How Science Denial Works: 2 Case Studies

April 29, 2020

Covid-19 denial is Climate denial in a test tube. We’re seeing it play out in real time.

Here’s how it’s done.

Find a contrarian talking point that is congruent with what right wing media messaging.

Launch on social media.

Get bumped to national dialogue with no standard journalistic vetting that another story might have to go thru.

It worked for Pizzagate.

Raw Story:

A pair of doctors who have been condemned by physicians across the United States for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 have become media stars thanks to exposure to Fox News.

The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reports that Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, the owners of a chain of urgent care clinics, have become celebrities among conservatives for their false claims that COVID-19 isn’t more deadly than the seasonal flu.

“At their press conference, the two doctors laid out a theory of a vastly reduced coronavirus mortality rate that would soon be trumpeted across right-wing media,” Sommer reports. “Citing a 6.5 percent coronavirus positive rate for tests conducted at their clinic in Bakersfield, California, the pair claimed that meant roughly 6.5 percent of the people in surrounding Kern County (with a population of nearly one million) must also have already had the disease. In Erickson’s telling, that meant the virus had only a 0.03 percent mortality rate in California, and was much less dangerous than the flu.”

The two doctors were subsequently invited on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show to discuss their purported “findings” — and now they’ve generated backlash from their fellow medical professionals.

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) put out a joint statement condemning them for spreading misinformation.

“These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19,” the organizations said. “As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health. COVID-19 misinformation is widespread and dangerous.”

Leah Stokes in Vox:

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. To celebrate the occasion, filmmaker Michael Moore dropped a new movie he produced, Planet of the Humans. In less than a week, it has racked up over 3 million views on YouTube

But the film, directed by Jeff Gibbs, a long-time Moore collaborator, is not the climate message we’ve all been waiting for — it’s a nihilistic take, riddled with errors about clean energy and climate activism. With very little evidence, it claims that renewables are disastrous and that environmental groups are corrupt.

What’s more, it has nothing to say about fossil fuel corporations, who have pushed climate denial and blocked progress on climate policy for decades. Given the film’s loose relationship to facts, I’m not even sure it should be classified as a documentary.

There are real tradeoffs in the clean energy transition. As a scholar, I’ve done my fair share of research and writing on those exact issues over the past decade. Renewables have downsides. As do biomass, nuclear, hydropower, batteries, and transmission. There is no perfect solution to our energy challenges.

But this film does not grapple with these thorny questions; it peddles falsehoods.

It’s not surprising that the film gets basic energy facts wrong and that information included is out of date: There are hardly any climate or energy experts featured.

Early in the film, Gibbs goes to see an electric vehicle demonstration. He concludes they are dirty because they probably run on coal. 

Except it’s not true. Two years ago, electric vehicles already had lower emissions than new gas-powered cars across the country. This is because the US electricity system has been slowly getting cleaner over the past decade.

The film’s wind and solar facts are also old. It quotes efficiency for solar PV from more than a decade ago. And it doesn’t mention the fact that solar costs have plummeted since then, and that we’ve learned how to get more wind and solar onto the grid. The film instead acts like this is impossible to do. 

The largest share of the movie’s scorn goes to biomass — generally, burning wood — which supplied less than 2 percent of the US electricity mix last year. But the filmmakers obscure that fact, showing graphs that imply biomass is leading to forest destruction across the US.

When Gibbs questions environmental activists about biomass, they tell him it’s complicated. Because, well, it is.

When we burn wood for electricity, we are using carbon that is already moving between our air, oceans, and land. By contrast, when we dig up and burn fossil fuels, we’re bringing carbon up from underground. That is how we got increasing carbon levels in our atmosphere and oceans. Burning fossil fuels, not wood, is the main cause of climate change. It’s a basic fact I teach to my undergraduates. But the filmmakers neglected to learn it.

That said, biomass can be — and often is — done poorly, with significant environmental harms. Scientists have raised concerns over the European Union’s incentives for renewables leading to wood being shipped from North America. Environmental groups, including theones pilloried in the film, have criticized the industry. But you wouldn’t learn any of these facts from watching Planet of the Humans.

Zeke Hausfather on Twitter:

One of the more pernicious claims in the new @jeffgibbstcand @MMFlint documentary is that renewables don’t make a difference to emissions because fossil fuels are still used. The US – where power sector emissions have fallen an impressive 33% – shows why this claim is false. 

Coal has been crushed in the US over the last 15 years, falling by nearly 50% from 2005 levels. It has been replaced by a combination of natural gas and renewables. A bit less than half of CO2 reductions we’ve seen has come from renewables, with the other half from gas. 

Overall electricity coming from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) has declined by 11% since 2005. And while gas replacing coal is not a long-term solution, is has driven emissions reductions even when methane leakage is taken into account:

5 Responses to “How Science Denial Works: 2 Case Studies”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    “And while gas replacing coal is not a long-term solution, is has driven emissions reductions even when methane leakage is taken into account

    This is only true when you compare the global warming potential (GWP) of methane on a 100-year scale without carbon feedback. But we know that we have only a few years time to keep global warming below 2°C. Hence we have to concentrate on the 20–year GWP:

    It’s not only Howarth et al who conclude that natural gas is no better than coal for mitigating climate change.

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    In his article -which isn’t a peer-reviewed study – Zeke Hausfather admits: “If leakage is higher than 3%, there are some periods in the next 30 years when gas will result in more climate impact than new coal plants.”

    Howarth et al estimate the increase in methane emissions from shale gas represents 3.5 % of the shale-gas production.

    Also see => Methane Levels Reach an All-Time High

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Super-fantastic lecture by Dr. Michael Farzan at Scripps on vaccine development for both the SARS-1 and SARS-2 coronaviruses.

    It gets into the weeds a bit but he’s tried to simplify it for a mass audience. It’s a little over an hour, and I’ve skipped some of the intro:

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