Oct 03 2013

Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking

Even among self-identified skeptics and critical thinkers, there is the full spectrum of political ideology, and this varying world view does seem to color certain opinions. In my experience in the community, most skeptics eventually get to a similar place with regard to politically-charged scientific topics (logic and evidence do hold sway in the end), but they certainly start in different places. There is also the occasional skeptic who, while displaying critical thinking in most areas, retains a sacred cow or two associated with their political world view.

A recent study explores the issue of political worldview, conspiracy thinking, and the acceptance or rejection of certain scientific topics. Stephen Lewandowsky et al published the study in PLOSOne, The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science

The study essentially looks for association between a free market ideology, conservatism, and conspiracy thinking as these world views relate to acceptance or rejection of vaccine safety, global warming, and acceptance of GMO (genetically modified organisms). A number of interesting and not-so-surprising findings emerged.

The hypothesis going in is that free-market advocates tend to reject government authority, while the political left tend to be suspicious of corporations. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists reject and are suspicious of all authority and institutions.

First, the least surprising result – conspiracy thinking predicted rejection of vaccines, global warming, and GMO. The underlying factor here seems to be a suspicious nature, regardless of political ideology. This also fits general experience and previous data – people who accept one conspiracy theory are likely to accept others.

The relationship between rejecting science and political ideology was a bit more complex. Free market proponents and conservatism were independent variables that could be separated, but they did tend to go together. It is assumed in this study (a common model) that those who score low on the conservatism scale are therefore liberal or progressive. I’m not sure why this is used, rather than a liberalism scale, and if this skews results in any way.

Free market proponents most strongly rejected the consensus on global warming. They somewhat rejected vaccination, and there was no relationship with GMO.

Conservatives also rejected global warming, but had a positive correlation with vaccine acceptance, and no relationship to GMO. The acceptance of vaccines had a compensatory effect for those who are both conservatives and libertarians (free market proponents).

Liberals had a small association with vaccine rejection, and no effect on global warming or GMO. The lack of an association with GMO was surprising to the authors as much of the anti-GMO rhetoric does tend to come from the political left.

In the discussion the authors offer their analysis of these findings. They argue that the motivation for conservatives to reject science is system justification – supporting the status quo. When a scientific finding challenges the status quo, as global warming appears to do, they reject it. But they are also accepting of science that supports the status quo, like vaccination.

Libertarians, on the other hand, are suspicious of government. They see both global warming and vaccinations as attempts by the government to intrude on the free market or our personal lives, respectively.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be suspicious of corporations. This explains the effect with vaccinations, but does not explain the lack of the expected effect with GMO. The authors hypothesize that it is only the extreme left that rejects the science on GMO, and this was not captured in their study.

To summarize, the authors write:

In summary, although a free-market worldview is a powerful predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have regulatory implications such as climate science, we found its effect to be far from general: The involvement of worldview in vaccinations was arguably small, and it was entirely absent for GM foods. Nonetheless, it must be reiterated that we found limited evidence for the rejection of vaccinations based on liberal or “left-wing” political leanings: When free-market worldviews are parceled out (and only then), people on the political left were less likely to endorse childhood vaccinations than people on the political right.

The authors also note prior research indicating that presenting people of any political world view with evidence regarding the consensus of scientific opinion did have an effect on their opinions. People generally are influenced by the consensus.

It was also noted that this study is examining limited variables and that further research is needed, looking at other specific topics, for a more thorough analysis of the effects of world view on the rejections of science. In other words, the effect is likely to be very issue-specific, and so many issues need to be covered in order to draw reliable conclusions about the effects of ideology.


Political ideology, unsurprisingly, has an effect on whether or not people accept or reject specific scientific conclusions.  We tend to engage in motivated reasoning to defend our world view. The stronger the motivation, the stronger this effect.

This illustrates why, in my opinion, it is important to be aware of one’s personal biases and to be aware of the effect those biases have on our thinking. Further, I would argue that in order to minimize the effect of such biases on our acceptance or rejection of science, the best world view to have is one that respects science and critical thinking above ideology. This is the world view of the skeptic.


22 responses so far

22 thoughts on “Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking”

  1. mufi says:

    Coincidentally, Public Policy Polling (PPP) just released this report yesterday: Conspiracy Theories Round Two: Republicans More Likely To Subscribe to Government Conspiracy Theories.

