Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”


What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.



Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.


My Science Love Story

SAIFood Blog recently allowed me to take up a bit of their ‘online real estate’ to share my thoughts on storytelling and science communication. An excerpt:

“…the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection.”

“Sure, Cami. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? What’s your story?”

I’m glad you asked. This short, animated video documents my evolving ‘love story’ with science. And you might be in for a surprise. How that love affair started had very little to do with the science that was being done.

(story by me; illustrations by me; narration by me)

What’s your story? How are you going to tell it?

story of science

Ideological Bias & Social Survival: don’t get voted off the island!

My colleague, Bill, popped his head into my office one day with two words: “Ideological bias”. Then a few more: “What do you know?”

I shared some info with him. And I thought that I would share it with you, my reader.

ideological bias

Ideological bias is less of a ‘thing’ than it is a family of things. It is defined as a collection of ideas, or beliefs, held by an individual, or a group of people. Ideology and bias – together – are built upon commitments to and consistency of ideas usually in the form of promise, effort, money, beliefs, relationships.

Ideological bias is a part of a broader family of interconnected behaviors and biases.

  • There’s confirmation bias where humans like to seek out information that affirms their world views. If faced with (accurate) information that shakes the ground beneath ‘sacred cows’ (beliefs), one is more likely to retreat and follow information that supports a personal world view. And if that accurate information is delivered in a such a way that is received as a ‘personal affront’ (so, poorly communicated), we are left with a backfire effect that can push people even deeper into ideological spaces.
  • There is also identity protective motivated reasoning which reinforces personal standing in social groups. What dominates people’s fears today is social alienation. This kind of motivated reasoning protects people from this.
  • We also become solution averse (which is linked closely to both identity protective motivated reasoning and confirmation bias) where we just avoid workable solutions (like GE crops) because they do not resonate with our ideological bias or world view.
  • Biased assimilation might sometimes be involved (or appear to be involved) when identity protective motivated reasoning is at work. But because sticking to what one believes doesn’t always promote one’s status in one’s group, people will often be motivated to construe information in ways that have no relation to what they already believe. (Kahan looks at this / see his quote below).
  • Further complicating (polluting?) the environment is media bias wherein decisions by editorial staff and journalists shape news stories to suit political opinions. We see this in play out currently in ‘fake news’ or through ‘alternative facts’ (not to mention, our interconnected, social media-driven world just adds to all of this).

There are others: intellectual and emotional bias, political bias, sensory bias, social bias, and content bias. The list is endless. But a key underlying element to all of this is how personal networks become a very important ‘enforcement’ factors for and key outputs of ideological bias. Yale’s Dan Kahan says it best:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

struggle is real

Social networks are important to the human animal; for status, personal identity, and for survival. In our outreach efforts, we must seek ways to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their close personal networks – and compromise their identities.



The power of storytelling…

This Valentine’s Day, share the love… of a story. Paul Zak says so….

” Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the ‘neuroscience of the narrative’. According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust. Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy. Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.”


human mind

  • Humans love stories
  • We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
  • The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators

Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?

The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization.  They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).

The human brain LOVES stories!

Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to…

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“It’s all just pretend…” #predatorypublishing

If you have been keeping up with my blog posts of late, you will know that the issue of predatory publishing has been on my radar (see this and this). What is predatory publishing? Jeffrey Beall, founder and archivist at Scholarly Open Access defines it as:

“…[A]n exploitative open-access publishing business model that involves charging publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals (open access or not).”

The number of predatory publishers and journals has grown significantly over the past few years. A favorite journalist of mine, Tom Spears, has investigated this trend and the issue of predatory publishing extensively (and creatively, I might add) – often by carrying out elaborate ‘sting’ operations.  His latest ‘sting’ is recorded in this article he published in the Ottawa Citizen entitled:

This ‘predatory’ science journal published our ludicrous editorial mocking its practices

I won’t dig into tragically-comedic details of Spears’ latest story. Spears can tell it much better that I can. So, I encourage you to read the article. (Also, check out this clever post by Retraction Watch that summarizes Spears ‘social experiment’ and its results.) What I will do is recap the high-level key messages and pull some illuminating excerpts from the article:

  1. Scholars publish in these journals
  2. By default, scholars often end up on editorial boards of these journals (either knowingly or unknowingly)
  3. ‘Publish or perish’ pressures can misdirect young scholars into predatory publishing spaces
  4. …and, yes, there are predatory conferences, too.

