The Lizard Man Constant

Slate Star Codex in 2013 wrote Lizardman’s Constant Is 4%Beware of Phantom Lizardmen

Public Policy Polling’s recent poll on conspiracy theories mostly showed up on my Facebook feed as “Four percent of Americans believe lizardmen are running the Earth”.

(of note, an additional 7% of Americans are “not sure” whether lizardmen are running the Earth or not.)

Imagine the situation. You’re at home, eating dinner. You get a call from someone who says “Hello, this is Public Policy Polling. Would you mind answering some questions for us?” You say “Sure”. An extremely dignified sounding voice says – and this is the exact wording of the question – “Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our society, or not?” Then it urges you to press 1 if yes, press 2 if no, press 3 if not sure.

So first we get the people who think “Wait, was 1 the one for if I did believe in lizardmen, or if I didn’t? I’ll just press 1 and move on to the next question.”

Then we get the people who are like “I never heard it before, but if this nice pollster thinks it’s true, I might as well go along with them.”

Then we get the people who are all “F#&k you, polling company, I don’t want people calling me when I’m at dinner. You screw with me, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you I believe lizard people are running the planet.”

And then we get the people who put “Martian” as their nationality in psychology experiments. Because some men just want to watch the world burn.

Do these three groups total 4% of the US population? Seems plausible.

I really wish polls like these would include a control question, something utterly implausible even by lizard-people standards, something like “Do you believe Barack Obama is a hippopotamus?” Whatever percent of people answer yes to the hippo question get subtracted out from the other questions.

He elaborates on the third problem:

Another link I’ve seen on my Facebook wall a few times is this one: Are Climate Change Sceptics More Likely To Be Conspiracy Theorists? It’s based on a paper by Stephen Lewandowsky et al called NASA Faked The Moon Landing, Therefore Climate Science Is A Hoax – An Analysis Of The Motivated Rejection Of Science.

The paper’s thesis was that climate change skeptics are motivated by conspiracy ideation – a belief that there are large groups of sinister people out to deceive them. This seems sort of reasonable on the face of it – being a climate change skeptic requires going against the belief of the entire scientific establishment. My guess is that there probably is a significant link here waiting to be discovered.

Unfortunately, it’s…possible Stephan Lewandowsky wasn’t the best person to investigate this? Aside from being a professor of cognitive science, he also runs Shaping Tomorrow’s World, a group that promotes “re-examining some of the assumptions we make about our technological, social and economic systems” and which seems to be largely about promoting global warming activism. While I think it’s admirable that he is involved in that, it raises conflict of interest questions. And the way his paper is written – starting with the over-the-top title – doesn’t do him any favors.

(if the conflict of interest angle doesn’t make immediate and obvious sense to you, imagine how sketchy it would be if a professional global warming denier was involved in researching the motivations of global warming supporters)

But enough of my personal opinions. What’s the paper look like?

The methodology goes like this: they send requests to several popular climate blogs, both believer and skeptic, asking them to link their readers to an online survey. The survey asks people their beliefs on global warming and on lots of conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs.

On first glance, the results are extremely damning. People who rejected climate science were wildly more likely to reject pretty much every other form of science as well, including the “theory” that HIV causes AIDS and the “theory” that cigarettes cause cancer. They were more willing to believe aliens landed at Roswell, that 9-11 was an inside job, and, yes, that NASA faked the moon landing. The conclusion: climate skeptics are just really stupid people.

But a bunch of global warming skeptics started re-analyzing the data and coming up with their own interpretations. They found that many large pro-global-warming blogs posted the link to the survey, but very few anti-global-warming blogs did. This then devolved into literally the worst flame war I have ever seen on the Internet, centering around accusations about whether the study authors deliberately excluded large anti-global warming blogs, or whether the authors asked the writers of anti-global-warming blogs and these writers just ignored the request (my impression is that most people now agree it was the latter). In either case, it ended up with most people taking the survey being from the pro-global-warming blogs, and only a few skeptics.

More interestingly, they found that pretty much all of the link between global warming skepticism and stupidity was a couple of people (there were so few skeptics, and so few conspiracy believers, that these couple of people made up a pretty big proportion of them, and way more than enough to get a “significant” difference with the global warming believers). Further, most of these couple of people had given the maximally skeptical answer to every single question about global warming, and the maximally credulous answer to every single question about conspiracies.

The danger here now seems obvious. Global warming believer blogs publish a link to this study, saying gleefully that it’s going to prove that global warming skeptics are idiots who also think NASA faked the moon landing and the world is run by lizardmen or whatever. Some global warming believers decide to help this process along by pretending to be super-strong global warming skeptics and filling in the stupidest answers they can to every question. The few real global warming skeptics who take the survey aren’t enough signal to completely drown out this noise. Therefore, they do the statistics and triumphantly announce that global warming skepticism is linked to stupid beliefs.

The global warming skeptic blogosphere has in my opinion done more than enough work to present a very very strong case that this is what happened (somebody else do an independent look at the controversy and double-check this for me?) And Professor Lewandowsky’s answer was…

…to publish a second paper, saying his results had been confirmed because climate skeptics were so obsessed with conspiracy theories that they had accused his data proving they were obsessed with conspiracies of being part of a conspiracy. The name of the paper? Recursive Fury. I have to hand it to him, this is possibly the most chutzpah I have ever seen a single human being display.

(the paper is now partially offline as the journal investigates it for ethical something something)

A comment says

I recently received a psychological survey which included a number of odd, irrelevant seeming statements to rate the truth value of, such as “My favorite poet is Raymond Kertezc,” Raymond Kertezc being a made-up poet whose purpose in the survey is to help weed out people who’ll say yes to anything. If you type in his name as a search on Wikipedia, it redirects to “Scientific Control.”

after which Scott Alexander (whom it turns out, because the New York Times unmasked him to destroy him, is the blogger) commented:

When I Google it, the first result is a blog called Poetry By Raymond Kertezc which has some actual poems on it – albeit not very good.

I love the idea that somebody took this fake poet used for scientific controls and wrote poetry in his name. That is really playing the long game as a troll.

I was commenting on twitter about how anybody who teaches large classes knows that 5% of the class will always get the instructions wrong so you need to repeat them over nad over– which I guess you could call The Lizard Man’s Corollary.

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