    I realize that your post is focused on acceptance or rejection of scientific theories, like those related to global warming and vaccination, and that a single questionnaire survey is not as methodologically rigorous as we might like.

    However, it bears noting that a “study by Fordham University found that, of 28 firms studied, PPP had the most accurate poll on the presidential national popular vote” in the 2012 elections (source), so the source is a reputable one.

  2. ConspicuousCarl says:


    Everyone select the issue from Section 1 for which the correct answer correlates positively with your political beliefs, and come up with one or more reasons why that issue is more important than the others.

    a. ___________________________________
    b. ___________________________________
    c. ___________________________________

  3. slipknottin says:

    I still find it a bit odd that it is inherently connected to the government.

    But then again, I guess most libertarians never learn of externalities anyway.

  4. slipknottin says:


    I find it odd that global warming is inherently connected to the government.

  5. mufi says:

    PS: More to the point, it’s apparently not only “trust in science” that’s declined among American conservatives. What’s also low among American conservatives is trust in “liberal media”, defined broadly as any source of information that exists outside of the Murdoch/Limbaugh bubble, where such conspiracy theories are most likely to flourish, or at least fail to be challenged.

  6. ccbowers says:

    It seems to me that it would be more difficult to find correlations with liberals/progressives because they are a more diverse group relative to conservatives, at least currently in the U.S. Effectively defining liberal/progressive as = not conservative in the study (by just picking those low on a conservative scale) is problematic, IMO, because it becomes like a wastebasket category.

  7. ccbowers says:

    “There is also the occasional skeptic who, while displaying critical thinking in most areas, retains a sacred cow or two associated with their political world view.”

    I need to hang out with the people you speak to. Either that or you are being generous. In my experience nearly all people have areas to which they are unable or unwilling to fully apply their critical thinking skills.

  8. mufi says:

    If I repeatedly answer “No” to a questionnaire that’s loaded with conservative premises (e.g. regarding the proper role of government in society), is there not a high probability that’s because I accept a different set of contrary premises that, at least from a pollster’s or political scientist’s POV, qualifies as liberal?

    Sure, we can probably come up with more descriptive terms than “liberal (or progressive)” and “conservative” (e.g. “egalitarian-communitarian” and “hierarchical-individualist” are examples that I’ve come across), but if political thought/behavior is as polarized and as tribal as I think it is (particularly here in the US), then these terms seem to work well enough for most practical purposes.

  9. cc – I am being generous, and I am also referring to hard core sacred cows. We all have our biases, but few serious skeptics have extreme belief systems they cling to.

  10. tmac57 says:

    I have a sense that Skeptics/critical thinkers are being hamstrung politically by our insistence on sticking to facts and evidence. Of course that is the only real path to understanding reality,and the only path that I want to choose,but I see an increasing willingness by non-skeptics to abandon reality in favor of a more expedient political strategy of telling a constituency exactly what they want to hear,while exploiting their predjudices (and even creating new ones).
    Much of this activity appears to be plainly cynical manipulation as opposed to true ideological positions. This is not a new phenomenon,as it goes back centuries,but the new tools of mass communication make it so much easier by being channeled through an echo chamber of anonymous sources and word of email/facebook etc. which give the liars the ability to keep up a steady drumbeat of poisonous slander without being in the open view of the mainstream.A virtual whisper campaign on a scale never envisioned by previous practitioners of this dark art.
    I used to think that only a small minority of people would fall for such blatantly malicious rhetoric,but I am finding more and more of my friends and aquaintances being slowly nudged in the direction of tinfoil hattery,often without doing the most basic of research to see if what they are falling for has even a hint of reality to it.

  11. some people just aren’t the slightest bit interested in fancy-schmancy “facts” and “data” and your so-called “empirical evidence”. they literally don’t care. of course this makes it difficult or near-impossible to have a rational, intelligent conversation with such people, when you can’t even agree on what the basic facts are, as a starting point.

  12. for instance, I’ve seen several global warming denialists claim that even the data you show them, proving global warming is occuring, can’t be trusted because it’s faked, untrustworthy, part of some grand conspiracy, etc. They literally are not the least bit swayed by evidence. Kinda scary.

  13. TheFlyingPig says:

    As a strongly Libertarian person (though doubtful of my own politics), I find it very frustrating talking with other libertarian types about global warming. Obviously, I think our solutions would work better than those of people with different political mindsets, but I can’t get beyond trying to convince them that it is real and the consequences will be very bad.

