Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Today’s disinformation economy was built on the lying techniques of Big Tobacco

Today’s disinformation economy was built on the lying techniques of Big Tobacco

Salon columnist Matthew Rozsa discusses the history of disinformation

The term disinformation is most commonly associated with the internet and social media posters spreading conspiracy theories, but when you really think about it, disinformation is actually just lying at an industrial scale.

While various authoritarian governments have used lying and propaganda forever, the history is crystal-clear: In the United States, the modern-day tactics of lying to the masses were invented in the mid-20th century by huge tobacco companies desperate to stave off federal regulation of their disease-causing products.

This is a history worth exploring because all of the disinformation techniques that Big Tobacco used have been subsequently adopted by fossil fuel companies to fight public accountability and then further adopted by Donald Trump into a political marketing program that is essentially a personality cult. 

Joining me in this episode to talk about the history of disinformation and the tobacco industry is Matthew Rozsa, he is a climate change journalist at Salon.com who’s written about Big Tobacco and propaganda and how its deceptive techniques were later adopted to oppose climate change mitigation policies.

The video of this discussion is available. The transcript of the audio follows. The conversation took place January 25, 2024.

Related Content

Audio Chapters

0:00 — Introduction

03:00 — The History of Disinformation in the Tobacco Industry

06:23 — Manufacturing doubt and building anti-epistemology

08:33 — Big Oil and American reactionaries adopted Big Tobacco's disinformation techniques

16:50 — How mainstream journalism's "both sides" paradigm facilitates disinformation

21:43 — False dilemmas can protect false beliefs

24:36 — Both tobacco and oil companies hid their private research on the harms of their products

29:34 — Donald Trump's nonstop cascade of lies is the continuation of this dishonest tradition

32:36 — Disinformation addicts mostly cannot be persuaded, so they must be opposed

Cover image: An advertisement for Camel cigarettes featuring the cartoon character Joe Camel

Audio Transcript

This is a rush transcript that likely contains errors. It is provided for convenience purposes only. Some podcast apps may truncate the text.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Matt.

MATTHEW ROZSA: Thank you for having me, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, the history that we're going to be talking about here today, I think, is a bit unfamiliar to a lot of people because advertising is kind of boring to everybody.

I think, to the extent people know about advertising in the 20th century, they think of Andy Warhol and that's about it. But there's a lot more there, and Mad Men only scratched the surface, I'm afraid. [00:03:00]

ROZSA: I would say if you're talking about Big Tobacco, you have to start in the early 1960s, when president John F. Kennedy was elected on what he described as a New Frontier platform, and he appointed people to positions of power that were idealistic and believed in an activist version of government. One of those people was the Surgeon General Luther Terry, and he became concerned about tobacco products in 1964 and in 1965. Because of his efforts and because of other investigations that validated his concerns, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 was passed and it mandated that warning labels had to be attached to cigarette boxes.

That should have been the end of it in terms of any pushback to the scientific consensus that cigarettes are linked to lung cancer and other deadly diseases. But tobacco companies [00:04:00] wanted to maximize their profits, so in the 1970s, they launched a campaign called Operation Berkshire. Operation Berkshire manufactured doubt, and that is a term that anyone who wants to study disinformation should familiarize themselves with—manufactured doubt.

They made it seem as if there were legitimate scientific disagreements about the risks posed by tobacco products, even though that was objectively not the case. They created organizations like the International Committee on Smoking Issues, which later changed its name to the International Tobacco Information Center.

They were very, very effective until 1994, when a Democratic congressman from California named Henry Waxman began an investigation of his own. He exposed Big Tobacco and there was a famous hearing on April [00:05:00] 16th of that year in which the executives lied under oath when asked if they knew that nicotine was addictive.

This is extremely important because all of these executives were in various ways later forced out of their industry. They suffered legal consequences. And in 1998, 46 states and the four major tobacco companies signed the Master Settlement Agreement, which stipulated that tobacco companies had to pay states 206 billion over 25 years, as well as take steps to reduce youth smoking.

That in terms of the story of big tobacco is still not the end of it, but that is where this becomes relevant when discussing other political issues, because other interest groups that want to do things which harm the public follow big tobacco's playbook. They use the same [00:06:00] tactics. They manufacture doubt rather than pat rather than even though they seem like they're presenting legitimate arguments.

