Why Deniers Don’t Believe in Science

September 18, 2017

British Psychology Society:

Unrelenting faith in the face of insurmountable contradictory evidence is a trait of believers in conspiracy theories that has long confounded researchers. For instance, past research has demonstrated how attempting to use evidence to sway believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories can backfire, increasing their certainty in the conspiracy. Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

The researchers first asked a sample of 238 US participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website to complete a self-reported “Need For Uniqueness” scale (they rated their agreement with items like “being distinctive is extremely important to me”) and a Conspiracy Mentality scale (e.g. “Most people do not see how much our lives are determined by plots hatched in secret.”) before indicating whether or not they believed in a list of 99 conspiracy theories circulating online. Endorsement of the different conspiracy theories was highly correlated: belief in one conspiracy theory meant beliefs in others would be more likely. Participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness also correlated with their stronger endorsement of the conspiracy beliefs.

The second study replicated this finding with a further 465 Mechanical Turk participants based in the US, but this time half the sample read a list of the five most well known conspiracy theories and the five least known ones, whereas the other half of the group read the five most popular conspiracy theories and the five least popular. Again, self-reported Need For Uniqueness correlated with stronger agreement with the various conspiracy theories. It’s not clear from these findings whether need for uniqueness was really driving greater conspiracy endorsement so the researchers devised a third experiment to test this.


A final, unforeseen and particularly astounding finding emerged only after the participants had been debriefed. A full 25 per cent of the sample continued to retain beliefs in the made-up smoke detector conspiracy even after they had been told that the theory was false and had been made up by the researchers for the sole purpose of the study. Supporting the researchers’ conclusion further, this continued belief in the made-up conspiracy theory was correlated with the participants’ self-reported Need For Uniqueness. Taken together, the findings provide convincing evidence that some people are motivated to agree with conspiracy theories with an aura of exclusiveness. To them it may not matter in the slightest that their views are in the minority, to the contrary this knowledge could actually amplify their beliefs.

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8 Responses to “Why Deniers Don’t Believe in Science”


  1. I tend to think of such people as simply being stupid. Works for me.

    There’s a German word for such people BTW:

    Beratungsresistent – resistant to advice.

  2. webej Says:

    The trouble with theories about people who hold conspiracy theories is that they don’t realize the whole notion was injected by the intelligence agencies into public discourse. Life, in general, is full of conspiracies and plots, whether it’s little girls exluding a third or a fourth member in their clique, or whether it’s office politics, or whether it’s criminals trying to extort some money, malware outfits, office politics, whatever. Conspiracy is part of the warp and woof of daily life. Among the greatest are conspiracies carried out by the state and their agencies. This is true throughout history, and it is still true.
    Most people are simply not aware of how much control government agencies have over our free press [even though much has been publicly divulged in hearings and court cases and people quitting in disgust]; many do not realize the extent to which secret agencies attempt to create political havoc and how much lying goes on. Theorizing about conspiracy theories in general proceeds from the notion that actual conspiracies do not exist or are seldom. That is simply untrue.
    Science is actually one of the few areas where conspiracies are unlikely, because public scrutiny and critique are basic principles. But even in the world of science, there is a lot of politicking going on when it comes to funding, citations of other people’s work, who becomes the chairman of the dept, professors publishing PhD students works as their own, co-authorship of important articles, etc etc.
    To top it off, government conspiracy narratives belong to the most virulent category, furnishing reasons to go to war [e.g., the N Koreans do not want to negotiate and they’re certifiably insane, we’ve tried everything [except direct talks without preconditions], but they’re just insanely intent for no good reason to spill our blood [although they themselves append every statement with the condition “unless America desists from its threats and aggression”]].


  3. One question, if the “need for uniqueness” is a strong driver, why do so many climate conspiracy theorists hang out together, where they are not unique? I think the same applies to other conspiracy theorists. That need for uniqueness must be counteracted to some extent by them seeking out the comfort of a crowd who hold similar (though not absolutely identical) conspiracy theories.

    One thing I have observed is that climate conspiracy theorists have a remarkable capacity for inconsistency, so that may help explain the apparent contradiction.

    The easier answer is that they are all barking mad, though that’s not a terribly scientific response 🙂

    • mbrysonb Says:

      My guess is that expressing a need for uniqueness doesn’t really imply seriously seeking to achieve it… A facsimile will do– for example, differentiation from what they perceive as the ‘mainstream’.


  4. […] via Why Deniers Don’t Believe in Science | Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]


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