Are science deniers also conspiracy theorists?

Conspiracy series:

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Why do people NOT believe in conspiracy theories?

 

There is a strong association between belief in conspiracy theories generally, and denial of scientific facts. But does that mean anti-vaccination, climate change denial, anti-GMO and creationism are just different forms of conspiracy theories?  There are three possibilities I can think of: Conspiracy, incompetence, and conformity.

Scientists have been wrong

There is one thread of commonality between conspiracy theorists and science-rejecters in that they involve the dismissal of mountains of evidence and the consensus of the vast majority of experts, in favour of a fringe hypothesis that very conveniently happens to align with a pre-existing ideology or worldview (eg aligns with their anti-authority, pro-nature, or free market political ideology). But almost any cognitive bias or distortion you can name will cut both ways: We are all humans. Most conspiracy theorists might be suffering from confirmation bias, but then most humans suffer from confirmation bias so that is statistically unsurprising.

However, to be anti-vaccination, or to deny climate change, necessitates that there is a vast conspiracy in all scientific and academic communities around the world; Thousands of sparsely-dispersed individuals from diverse backgrounds, all complicit in promoting a falsehood. That is, unless, one is simply ignorant of or misinformed about the scientific consensus about vaccination and climate change. In which case, one may genuinely believe that their position is shared by the majority of experts. But from what I have heard from climate change deniers and anti-vaccers, most are well aware that the ‘experts’ they cite are in the minority. So they do seem to believe that there is something unsavoury going on in the mainstream scientific community. But also from what I have heard, they don’t consider themselves conspiracy theorists.

Maybe that’s because they don’t think there is a conspiracy. They could be using Hanlon’s razor and think that the majority of experts are incompetent rather than evil. However, the hypothesis that an amateur with an internet connection could outdo the vast majority of professionals is almost as difficult to defend as the conspiracy hypothesis. So I don’t think either the conspiracy or the incompetence hypotheses could be maintained with a straight face (except by morons, of which there are many).

I think there is a much more mundane explanation that is at least moderately plausible: non-conscious conformity biases. Scientists are human, and there are plenty of cases of a better theory being initially unpopular or rejected by the majority until the evidence accumulates into an undeniable mountain, and the new theory is finally accepted. But this new paradigm hypothesis still depends on the skills of the amateur to distinguish cutting edge science from bollocks. It is plausible that the majority of scientists are temporarily stuck in a dated paradigm. But how likely is it that an amateur from the outside would be able to accurately identify this imminent paradigm shift? A more sceptical approach that recognised one’s own lack of expertise might be to concur that significant changes in accepted wisdom can occur, but to accept that without specialist expertise (or even with specialist expertise) they are very hard things to predict. As such the most reasonable strategy is to defer to the majority of experts. Okay, you won’t ever be at the cutting edge, but you also won’t be left behind. By sacrificing being ahead of the curve, you protect against being led astray.

So yes, even the most plausible and mundane hypothesis (that scientists are suffering from very normal social biases) suffers the same fundamental flaw as the other two: Every science denial hypothesis requires overconfidence in one’s own ability, and/or dismissal of the abilities of others on the basis of their inconvenient conclusions rather than their having flawed methods. And so science deniers would appear to have that in common with conspiracy theorists.

See also the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

But it made me think: Am I misinformed about the scientific consensus on certain issues? It is certainly possible.

 

“What if the majority of experts are all funded by the same small group of vested interests ie governments and related bodies?”

Good question. This criticism sounds like it is talking about sampling bias – that by taking the majority of experts, we are selecting a group of data points that has a systematic bias in a particular direction. That is a valid concern to have. I think the counter to that would be that, by taking such a large sample we minimise the effects of systematic biases. Individuals and groups are biased. They are not perfect. But, as far as most people can see, the directions of the biases are not systematic but all in different directions, and thus can be treated as random. This would yield an acceptable data sample.

Most organisations, governments and individual scientists seem very disorganised with competing interests. So it is understandable that most people would be sceptical of a systematic bias when we take such a gigantic sample.

The very impersonal and indiscriminate method of taking the entire cohort (or every sample that we can get) is not perfect, but any biases it is likely to show are not going to be due to our own personal biases. The alternative – to hand-pick individual scientists and experts – is a selection process that is much more susceptible to non-conscious influences like confirmation bias. I’m not sure if a genuinely random sample of experts is a plausible goal, but in lieu of this ideal, taking the largest sample possible seems to me the next best option.

That said, there are people actively working on problems of publication bias in science, such as Ben Goldacre. Publication bias is very real. But publication bias is not a good candidate for explaining a science conspiracy, because it is simply a bias for large, definitive, positive results. This is a far cry from a bias towards a particular ideological worldview.

 

References:

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K. & Gignac, G. E. NASA faked the moon landing therefore (climate) science is a hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science. Psychol. Sci. (in the press). http://websites.psychology.uwa.edu.au/labs/cogscience/documents/LskyetalPsychScienceinPressClimateConspiracy.pdf

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/05/harry-collins-inquiring-minds-science-studies-saves-scientific-expertise

http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2012/7/27/what-do-i-think-of-mooneys-republican-brain.html

http://www.skepticalscience.com/Debunking-Handbook-now-freely-available-download.html

http://www.skepdic.com/paradigm.html

Gullible Scepticism:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NK0f6XpqOvA

Is Science a Religion:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gby984AXNuk

Value of Consensus in Science:

http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/09/scientific-consensus-has-gotten-a-bad-reputation-and-it-doesnt-deserve-it/

Conformity:

http://www.wired.com/2015/02/scientists-wrong-time-thats-fantastic/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrNIuFrso8I

Science of the Gaps:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgN7a_vdIIc

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