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I have a vague idea how believing in a flat earth may work. (Not enough to write it down)

But it still irritates me that an appreciable fraction of the general population in the US deny that climate change is caused mainly by human influences. Even more so as it seems to be a fraction large enough to be politically relevant.

I see that this question has a strong political connotation, which is opinion based. But that is not part of the question.

It is somehow culture-related, as it's different in Europe, at least in Germany.

I would expect it is a fringe group like people assuming a flat earth. There is a related, but different kind of group. People denying that the Holocaust happened. This has a strong political association to extreme right groups.

Is assuming flat earth and denying climate change the same kind of phenomenon?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. I think that answers to this question will be predominantly if not entirely based on opinion rather than fact which would be off-topic. Are you able to demonstrate that a scientific answer to this could be given? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Sep 1 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers I see that it has a political aspect, which is opinion based. But that is not the point of the question. I'll try to refine it. $\endgroup$ – Volker Siegel Sep 1 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ The sciences of Astronomy (flat earth) and Climatology (climatic history etc.) are different sciences, so can the two denied theories be part of the same problem? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Sep 1 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @StevenJeuris I think the basis for thinking the earth is flat is something like overly strong confirmation bias, combined with not trusting or understanding the basic concepts of science. Both reinforced by a strong interaction in a small group. If that is correct, the same mechanism could be the base of climate change denial, but with less intense psychological effects involved. The difference would be that climate change denial is less far fetched, so the mechanism does not need to be so strong. For this reason, more people can accept the idea if they are randomly exposed to it. $\endgroup$ – Volker Siegel Sep 2 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ I think this question has been good at pulling out some of the similarities; I think it's likely the differences are more political/sociological rather than psychological. For example, there aren't really any major economic interests to flat earth ideas; there are major economic interests in climate change denial (less thinking about the perspective of individuals, and more from the perspective of where information arises to influence individuals). $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Sep 3 at 0:26
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There is serious work on this, despite it being a political minefield. You're probably looking for Lewandowsky, et al. (2015).

If you want to get some distance from the issues of the day (and associated name calling) and into the mechanisms that drive this sort of phenomenon in general you might get more joy out of something like Cook & Lewandowsky (2016).

That will bring you into stuff like Hahn, et al. (2018). That's not directly political at all, but I think the relevance to your question is pretty strong. This is one of those fields that is exploding thanks to ever-better desktop computing, there's a ton of stuff that hasn't been tried yet! Hope you have some fun with it.

References

Cook, J., & Lewandowsky, S. (2016). Rational irrationality: Modeling climate change belief polarization using Bayesian networks. Topics in cognitive science, 8(1), 160-179. doi: 10.1111/tops.12186

Hahn, U., Hansen, J. U., & Olsson, E. J. (2018). Truth tracking performance of social networks: how connectivity and clustering can make groups less competent. Synthese, 1-31. doi: 10.1007/s11229-018-01936-6

Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E., & Oberauer, K. (2015). The robust relationship between conspiracism and denial of (climate) science. Psychological Science, 26(5), 667-670. doi: 10.1177/0956797614568432

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  • $\begingroup$ I have edited your answer for easier reading as it was hard for me to pick out the papers you were talking about from the body of your answer. Can I please suggest using a similar format to the preferred style - detailed in meta? It makes reading your answer more easier to follow. $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Sep 3 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ Oh right that is much better. Thanks for the edit, I'll follow the style guide next time. $\endgroup$ – steveLangsford Sep 3 at 14:57
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My best guess is that this kind of thinking is most similar to conspiracy theories, which can be created by a combination of confirmation bias, emotionally salient narrative, and overactivity in meaning and interpretation over facts and in critical thinking. Delving deeper into how conspiracy theories and paranoia work could provide some insight into the neurological mechanisms involved.

When we have a strong emotionally salient narrative in our minds, our brains are excellent at cherry picking exactly the right set of events and interpretations (of which there are infinitely many) to support our narrative while omitting or ignoring contrary data - to the point where even the most outrageous narrative can seem 'obvious'. The more intensely we cling to the narrative or idea, the more we will do this. So conspiratorial thinking is in a way a special case of extreme confirmation bias.

Conspiracies are usually in the form of a positive narrative. But extreme skepticism is a form of conspiracy theory. The reasoning: implied in this thinking is that Global Warming (or the Holocaust, or whatever is denied) is a conspiracy. Is some elaborate fabrication by some people with an ulterior motive.

Overactivity in centers of meaning and interpretation as opposed to facts seem critical to paranoid and conspiratorial thinking. Conspiracy theories and paranoia usually involve weaving a very strong and emotionally salient narrative subscribing negative intentions to powerful actors. Then reinterpreting facts and events with these negative intentions and the grand narrative in mind. Ex: global warming is part of a grand scheme for [person or group] to [establish world domination / make large sums of money / ruin our economy / etc] by [keeping us all in fear / making us invest in certain technologies / etc].

I see a very strong correlation between far right political orientation and conspiratorial thinking. However I also see some conspiratorial thinking on the far left.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. "Educated guesses" (guesses based on research papers etc.) are fine here but not when the guesses are not supported by research. Can you back your answer up with reliable sources of information? This is so that the answer can be independently verified, regardless of the reader's/answerer's background. If you still have trouble with this, feel free to visit the help center or Psychology & Neuroscience Meta. Unreferenced claims can lead to answers being deleted. $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Sep 3 at 9:46

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