    I often struggle with when or whether to bring up the idea that they’re making rationalizations based on their political biases. Even though it’s sometimes an inescapable conclusion, bringing it up comes off as an ad hominem fallacy.

  14. mufi says:

    It’s good to know that not all self-identifying Libertarians reject the scientific consensus on global warming, but if a Libertarian solution necessarily means little or no government intervention, then it’s not hard to understand why many Libertarians would feel motivated to deny that there’s problem to begin with. After all, that’s a rather hard sell for many of us non-Libertarians.

    That said, it’s not clear to me that it’s any easier to pit oneself against the community of climate scientists than it is to pit oneself against the community of environmental economists – i.e. those who advise that we regulate GHG emissions and implement either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.

    The latter position seems just as mainstream as the former, and both are opposed by more or less the same groups.

  15. locutusbrg says:

    @ ccbowers
    I usually agree with you but I keep sticking on your statement of diversity.
    ” liberals/progressives because they are a more diverse group relative to conservatives”
    How do you define diversity? What are the assumptions?

    Of course my bias is that I personally have absolutely no bias of any kind.;)

  16. Laursaurus says:

    I don’t think you can describe climate change as pure, unadulterated rejection of science. In the US, we were “educated” about global warming by a politician, who wasn’t above taking cheap shots at the Bush administration in his Hollywood blockbuster, An Inconvenient Truth. Can someone like yourself endorse the accuracy of the facts vs. the over-hyped spin on the state of scientific knowledge promoted in the film? No…it’s just those crazy conservatives desperately trying to hang on to the status quo?
    Imagine if a respected scientist, such as Steve Hawking, educating the public about climate change instead of a defeated, resentful politician taking spiteful cheap shots at the Bush administration. When members of Congress inquired about his financial investment in Cap & Trade coming to fruition (a scheme that prominent climate scientists, such as Hansen, rejected as an ineffective disaster), he got extremely annoyed by a genuine concern her constituents had expressed.
    As a US citizen who loves learning about new scientific discoveries and advances in our present knowledge, I have no motivation for denying climate change. But it was sold to the American public as one more political blunder to pin on George Bush.
    I also wonder if George Bush had rallied for action on CO2 emissions, signed Kyoto, funded a few boondoggles like the bankrupt solar panel company in California, would Liberals been the climate skeptics? You know, like they were about the WMD’s in Iraq?
    Also, why did they neglect 911 Truthers? You know, the most extreme conspiracy theorists among the general population. Wouldn’t the engineers’ meticulous analysis of the evidence and the application of the laws of physics that provide a scientific explanation for how and why the WTC towers crumbled (especially Tower 7) not be counted as “science denial?” This conspiracy would have required government, scientists, engineers, corporations, and literally thousands of lay people to secretly pull off the most witnessed tragedy in US history (at least it’s the worst event in my life time).
    What about the JFK assassination? Certainly that conspiracy would have included the medical professionals who attempted to save him, as well as, the faculty and medical students who performed the autopsy. You know, the field of science you and I have chosen to have a career in? (I’m an RN).
    TL;DR – A politician leveraged climate change science to attack on his ideological opponent, instead of a scientist educating the public. Skepticism towards what a politician claims is science is considered science denial? Sorry, but that was an understandable reaction to an ideological attack.
    What about 911? JFK? Why does rejecting the laws of physics fail to make the list?

  17. RickK says:

    Laursaurus: “Imagine if a respected scientist, such as Steve Hawking, educating the public about climate change instead of a defeated, resentful politician taking spiteful cheap shots at the Bush administration. ”

    Stephen Hawking HAS spoken out about climate change. Name a respected scientist that hasn’t spoken out about climate change.

    So “Inconvenient Truth” was propaganda. We’re past that – move on. The respected scientists have ALL spoken. And the people who close their ears and close their minds and refuse to listen are no better than the evolution deniers. Both have surrendered any claim to intellectual integrity.

  18. rezistnzisfutl says:

    One thing I regard about myself is that I tend to reject most extremes. Ironically, I’ve been called extreme in my almost universal rejection of extremes (if the established extreme view has the preponderance of evidence connected to it, what else is there to do but accept it, at least provisionally?).

    For myself, politically I’m independent that has often been critical of both the left and right, for different issues of course. I’m probably more left-leaning because of my social values, plus I don’t outright reject socialism in some aspects of the economy. I don’t consider myself overly suspicious of government or corporations, either, unless I feel there’s justification for it (eg, evidence on a case-by-case basis). I don’t think there are often truly simple answer in life and more often than not situations are more complex than many people ascribe to it. Plus, often there’s more to a story than we know. Perhaps I’m a pragmatist? I also reject conspiracy theories and most unsupported rhetoric.

