, Oberauer, and Gignac published a paper in Psychological Science that analyzed survey data provided by visitors to climate blogs. The findings displayed that people exhibiting conspiratorial thinking are more likely to question scientific conclusions about vaccines, genetically modified food, and climate change. Basically, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, you’re more likely to dismiss scientific findings as attempts to deceive the masses.

It’s not too shocking that science denial and conspiracy theories go hand in hand, but interestingly, conspiracy theorists hate being categorized as such. They reacted negatively to the research of Lewandowsky and his colleagues, ironically, accusing the researchers of conspiracy: from faked data to a secret alliance between Lewandowsky and the Australian government.

In Lewandowsky’s latest study, they asked university students (mainly psychology majors) to read scientific papers by PhD students critiquing the Moon Landing, and then classify comments as either reasonable scientific critiques or conspiratorial thinking (i.e. questioning the motives of the authors). What the students didn’t know was that one of the “papers” was actually comments from denial blogs, but the researchers didn’t want there to be any bias in the students’ perception of the arguments.

The results were clear. The students clearly identified the comments from science-denying blogs as conspiratorial, and the comments from PhD students’ papers as genuine critiques. The researchers were actually surprised to the extent that the students cleanly separated the two groups. Lewandowsky told The Guardian, “I do not recall ever having seen such a strong effect in 30 years of behavioral research, and I have certainly never encountered ratings that favored the extreme end of the scale to the extent observed here.”

In order to deny theories (like climate change) that generate a 97 percent consensus among scientists, it makes sense that a common scapegoat is conspiracy beliefs. However, Lewandowsky highlights the importance of his study findings despite the fact that they may not come as a huge shock.

Most importantly, conspiracism is not to be confused with skepticism. Skeptics question facts, while conspirators portray some type of enemy as part of a vast plan against the common good. And in conclusion, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson beautifully expressed, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

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