These are synthetic positions that exist for the sole purpose of advancing the economic. interests of the fossil fuel industry and those who otherwise are financially connected to it.

Manufacturing doubt and building anti-epistemology

SHEFFIELD: Well, and so the term manufacturing doubt, let's talk about that a little bit more. What does that mean? And, and how does it work and how did it work for big tobacco in terms of what they were doing with big tobacco?

ROZSA: They. People, they paid scientists, they paid doctors, they paid activists to claim that the consensus about the dangers posed by nicotine products were either overstated or somehow questionable. And the reality is these arguments did [00:07:00] not come about through independent scientific research. These arguments, all of them were promulgated by Organizations that had an agenda that agenda was to make money for, in this case, tobacco companies and the public, which is not necessarily scientifically literate, doesn't know that when they read studies, they have to look for things like conflicts of interest that they have to not just accept that the byline is who that person says they are.

They have to do a little digging. They don't necessarily understand. It. Even what a lot of this jargon filled language really means that makes it easy for bad faith actors to pollute the public dialogue. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and, and also to do it and to use, people who have actual real scientific credentials to deliver disingenuous arguments that some of which may even be [00:08:00] true in a limited sense.

In other words, that. They may address one specific peripheral point. In regards to a scientific consensus but it's not in any way essential to it. So in other words, you might say, well, somebody, they might expose someone having fudged on some research, something, or, committed some plagiarism or something like that and claim, well, see, then this invalidates everything that the entire scientific community has saying about whether it's, tobacco and cancer or climate change or whatever.

Big Oil and American reactionaries adopted Big Tobacco's disinformation techniques

SHEFFIELD: That that's it's and the idea is basically to make it so that you can believe what you want and to destroy the idea of objective truth. Like, that's that's what's so ironic about this right wing. And I guess in their case, they weren't deliberately. It wasn't right wing originally in their case. But it ended up being that way.

But you know, originally what they're trying to [00:09:00] do is sort of. Create an anti epistemology, if you will, a framework in which knowledge is impossible.

ROZSA: I agree. I would also add to use to go back to something you said earlier. They will say something that has an element of truth in it, but presented in a way that intentionally confuses the issue to use 1 example when you're discussing climate change, the most important thing to know is that The primary cause of greenhouse gas emissions is humanity's use of fossil fuels for purposes like electricity generation and transportation.

That is the primary cause of the problem. That doesn't mean that there aren't other factors that contribute to climate change. 1 factor that deniers like to bring up is volcanic eruptions. I wrote an article for salon where I talked to experts about volcanic eruptions. They do, in fact. Play a [00:10:00] role in climate change, but to quote one of my articles, this one is called how much are volcanoes to blame for climate change?

And I wrote it last year. Flavio Lennar, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University told me volcanoes only emit small amounts of CO2 relative to how much humans emit today. Another possible factor of natural climate change are changes in solar radiation, but its fluctuations are too small to explain current climate change, plus it has been trending down since 1950, not up.

He then proceeds to list other naturally occurring climate change variables, and indeed, deniers will say, what about solar radiation? What about all of these things that arguably could play a role? And. In many cases, do all of that can be used to confuse people who aren't familiar with the science and convince them [00:11:00] that, well, reducing fossil fuels.

Is it necessary? Eventually eliminating fossil fuels? Is it necessary? Because we'll still have climate change. That is subjectively untrue. If humanity follows the path established in the Paris climate accords, we will you. Eventually see a improvement in this area. And that's what that's the point that I was making.


SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And, but to that, speaking of, sort of remedies that are proposed to, mitigate crises discovered by science. Part of the. You, you mentioned the, the plan that they had set up called Operation Berkshire. One of the things that they did later well, I guess let's let's go back to that.

And actually, maybe secondhand smoking is how we can do it. Because, because I mean, essentially, there were. There were kind of three phases, if you will, in terms of regulation of Big Tobacco.

One was [00:12:00] first, the first one was with children. And then the second one was with just establishing the link of cancer and publicly disclosing that. And then the third one was secondhand smoke. That was kind of the last domino that fell. So I'm just the reason why I want to focus on this a bit more and unpack it is that, I, I, I want to get into the relationship between the commercialized anti epistemology that we're talking about here, and then how. How that was then exported into other issues. That's, that's basically the intent of, of,

ROZSA: of the episode.

