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October 08th 2012 print

Michael Kile

The stink at UWA: More than academic

A recent paper by the University of Western Australia's Stephan Lewandowsky characterised climate "deniers" as apt to believe the moon landings were faked. A more pertinent area of inquiry would be to ask why a venerable institution is trashing its reputation

The latest act in a curious psychodrama began six weeks ago, at least for folk outside the University of Western Australia’s Cognitive Science Laboratories. Since Professor Stephan Lewandowsky’s University News media release (23rd August, 2012) on his latest academic paper – “What motivates rejection of (climate) science?” – the atmosphere out West has been warming up.

The change has more to do with academic – not carbon dioxide – emissions, than with planetary motion. Lewandowsky and joint authors Klaus Oberauer and Gilles Gignac used online surveys, multivariate analysis and specialist insight to explore “conspiracist ideation”, especially in the “climate arena.”

Their (peer-reviewed) paper, NASA faked the moon landing, therefore (climate) science is a Hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science, said to be “in press” with Psychological Science, apparently “provides empirical confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.”

They claim, for example, “those who subscribed to one or more conspiracy theories [such as Princess Diana’s death was not an accident; the Apollo moon landings never happened; etc], or who strongly supported a free-market economy, were more likely to reject the findings from climate science, as well as other sciences” (my italics).

The researchers – led by Lewandowsky – also claim discovery of a new causal relationship: “that free-market ideology was an overwhelmingly strong determinant of the rejection of climate science” (my italics). (In cognitive psychology’s lexicon, “strong determinant” presumably implies causation.)

Stretching a long bow further, they declared another “first” with eye-watering panache. Their “ideological rejection” hypothesis applied not only to climate science, but also to “other scientific facts”.

While “there has been much research pointing to the role of free-market ideology in rejecting climate science,” this was “the first time it’s been shown that other scientific facts, such as the link between HIV and AIDS, are also subject to ideological rejection” (author’s italics).

Few readers here will be surprised to learn the destination of this garden path: “a major determinant of the acceptance of science was the perceived consensus among scientists. The more agreement among scientists, the more people were likely to accept the scientific findings.”

Modern psychodramas tend to fall flat without an episode of media – or partner and pet – bashing; or without being spiced up by casual reference to some dodgy 80/20 or 90/10 “rule”.

Perceived consensus, according to Lewandowsky, is important “because it highlights how damaging the media’s handling of climate issues can be when they create the appearance of a scientific debate where there is none: More than 90 in 100 climate researchers agree on the basic fact that the globe is warming due to human greenhouse gas emissions.”

But are orthodoxies always right and the blogosphere always wrong? Do the former have a monopoly on Lewandowsky’s “true scepticism” and “reasoned theorising”? Are internet blogs merely a “platform for climate denial.”

There is room for legitimate debate here. Precisely how much anthropogenic warming will there be, and what will be its consequences?  With no established laws of climate change, no models with genuine predictive power, the “perceived consensus” relies too much on alarmist speculation and “risk management” rhetoric. Confronted with the intractable nature of climate uncertainty, some dish up fanciful claims, such as this one: “the less we know, the more we should worry.”

One UWA CSL study last year looked at “how attitudes towards spiders affect the processing of spider-related information”. According to the course synopsis, the study “involved a spider”.

Lewandowsky’s latest hypothesis seems to be about something similar in the climate-change space; how attitudes of “denialists” – who are allegedly all conspiracy theorists – towards climate change affect their processing of “climate change-related information”.

His ABC Drum post of 3rd May 2010, Evidence is overrated if you are a conspiracy theorist, concluded with this observation:


The conspiracy theory known as climate "scepticism" will soon collapse because it must be extended to include even the macrolepidoptera, including the rhopalocera, geometroidea and noctuoidea. Yes, the European moths and butterflies must be part of the conspiracy, because they mate repeatedly every season now, rather than once only as during the preceding 150 years.

