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We Must Face Down the Expanding Anti-Reality Industry

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The U.S. is bracing for another summer of powerful storms and wildfires, on the heels of an unusually warm winter and spring, and the monthly shattering of ocean heat records. Beyond the now-annual threat of smoke that last year blanketed the nation, a thickening haze of lies also looms—about everything from global warming and wildfire smoke to abortion and racism. To break through the dense fog of propaganda on media and social media, those who value scientific integrity will need to expose and rip apart the increasingly interconnected fantasies spun by the anti-reality industry.

With the presumptive Republican presidential nominee falsely calling climate change a “hoax” invented by China, a former tobacco and coal lobbyist brazenly lying to Fox News viewers that last summer’s dense wildfire smoke posed “no health risk,” and an Alabama court redefining frozen embryos as “children,” the consequences of indulging decades of antiscientific agitprop are clear. Conservative think tanks and lobbying groups have spent tens of millions to push false messaging and draft restrictive laws around abortion. The false messaging has included lies about its prevalence, basic biology and reality in women’s lives. To energize far-right voters, these groups have attacked transgender health care with the same playbook, yielding more than 400 anti-trans laws in 2024 alone. They’ve demonized vaccines and masks, minimized harms from tobacco and wildfire smoke, and denied the realities of climate change and COVID. In the classroom, where many anti-reality crusaders have long fought against the teaching of evolution, they’ve expanded to banning books about race, sexual orientation and gender identity, while attacking global warming education.

Overcoming the mounting harm from the parade of con artists gaslighting the public won’t be easy. More scientists and journalists must help clarify how right-wing ideologues have twisted science and weaponized anti-reality. Ongoing efforts, though, are already revealing the radical motives of such extremists, who share sophisticated ploys, influencers and, often, deep-pocketed funders.

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Meredithe McNamara, a pediatrician at Yale School of Medicine, describes denying reality as one of the main “disinformation playbook” tactics: “The first move is, if you want to ban some sort of care or advance a toxic policy, then deny that the condition for which care is sought even exists, or make false claims about it,” she told me. Denying the existence of dangerous pregnancies or gender dysphoria, directly parallels the denial of COVID, systemic racism and air pollution.

A 2020 analysis by the climate change-focused journalism site DeSmog revealed that climate denialists share extensive overlaps with those “spreading COVID misinformation, touting false cures, ginning up conspiracy theories and fomenting attacks on public health experts.” Activists affiliated with the Heartland Institute, an oil and gas industry–funded booster of climate denialism, repeatedly attacked COVID public health measures. Some have woven those threads into a wild conspiracy theory about a plot by “eco-radicals” to restrict personal freedoms. Conservative scholars at the even more influential Heritage Foundation, also funded by oil and gas magnates, have misleadingly portrayed COVID and climate models as highly sensitive to “assumptions,” and suggested that climate model advocates “often try to beef them up to satisfy an agenda.”

With a key assist from dark-money gas industry groups that have refused to reveal their donors, affiliated foundations, and lobbyists, some global warming disinformation has taken the form of outright gaslighting. Ohio and Tennessee, for instance, have passed laws that redefine methane—one of the most potent greenhouse gases—as “clean energy.” In Tennessee, the new law requires public utilities to treat natural gas, primarily made up of methane, as a “permissible source” of clean energy, despite study after study warning that soaring levels of methane in Earth’s atmosphere are contributing greatly to global warming.

A recent Society of Environmental Journalists workshop on combating climate and science disinformation detailed how largely meaningless terms like “certified” natural gas, redefinitions of existing terms (like expanding what can be called “clean energy”), and ads disguised as editorials have all been designed to deceive and mislead. The idea that we’re each entitled to our own facts benefits bad actors polluting the public discourse, said University of Pennsylvania climatologist Michael Mann, who spoke at the workshop. It’s not that there’s a deficit of information, he said; rather, there’s a surplus of disinformation.

The financial motivation for oil- and gas-funded climate deniers may seem clear. Their assaults on ever-widening swaths of scientific evidence, though, suggest a more dangerous alignment with far-right goals. Gutting government oversight except in defense of the traditional nuclear family is a strategy spelled out explicitly in documents like the Heritage Foundation–led Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership, a guidebook to the goals of a second Trump administration. It would slash multiple agencies, ranging from NOAA to the Department of Education, and sharply reverse decades of U.S. climate policy.

Francesca Tripodi, a senior researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, says one goal of repeating the myths and disinformation is to activate “deep stories” that are told so often that they feel true. Science has long been distorted to push the racist narrative that Black people are inferior, for example, thereby justifying their enslavement and subjugation while perpetuating the myth of white supremacy. More recently, that narrative has extended to vilifying the Black Lives Matter movement and diversity, equity and inclusion programs as being themselves discriminatory.