Spears’ interviewed Jim Germida, executive editor-in-chief of Canadian Science Publishing (a legit science publisher, by the way) and vice-provost of faculty relations at the University of Saskatchewan (my alma mater happyface2). Spears quotes Germida:

“In overseeing appointments at [the University of Saskatchewan], …We have actually discovered people who have published in predatory journals or are sitting on an editorial board of one of these journals. And it can get them into big trouble for associating with an organization that is substandard or worse…”

“The other problem is there is the pressure of ‘publish or perish.’ It still exists,” and this pushes young academics to look for publishers, sometimes in the wrong places. Academics often argue they’re smart enough not to fall for predatory journals. Germida warns: “It is something all universities should be more aware of … I have seen cases of people being taken in,” and sometimes of people knowingly working with predatory journals.”

predatory pub germida2.png

You might think: Look, I’m not a scientist. I don’t work at a university. Who cares? I don’t have a dog in this fight.

Well, you might be surprised to know that you are affected by predatory publishing. Maybe not directly, but there are downstream implications for consumers when the science’s integrity is weakened in this way. Predatory publishers not only trick scholars that conduct sound research, they provide the channel for poorly conducted studies. Steven Salzberg articulates this well in his Forbes article dated January 3, 2017:

“On the surface, these publications look and act just like real scientific journals, but it’s all just pretend. The publishers of these journals presumably care more about their bottom line than about scientific integrity….[they] will create a never-ending demand for fake breakthroughs and science-y sounding studies that are built on a house of cards.”

Kevin Carey wrote a nice piece for The New York Times that exposes this weird world of “fakedemia” [my term]: “…within the halls of respectable academia, the difference between legitimate and fake publications and conferences is far blurrier than scholars would like to admit.”

As I stated in a previous blog post: “Scientific integrity is at risk. As scholars, we need to distinguish the good journals from those ‘other ones’. As consumers, we need to think critically about how science is represented in the media.”

Unfortunately, there continues to be a lack of awareness about this problem of predatory publishing across the board, from lab scientists (public and private sector) to downstream end users and consumers.  We need to spread the word. Sting operations, like the ones that Spears has commandeered, bring the problem to light through relatable narratives.


Beall, Jeffrey. (2016). Scholarly Open Access: Available online at: https://scholarlyoa.com/ [SOA website is down as of January 2017; service is no longer available]

Burdick, Alan. (2017). “Paging Dr. Fraud”: The Fake Publishers that are Ruining Science. The New Yorker. March 22.

Carey, Kevin. (2016). “A Peek Inside the Strange World of Fake Academia.” The New York Times. December 29th. Available online at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/upshot/fake-academe-looking-much-like-the-real-thing.html?_r=0

Giddings, Val. (2013) Peer Review – where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning! Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Available online at: https://itif.org/publications/2013/07/12/peer-review-%E2%80%93-where-you-thought-it-ended-that%E2%80%99s-just-beginning

Rennie, D. (2010). “Integrity in Scientific Publishing.” Health Services Research. June. 45(3). Available online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875766/

Rennie D., Yank V., Emanuel L. (1997). “When authorship fails. A proposal to make contributors accountable.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. Aug 20;278(7):579-85

Retraction Watch. Available online at: http://retractionwatch.com/

Ryan, Camille and John Vicini. (2016). “Why You Should Avoid Predatory Journals, Welcome Rigorous Review”. Forbes. Available online at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/06/30/predatory-journals/#410a888a5558

Salzberg, Steven. (2017). “Fake Medical Journals Are Spreading, And They Are Filled With Bad Science.” Forbes. Available online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2017/01/03/fake-medical-journals-are-spreading-and-they-are-filled-with-bad-science/#7d7b04ff68cb

Spears, Tom. (2016). “This ‘predatory’ science journal published our ludicrous editorial mocking its practices.” Ottawa Citizen. Available online at: http://ottawacitizen.com/storyline/this-predatory-science-journal-published-our-ludicrous-editorial-mocking-its-practices


In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

I just picked up Paul Bloom’s latest book “Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion”… I’m about halfway through (and enjoying it) and it reminded me of this blog post that I wrote last year: “In Her Shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations”…


Ruth's sensible footwear Ruth’s sensible footwear

Last month marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girls(Tim Firth). It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of “Ruth Reynoldson”.

Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently.  Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my…

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The slippery world of predatory publishing and what it means for scientific integrity

I clearly recall the first time I saw an article that I co-wrote in print in an academic journal. It was exhilarating. While I knew that the ‘real world’ (friends and family) would likely never read it, for me it was a visible, tangible record of my accomplishment and a signal to my peers that this young scholar had “arrived” in the academic world.