There will always be people who believe that Al Gore issues mating orders to butterflies via secret rays sent from Pyongyang. But they are not the people who contribute to a rational society in the information age.

A key problem with the new paper – at least according to some who have examined it closely, such as Climate Audit principal, Steve McIntyre – is the apparent lack of genuine “spiders”, or in this case, bona fide “denialists”.

Controversy continues to rage, inter alia, over the quality of Lewandowsky’s raw online survey data sourced from “more than 1,000 visitors to blogs dedicated to discussions of climate science”, as well as the questionnaire itself. Was the data wholly derived from a group of genuine – and not just pretend – climate sceptics, aka doubt-manufacturing denialists? What is the risk of scamming contamination from masquerading mischief makers, and so on?

High-profile climate scientist, Judith Curry, concluded her post on September 15 by noting that, “while I have used the term ‘auditors’ for deep investigations of problems with climate data, BS detection seems much more apt for this particular issue.”

The “backfire effects” – more than a record 2,200 blog comments during September – forced Lewandowsky to make ten posts defending the paper on Shaping Tomorrow’s World. They included: Drilling into Noise, An Update on my Birth Certificates, Confirming the Obvious and A Simple Recipe for the Manufacturing of Doubt . The STW site “was made possible by a grant from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Australia and by the support of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University.”

Coincidentally, I attended the 2012 Second Ordinary Meeting of Convocation, the UWA Graduates Association, on Friday 21 September. Associate Professor David Hodgkinson, Warden of Convocation, was Chair of the Meeting. Professor Paul Johnson, the University’s new Vice Chancellor, was guest speaker.

Concerns were raised about the tone and quality of recent activity at Shaping Tomorrow’s World. Was the site’s operation and moderator policy consistent with Convocation’s governance aims and UWA’s mission to “achieve international excellence”?

Lewandowsky and his colleagues, of course, are not alone in their defence of consensus and peer review. Others also believe that because many (invariably government-funded – fact, not conspiracy theory) “peer-group-assessed” climate scientists agree on the “nature and urgency of the climate challenge”, we must accept the orthodoxy’s perspective and not urge closer scrutiny.

But does science necessarily advance by consensus, especially when it acquires a post-modern aura? Does an argumentum ad numerum – aka the bandwagon fallacy – always establish truth, or is it more a consequence of it? A proposition – in this case, AGHG global warming and its alleged dangerous consequences – surely is not true solely because many – be they a group of cognitive psychologists, economists, mathematicians, computer scientists, lawyers, politicians, religious evangelists or witch hunters – fervently believe it to be so.

Science is neither a democracy nor a religion, even if some of its practitioners aspire to become a new priestly class. Scientific knowledge does not advance at all if statements and hypotheses claimed to be scientific are, in some fundamental sense, unfalsifiable; or if they resemble “predictions” (or projections) so distant, vague, ambiguous or absurd they are meaningless.

Consider the case of Ivar Glaever, the Norwegian American 1973 physics Nobel prize winner. In early September last year, he left the American Physical Society by publicly releasing his resignation letter. He did not renew his membership, he wrote, because of the Society’s consensus position on “dangerous” AGW.

The evidence of global warming is incontrovertible? The claim – how can you measure the average temperature of the whole earth for a whole year? – is that the temperature has changed from approximately 288.0 to approximately 288.8 degree Kelvin (14.85 to 15.65 Celsius) in about 150 years, which (if true) means to me is that the temperature has been amazingly stable, and both human health and happiness have definitely improved in this ‘warming’ period.”

Should Glaever be dismissed as just another eccentric Lewandowskyian “denialist”; or should he be heralded as a “true sceptic”, someone who clearly sees DAGW as a storm (non-extreme weather event) in a tea-cup?

There was another controversy about consensus eighty-one years ago. When a pamphlet, One Hundred Authors against Einstein, was published in Germany in 1931, Einstein, then a Professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences, reportedly said: “Why one hundred? If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!”

©Michael Kile,  October 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.