02/26/2013 05:38 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

Conspiracy Theorists Respond to Evidence They're Conspiracy Theorists With More Conspiracy Theories

In 2012, cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 climate blog readers and observed a link between science denial and conspiracy theorizing. People who denied scientific propositions such as the link between AIDS and HIV or climate change and human activity were more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories like Princess Diana was murdered or AIDS was created by the government. How did climate deniers respond to evidence associating science denial with conspiracy theorizing? With more conspiracy theories, of course!

The conspiracy theories directed toward the "moon landing paper" began small-scale, but grew in scope and intricacy. Now to social scientists, such a public response can mean only one thing. Data! I collaborated with Lewandowsky in documenting the various conspiracy theories and tracking their evolution over time. The analysis has now been published in the paper "Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation."

Conspiracy theorists exhibit a number of tell-tale characteristics. Almost ubiquitous is the accusation of nefarious intent. After all, people never conspire with benevolent intent (unless planning a surprise party). One theory promoted by climate deniers focused on the experiment design used for the "moon landing paper." The scientists emailed survey invitations to a range of climate blogs -- some endorsing the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming and others denying the consensus.

Climate deniers accused the scientists of lying about contacting denial blogs. A flood of bloggers came forward to say they hadn't received the invitation. Amusingly, five of those bloggers were the five who had actually been contacted. Irony overload was reached when one of those contacted went so far as to provide the email address of the lead author's university, encouraging readers to send allegations of misconduct.

Another trait of conspiracy theorists is the mentality that "something must be wrong." If a theory is shown to be demonstrably false, the conspiracy theorist can smoothly shift to another theory while maintaining an unshaken belief that "the official account must be wrong." After the names of the five contacted bloggers were released, conspiracy theorists transitioned to a spin-off theory: "obviously they never intended for the skeptic blogs to respond." New theory, same accusation of nefarious intent.

Conspiracy theorists invariably consider themselves persecuted victims. The most persistent theory was that the data was scammed in a campaign to make climate deniers look bad (while lacking the self-awareness to realize they were doing a fine job of that themselves). The argument for this belief was the mere fact that the survey contained participants indicating climate denial who also endorsed extreme conspiracy theories. However, if you follow this line of thinking to its ultimate conclusion, you'd have to conclude that all the conspiracy theorizing about the "moon landing paper" must be a scam designed to make climate deniers look bad.

Conspiracy theorists think nothing happens by accident. For a short period, both my and Stephan Lewandowksy's websites were inaccessible from certain parts of the world due to internet blockages. This led to the claim that we were specifically targeting a particular blogger's IP address to prevent access, followed by accusations of unethical behaviour. At this point, the recursive fury began to intensify. Readers warned the persecuted blogger that the IP blocking may have been a deliberate strategy to make him act paranoid, thus proving our thesis.

Another example of recursive fury folded over itself was the theory that the original research was not a genuine study -- the actual study was the blogosphere's reaction to the paper. Take a moment to think through the logic in this theory. In this alternate reality, Lewandowsky never actually found a link between denial and conspiratorial thinking and yet somehow expected deniers to react like conspiracy theorists. Confused? Recursive fury does that.

Finally, conspiracy theories are self-sealing and immune to contrary evidence. Incoming facts ricochet right off the tinfoil hat. Actually, a more accurate metaphor is the classic sci-fi alien that grows stronger when fired upon. Evidence against the conspiracy is only further proof of just how powerful the conspirators are.

Over time, the conspiracies around Lewandowsky expanded in scope. He was promoted to running the $6 million website The Conversation. The Australian government was in on the act, colluding with Lewandowsky to suppress dissent. Eventually the conspiracy expanded to cover the whole planet as he was accused of running a "base for this global climate activism operation" and the "ringleader for conspiratorial activities by the green climate bloggers."

When Lewandowsky published the "moon landing paper," he had no inkling of the flood of conspiracy theories that would emerge in reaction. Perhaps in hindsight, given the results of the paper, it should have been anticipated. After all that has transpired, what reaction can be expected from recursive fury? The recursive nature of conspiracy ideation tells us we should see even more conspiracy theorizing. Indeed, initial reaction reaffirmed all the original conspiracy theories with a few new embellishments. At this rate, we seem to be headed towards Recursive Fury II: The Infinite Loop of Denial.