    That’s why I find science the most compelling, because it tends to tease out biases and it’s the most reliable means of determining what is true. Of course, science isn’t going to answer all questions, such as with philosophy, but it can inform them.

    I try to be hyper-aware of myself because I realize that I have biases, too, just like everyone else. That’s why I try to be open to constructive criticism. I suppose if there’s one drawback in my approach is that, when confronted with someone who typically holds extreme views, especially when they’re blatantly unscientific, it can be easy to reject anything sensible that may occasionally come out of them along with the detritus. That’s why I think it’s good to have a community of skeptics around me, so others can call me on my errors. Plus, it’s good to have other perspectives, it helps us consider options we may not have realized before.

  19. Mlema says:

    I see this research as revealing how people interpret science based on the information they’re given, how that information is given, and the people’s ability to understand it. If you think about how each of the three topics are currently portrayed to the public and by whom, it’s easy to understand the various public reactions. Most notably: GMOs show up as a non-issue. It’s because people don’t really know much about them (information), they’re portrayed as not only safe, but necessary (how the information is given) and people don’t really understand the science (poor science education). Even the way the survey writes its statements about GMOs reflects ignorance of the science – so how is the study calibrating the response of various worldviews to the science? They’re calibrating people’s acceptance of the science based on those people’s best understanding of the science – which isn’t the science itself.

  20. Mlema says:

    and, not to stir a hornet’s nest, but as skeptics we can never overlook the variable that the science the investigators are measuring acceptance of is indeed as the researchers interpret it to be. This paper isn’t scienc-y enough for me. And I really dislike the phraseology of “acceptance of the science”. It makes me think of something like “The fact is, no one can hear you scream when i beat you with a stick. I don’t like your screaming so you’d better just accept the science and shut up.”

    If we had a well-educated populace, we wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not people “accept the science” Good science speaks convincingly to those who have the ability to understand.

    And Dr. Novella, I resent the implication that as a skeptic I make decisions based on politics first, and then reason things out later 😉

  21. Mlema says:

    ‘The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate’: – Jefferson

    PS, Dr. N,
    sorry to go off topic but I know you don’t look at comments on your posts after a couple of days, so I wanted to let you know that Phil Hickey responded to your post on mental illness denial:


  22. ccbowers says:

    ” liberals/progressives because they are a more diverse group relative to conservatives”
    How do you define diversity? What are the assumptions?


    From the aspect of the study mentioned, if one defines liberals and progressives as people who score low on conservatives, you are in effect creating a wastebasket category… almost creating a diverse group by defining the category as a group lacking certain traits instead of having certain traits. Its not the worst approach in the world, but I think it is problematic.

    Looking at it from outside the study, I see the group we speak about as liberals to be a group that is a collection of several smaller subgroups that do not necessarily arise to the same conclusions for the same reasons (at least in the U.S.). For simplicity of discussion, I may use Democrat as a surrogate for liberal even though I know that there are conservative Democrats, because there is more information about voting than about ideological identification.

    Also, I am not necessarily using diversity in the way that the media often uses it (i.e. they mean racial diversity), but I am thinking also in terms of ideological diversity and motivation. For example, black Americans vote Democrat greater than 80% of the time (and minority groups in general have been voting Democrat), but groups that also vote Democrat include scientists (actually, most academics), environmentalists, LBGT activists, young people, the nonreligious etc. Although I know that these categories are not mutually exclusive, these subgroups are voting Democrats for different reasons, and there doesn’t seem to be as much overlap in their interests/reasons for voting as they do.

    People who we identify as conservatives tend to be made up primarily of those who are social conservatives (e.g. religious right and social traditionalists) and/or economic conservatives (so called small government advocates). It seems to me that there is more overlap in these 2 main groups. Although libertarians are sort of stuck in the middle, and may be the exception to this argument, they have largely been voting Republican due to the economic conservative aspect. The ‘right’ has to walk a fine line since the more they emphasize the social issues, the more they push libertarians away, which seems to have been happening lately. Outside of this relatively small, but growing, libertarian subgroup there isn’t as much of a conflict between social and economic conservativism, as I see it in the U.S.

    Do you disagree?

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