Far-right activist Christopher Rufo, who once worked for the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, has repeatedly trotted out the disingenuous narrative that educators should teach diverse viewpoints in the supposed interest “of reasoning toward truth,” while recommending a newsletter that promotes scientific racism and eugenics. Simultaneously, he has led a crusade against academic fields and ideas he opposes, like gender studies and critical race theory, and incited a cynical moral panic by reinforcing a “deep story” that portrays drag queens and transgender individuals as sexual predators.

Fox News has aided the effort by helping to resurrect and amplify the long-debunked homophobic slur that LGBTQ+ people are pedophilic “groomers.” The stubborn lie has now become a one-word mantra providing cover for anti-trans and antigay laws. Some far-right activists have even begun pairing the “groomer” slur with words like “contagion” or “social contagion.” Many of the same peddlers of disinformation, like Fox’s Laura Ingraham and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia, repeatedly minimized the actual contagion of COVID—remorseless dishonesty that arguably contributed to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths among Republicans in the pandemic.

In her book The Propagandists’ Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy, Tripodi describes how propagandists further sway the public through an “IKEA effect” whereby false information can be self-assembled from separate parts. Savvy pundits and politicians appropriate or create keywords and phrases—like “woke-ism” and “groomer”—that they tie to false narratives. By widely disseminating the keywords, the storytellers can embed them in search engine results. Researchers have found that the top results for “abortion pill” commonly spread misinformation and disinformation. In other cases, fossil fuel companies have spent heavily on Google ads that resemble search results.

Someone urged to “search for it yourself” is more likely to find a top result that conveniently reconfirms the desired narrative. Tripodi said the DIY “discovery” increases the value of the information seeking—like a chair you assembled on your own—and reinforces the story’s ring of truth.

About six months after the first COVID vaccination, anti-vax propagandists including then Fox News personality Tucker Carlson seized upon the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) for another burst of DIY disinformation. This early warning system allows anyone to report a death or potential vaccine side effect, making it unvetted crowd-sourced data. Carlson mischaracterized VAERS’s unverified initial reports as evidence of deadly vaccine harms. In reality, a subsequent evaluation actually found a lower risk of non-COVID-related death among vaccine recipients.

“It’s not just antiscience, because many of these groups are backing their claims with what seems to be scientific inquiry,” Tripodi told me. Her colleague Daniel Kreiss, principal researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, called it “performance of science in an effort to claim legitimacy” in a separate interview. The performance artists aren’t particularly concerned with adhering to scientific principles in their own work. Instead, they are weaponizing the process of academic peer review to raise doubt and delegitimize perceived opponents.

Anti-reality activists are also weaponizing a principle of journalism—to tell both sides of a story—to advance their message. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the largest professional association of pediatricians in the U.S., has joined every major medical association in supporting the use of gender-affirming care for transgender and gender-diverse children and adolescents. The similarly named American College of Pediatricians, in reality a far-right think tank for antigay, antitransgender and antiabortion activists that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group, has masqueraded as a reputable peer of the academy and demanded that its evidence-free claims be taken seriously by journalists in the name of “balance.” Likewise, the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, another strategically named front group, has joined the anti-trans crusade while leading the effort to ban the abortion pill mifepristone in a Supreme Court case by questioning more than 100 studies affirming the pill’s safety. Far too many press accounts, though, have enabled deception by amplifying false assertions, engaging in performative “objectivity” and platforming extreme ideologues as good-faith experts.

If manufacturing doubt about well-established science sounds familiar, that’s because it was honed for decades by the scientists and lobbyists employed by tobacco and fossil fuel companies and memorably described in Merchants of Doubt by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

Understanding the tactics used to spread disinformation could help disrupt the storyline, Tripodi told me. Unmasking the motives of snake oil sellers also might reduce some of their clout. Simply fighting their lies with data, however, may be a losing proposition, especially when they insist that they too deal with facts, not feelings, while doing the precise opposite.

Kreiss said elevating the voices of conservatives who support the science of global warming or gender-affirming care may be another way to scramble politicized narratives with a memorable counter-frame. Emphasizing the public health crisis that can result from bans on evidence-based care, such as endangering women and increasing the risk of suicide among transgender youth, also might provide an effective rebuttal. In particular, Kreiss says, getting people to talk publicly about what they or loved ones lost after being conned by false narratives can help drive home the very real and often very personal costs of all the lies.

To help clear more space for honest science-based conversations, we must find the courage to call out the peddlers of anti-reality, challenge the merchants of doubt and cut through the haze of polluted public discourse.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Source : Scientific American

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