Climate change denial, laissez-faire economics, conspiracy theorizing. A new study suggests that these rather diverse belief systems may lie on a continuum. That climate change denialists don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming is a given, but are there other more general indicators of their belief system that include climate change denial as a subset?

This is the question that a group of psychologists from the University of Western Australia and the University of Zurich sought to answer. They found that climate change denialists also seem to display two other characteristics; a belief in laissez-faire capitalism and more troublingly, a tendency to espouse conspiracy theories. The correlation of climate change denial with free market capitalism was stronger and not completely unsurprising but the correlation with a conspiratorial mindset is more unexpected and intriguing.

To find out more about the psychology of denialists, the researchers queried about a thousand commenters on eight popular climate science blogs about their general beliefs in various conspiracy theories and free market capitalism. Blogs were picked because these are the sources where deniers and skeptics are most commonly found. A questionnaire listing about 30 miscellaneous statements relating to free markets, environmental issues and conspiracy theories of all flavors were pitched to commenters on these blogs. Interestingly the commenters on “skeptical” climate change blogs declined to answer the questions.

The questionnaire included statements about free markets (usually asking whether unfettered free markets are better for human and environmental welfare than regulated markets) conspiracy theories (“9/11 was an inside job”, “The government has covered up UFO landings in Area 51”, “HIV and AIDS were manufactured by the government”) and the perception that previous environmental problems have been resolved. Commenters had to rate the statements on a four-point scale ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree". The results were plugged into a model that calculated correlations between beliefs represented by the various statements.

The results indicated, perhaps not surprisingly, that there is an inverse correlation between espousal of free markets and belief in the scientific consensus on climate change. This free market-dominated rejection of scientific evidence is consistent with denial of important environmental and public health concerns in the past, most notably the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and the effects of acid rain on the environment. Once free-market ideologues make up their mind that complete government withdrawal from markets is the only way to ensure prosperity, then it’s not surprising to find them inclined to disbelieve even rigorous scientific evidence that would somehow point to more increased government regulation as a solution. This is of course independent of actual government regulation; all that matters is a belief in future government action. Sadly, the study also found that unfettered belief in free markets seems to make deniers skeptical of any scientific consensus involving the government, no matter what the field of study or the level of rigor. Simply put, ideology trumps facts.

What is much more intriguing is the very modest but positive correlation between rejection of climate change and the presence of a general conspiratorial ideology. People who reject climate change don’t believe equally in all the conspiracy theories listed in the questionnaire, but the general trend seems to hold. It would have been enlightening to know if denialists seem to believe a particular conspiracy theory more than others, but that kind of trend does not really stand out. Finally, perceptions of whether previous environmental issues are resolved or not also track negatively with denialism. So if you believe that the consensus on acid rain is not well established you are also less likely to believe the consensus on climate change.

It’s important to keep a few caveats in mind, the most important one being the nature of the test subjects. The sample size is small and not entirely representative. An Internet sample is often self-selected and is likely to represent the most vocal sample; as bloggers are well aware, many of the most frequent commenters are also the most polarized and the loudest. Ignored is the vast “silent majority” which may hold very different and possibly more moderate views than the vocal majority. Those who are climate change denialists also lie on a continuum when it comes to government regulation of climate markets, so depending on what exactly they believe they may or may not exhibit much fondness for laissez-faire capitalism. This study also does not prove that all climate change deniers are likely to believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories. Rather it draws our attention to the fact that the psychology of climate change denial presents some features that are likely to be shared by conspiracy theorists.

The main goal of the study in my opinion is to inspire more detailed studies on how different mindsets intersect with each other. I consider it to be an intriguing starting point rather than a conclusive study. The most interesting thing about these observations is that they point to deeper psychological connections between different belief systems. The rejection of established science because of its perceived failure to conform to preconceived beliefs is a classic case of motivated reasoning. This would be consistent with the incompatibility of an extreme free-market viewpoint with denial of climate change. Since free-market ideology also usually tracks well with conservative politics, it is not surprising to find most denials of climate change coming from the right.

But what about the correlation with conspiracy theorizing? One of the common characteristics of most conspiracy theories is the omniscience and power they place in the hands of the government. JFK was apparently assassinated not by a single gunman but by a vast conglomerate primarily involving government agencies. The small group of industrial scientists who denied the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer pointed to a powerful cabal of government-sponsored scientists who were orchestrating a dedicated effort to discredit tobacco companies. From 9/11 denial to HIV denial, the big nemesis is always the government. Some conspiracies by private corporations (for instance those involving vaccines and autism) are rampant on the left, but these pale in comparison to the number involving the government.

Seen through this lens it’s not surprising to find belief in laissez-faire capitalism tracking well with conspiracy theorizing since proponents of laissez-faire are inherently suspicious of the government. For instance the king of climate change denial, Senator James Inhofe, has constantly called climate change a government-sponsored “hoax”. Inhofe thinks that thousands of scientists all over the world combined with dozens of government agencies have somehow had the brilliance and capability to pull the wool over the eyes of the entire world. Scientists and government officials should feel flattered by the omniscience ascribed to them by climate change denialists if they hadn’t caused so much harm.

Unfortunately it’s not easy to disabuse people of a conspiracy mindset since as the article notes, presenting evidence to the contrary only makes them more convinced of the diabolical success of the supposed conspiracy. The one thing we can do is to at least point out to climate change denialists how their beliefs are in fact conspiratorial. Demonstrate the features that climate change conspiracies share with 9/11 denial and Pearl Harbor revisionism. Explain how a true climate change conspiracy would involve a vast number of people in collusion with each other over an incredibly long period of time, with absolutely no possibility of a leak or a whistleblower exposing the truth. Sadly such reasoning is unlikely to convince die-hard deniers. But by noting the similarity of climate change denial with some of the craziest conspiracy theories in history, you can at least improve the chances of having the denialists perhaps take a hard look at what they believe. And in the war against ignorance, even incremental wins are to be savored.

Reference: NASA Faked the Moon Landing - Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax; Lewandowsky et al. Psychological Science, 2013, 24, 1.