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September 03rd 2012 print

Michael Kile

UWA’s scourge of sceptics

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky’s  latest study of climate “deniers” is drawing much adverse comment, especially from those who don’t appreciate being smeared as simpletons and loonies


I remember it well. It was five years ago, on the eve of the 2007 national election. Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, School of Psychology, was convener at a University of Western Australia public lecture on genetics and the concept of race. What made the event so memorable was his passionate pre-lecture — and off-topic — monologue before introducing the evening’s speaker.


It was only later, as his climate activism on campus grew and took on a more public — and post-modern — dimension at the university, did I realise its significance.

What do we know about this quiet American from Maryland, USA? Here is a brief biographical sketch from Lewandowsky himself.

I completed my undergraduate studies at Washington College, Chestertown, MD, USA, in 1980. I then did my post-graduate training at the University of Toronto, earning a PhD in 1985. After various stints as a research fellow, I took up my first full-time academic post at the University of Oklahoma in 1990. I moved to the University of Western Australia in 1995, and I have been here ever since.

I was a glider pilot for 18 years (nearly 2,000 launches, 800+ hours), and I have retained a passion for aviation and hope to resume flying in the not-too-distant future, once someone has invented a device for doubling the length of days from 24 to 48 hours, at Narrogin Gliding Club.

For the last few years, my new passion has been rock climbing. Like gliding, rock climbing is a great endeavour for people like me who suffer from an unnatural fear of low places. It also takes a lot less time than gliding, and you can do it wherever you are with only about 20 kg of gear. Most airlines can handle that, whereas few take sailplanes as check-in luggage. I do all sorts of climbing (badly), ranging from indoors to sports and trad climbing outdoors.

His “not so professional” interests, incidentally, do not mention climate change — although the “passion for aviation” perhaps could be driven by a periodic yearning to leave behind terrestrial carbon (dioxide) “pollution” and soar towards the tropospheric “hot spot”.

Lewandowsky is the author of many learned papers and co-author of many more, including this one: Why we believe lies even after they are proved wrong.

It is only recently, however, he has ventured into the climate-change space, now a rich and fertile field ploughed by thousands of (social) science academics in hundreds of international institutions of higher learning.

If Lewandowsky and colleagues – who currently include UWA Professor-at-Large, the Queen of Climate Consensus, Naomi Oreskes — have a personal quest, they perhaps see themselves involved in a high-stakes gladiatorial struggle with climate change (and other) “deniers”; their antidote apparently being an eerily Orwellian program to correct media “misinformation” and to achieve “successful debiasing”, as Lewandowsky explains in this arresting video.

His latest work includes these controversial papers:

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, C. E. (in press). NASA faked the moon landing, therefore (climate) science is a Hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science., Psychological Science.

Lewandowsky, S. (2011). Popular consensus: Climate change set to continue. Psychological Science, 22, 460-463

The former is currently attracting a tsunami of blog comment since a University News media release on August 23, 2102, titled “What motivates rejection of (climate) science?”

Chris H’s post yesterday is typical:

I am utterly amazed that propaganda masquerading as science such as this got through the peer review process and was published. From hypothesis, through methods, analysis and conclusions, the paper is riddled with errors and should have been rejected by the editorial team without bothering reviewers. I do think it is unfair to tar the whole of psychology because papers such as this. There are many areas of psychology where the science is as rigorous as any of the better conducted physical sciences.

Katabasis posted:

That he thought he could get away with publishing such a blatantly biased, partisan and unscientific paper, and that Psychological Science see fit to publish it, makes me want to leave academia and never return once I complete my PhD.

In Thai, the expression poo roo means “the one who knows”. In Australia, the reverse means something different: the Lewanowsky-Oberauer-Gignac paper – and the university’s mission to "achieve international excellence" – is being covered in a lot of it. 

© Michael Kile, September 2012

Disclosure Statement: The author does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. He has no relevant affiliations, except as author of the Devil’s Dictionary of Climate Change. He is a graduate of the University of Western Australia and two other universities.