War on science – the man at the center of coronavirus denial AND climate change denial

  • Published on March 23rd, 2020

What does the EPA’s proposal to censor science used in decision-making (published in the Federal Register last week), COVID-19 myths and misinformation, and climate change denial all have in common? (Besides the fact that their underlying conspiracy theories can all be tackled the same way?) Answer: Steve Milloy.

climate change deniers tom toles

By Climate Denier Roundup

As regular readers know, Milloy was a Big Tobacco lawyer in the ‘90s, during which time he and Chris Horner came up with a plan to prevent regulations on second-hand smoke. It was justified by a conspiracy theory that public health scientists are secretly communists out to destroy industry using “secret science,” a term tobacco lobbyists cooked up to describe public health studies based on confidential medical info. That plot failed, but when Trump was elected, Milloy, by then more a climate denier than tobacco shill, was put on the EPA Transition team.

And so after a few years of back and forth at the EPA, the “secret science” policy is now open to comment. UCS has a blog post about it and a public comment guide, so please take a minute to go let the administration know what you think about it.

Now that you’ve done your civic duty, you might be wondering about the coronavirus conspiracy theories we mentioned. What does that have to do with climate and science?

As you might have expected, Steve Milloy has been busily tweeting all sorts of nonsense about COVID-19. While Fox and Trump have turned from downplaying the threat to a slightly more serious response, Milloy has been steadfastly tweeting about “Big Climate Bedwetting” wants to use this as “an excuse to implement climate communism” and more to the point, about how “the public health establishment has been run by Democrats for 40 years.”

Milloy believes “it’s a mistake to hand the keys to the economy/society to the inept, guaranteed-paycheck & politicized public health bureaucracy,” saying that the 115 deaths  of “mostly elderly, sick people” isn’t worth the social isolation efforts we’ve belatedly made.

Three tweets in particular capture Milloy’s conspiracy theory, one that in all likelihood influenced Trump’s initial delayed reaction: First that “conservatives long ago abandoned the field of public health to incompetent and politicized leftist” because apparently “there aren’t even a handful of conservatives with a background in public health (vs. medicine, which is not equivalent).”

The second tweet links to a piece about the end of Small Government, where Milloy reiterated that “conservatives are allowing themselves to be led by the nose by political opponents masquerading as experts.” Finally he tweeted an image of a flock of sheep and a shepherd with the caption “conservatives being led by the leftist public health bureaucracy”

Obviously there are conservatives in public health. And if there weren’t, wouldn’t that be more the fault of conservatives for not caring about public health than some secret liberal plot to take over the world?

This kind of basic logical failing is why most all types of conspiracy theories, from climate denial to coronavirus to the Flat Earth theory, can be fought with the same set of critical thinking tools. Sensing that the time is key, debunking experts John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky released a Conspiracy Theory Handbook today. The handbook describes the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking with the helpful acronym “CONSPIR,” as well as debunking tips for pushing back on such thinking.

“When governments ignore science or promote conspiracy theories,” Cook said, “it puts the public in danger. We recently saw this when the Trump administration and other countries downplayed the threat of COVID-19, delaying desperately needed measures to contain the virus.”

Lewandowsky explained that they wrote the primer on debunking conspiracy theories because they “are not harmless fun—they harm society because they undermine trust in the institutions that matter the most in an emergency, such as federal agencies or public-health institutions.”

That’s exactly what we’ve seen Milloy doing for decades on end. And if he’s been successful in infecting President Trump with that anti-public-health-expert narrative, we’re unfortunately poised to see just how lethal conspiracy theories can be.

(Crossposted with DailyKos. Cartoon by Tom Toles the Washington Post; get his book on climate change co-written with Michael Mann, The Madhouse Effect.)

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