I’ve Been Published! For an academic, research is the daily work and publications coming out of that research are a public record of that research. Only when an article is published can others truly examine the research, critique the results and attempt to replicate it. Replication of research is the one of the main principles of the scientific method.

In a way, peer-reviewed publications are a form of currency and trade in academic circles. How often and what kind of journals you publish in becomes a gauge of your proficiency or ‘brand’ as an academic. It can play a huge role in one’s career advancement.

The quality of a publication is measured through citations and impact. How often an article is cited can be indicative of the substance of the work that one does or serve as evidence of follow-on or related research arguments or observations. The impact factor of a journal, itself, is a proxy for the relative importance of a journal in each field of work. The higher the impact factor, the more scholarly cachet an article published in that journal has (for more info, check out “Peer Review in 3 Minutes“).

The overarching objective for a scholar (say, a social scientist like me) is to impact policy in some meaningful way. In many cases, the work that scientists produce leads to important innovations that serve public good more broadly (think seatbelts, GPS, flu shots, or solar cells). Publishing such works is not only meant to be a record of public dollar investment in important research, it is also an important part of the value chain that brings new innovations to people that need them.

The Problem with Publishing 1.0 While academic journals are a very important part of the knowledge and innovation value chain, many have not (necessarily) been readily accessible for most people. They are often hidden behind user pay-walls. So, even if my dad or my sister wanted to read one of my journal articles, they probably couldn’t access it – even if I gave them a bread crumb trail (a URL, for example).

The promise of “open access” (OA) was hoped to remedy all of that with the assurance of accessibility for everyone. It certainly raised expectations for those of us that valued the whole notion of openness.

The Problem with Publishing 2.0 Yet this promising new world of easy online access and share-ability also cultivated a new and unsavory market for less trustworthy model known as “predatory publishing”. These publishers have questionable business models that spam scientists with emails enticing them to publish in journals that guarantee quick turn around in terms of the peer review process in exchange for a “fee” (see this).  Make no mistake, these publishers are in it for the money. (And with that money, predatory publishers are starting to buy up legitimate journals).

Two things come out of this:

  1. Predatory publishers attract authors with politically-driven agendas who understand the space and take advantage of peer-review shortcomings, and;
  2. They also trick good scholars into submitting good scientific works into spaces that ultimately de-value that work.

Why do I care? Two words: scientific integrity.


Back to my story and the first time that I saw one of my articles in print. Through appropriate peer review, my work had earned a place in reputable scholarly space that could be recognized, replicated, and further peer-reviewed. I was proud of that accomplishment. It was a mark of my research abilities and a signal to my peers as to the quality of my work.

Unfortunately, OA and its promise for accessibility has been blemished with the introduction and rapid growth of predatory publishing industry. Scientific integrity is at risk. As scholars, we need to distinguish the good journals from those ‘other ones’. As consumers, we need to think critically about how science is represented in the media.


Science is all around us. It is in architecture (in our homes and the buildings we work in), in the mechanics of our cars, and in the technology of cell phones. It is in our medicine and food and in how we produce both. If agenda-driven or poorly peer-reviewed science is making its way into downstream spaces of media and social media there are implications for society. This creates unnecessary barriers for socially and economically valuable innovations through misrepresentation of science and technologies.

When scientific integrity is at risk, so is society. We should all care.



Beall, Jeffrey. (2016). Scholarly Open Access: Available online at: https://scholarlyoa.com/

Giddings, Val. (2013) Peer Review – where you thought it ended? That’s just the beginning! Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Available online at: https://itif.org/publications/2013/07/12/peer-review-%E2%80%93-where-you-thought-it-ended-that%E2%80%99s-just-beginning

Rennie, D. (2010). “Integrity in Scientific Publishing.” Health Services Research. June. 45(3). Available online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875766/

Rennie D., Yank V., Emanuel L. (1997). “When authorship fails. A proposal to make contributors accountable.” The Journal of the American Medical Association. Aug 20;278(7):579-85

Ryan, Camille and John Vicini. (2016). Why You Should Avoid Predatory Journals, Welcome Rigorous Review. Forbes. Available online at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/gmoanswers/2016/06/30/predatory-journals/#410a888a5558

Retraction Watch. Available online at: http://retractionwatch.com/

White, E. (2011). “The Peer Review Process: Benefit or Detriment to Quality Scholarly Journal Publication.” Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology. Volume 13, Issue 1. Available online at: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1185&context=totem