I, I see, I think I see, I mean, my answer to that question would be that the EPIs epistemologically, as you put it earlier, it's nihilistic. It's the idea that we can't have definitive answers to these questions, and therefore you may as well just accept the status quo. That in the case of Big Tobacco caused [00:13:00] people to doubt for it because if in the case of Big Tobacco, the psychological component of it is if people doubt whether we really know for sure that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, well, then I guess I might as well continue smoking and that same type of logic is applied in other areas.

Big Tobacco is not the area that I've studied in depth. My area in depth has been climate change. I know that the strategies that were applied back in the 1970s after the original implementation of these tobacco regulations have been used by other private companies. This includes fossil fuel companies that do not want climate change regulations to be implemented or in some cases even passed.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well and and there is a direct link here because These techniques were, they were pioneered by commercial nonpolitical actors, but the people who came up with them and the companies, the [00:14:00] marketing agencies and ad agencies that created them, they were also had clients in the, in the right wing activists fear.

And, and then as the Republican party, especially under Reagan became overtly obsessed with. Dismantling regulations and things like that. This became a natural fit for them and they and they did in fact. Get together and there were a number of, of organizations that were, being funded by big tobacco, such as heritage foundation and a number of other right wing groups that helped the launder of some of these messages especially as we got, into the into the nineties and, and eighties and, when, when the focus became on curbing secondhand smoking and things like that and so.

Yeah. I guess what, what, and then, of course, as you mentioned, that they, they took those same ideas into the climate change discussion as well. And so it's, it's an [00:15:00] interesting act, though, in a sense, though, because everyone wants to think that they are open minded. That they do their own research like that's it.

That is basically the paradigm that they were trying to tell you that big tobacco was using was that do your own research. You can believe what you want. You have the credibility and expertise. To dispute, a biologist who has been published in, 10 different medical journals more than they do because you have common sense

ROZSA: or and I find because I interact with more climate change deniers than I can shake a.

And the reality is they often will say, well, you have this scientist. What about this scientist? They don't. And then when you claim, well, my scientist is objectively correct. And your scientist is objectively incorrect. They make you seem like the unreasonable one. How can you claim that the matter is settled?

Why are you afraid of new ideas? [00:16:00] Why am I not allowed to just ask questions? This is the type of. Reasoning and on a superficial level, that reasoning makes sense on a superficial level. Yes, we should be open to hearing new ideas to being challenged to questioning even our most sacred precepts, but there is a burden on the people asking those questions.

And that burden is to have evidence based arguments. When you have scientists asking questions, not based on evidence, but because they're paid. By special interest groups to manufacture doubt, those arguments are not legitimate and should not be taken seriously. And when they are taken seriously, it makes it harder for the public to have intelligent conversations about these literal life and death issues.

How mainstream journalism's "both sides" paradigm facilitates disinformation

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, absolutely. And, and I think it's, it's something that, that point that you just made. [00:17:00] It's something that I think people who have who are politically progressive and well informed about issues understand that innately and, have a generalized and daily appreciation of that fact.

But I think it's a point that a lot of people who are not really political or don't pay attention to the news whatever their political orientation is. It's seems difficult to grasp and it's something that, it's related to the idea of this paradigm that, that they're seizing on and manipulating, it also exists in the news media as well.

This, this, the infamous both sides epistemology of journalism where no matter what the Republicans do or what they say, you have to just portray them as, a routine regular. political party and well, we got to cover what they're saying and put it on there. And not really fact check it or say anything contrary to it because that's not our job.

When in fact [00:18:00] it is their job and they are attacking you as a journalist every single day. I would argue. You hold your fire. Sorry,

ROZSA: I know I shouldn't I was interrupting, but I very enthusiastic because the point that I make about this in terms of climate change specifically is they they further manipulate people by pointing to the scientific method and arguing that those of us who acknowledge the evidence are somehow being unscientific by insisting that those who deny the Climate change and deny humanity's role in climate change provide evidence of their own.

That is the underline the bottom line that everyone needs to know in terms of climate change is that if humanity significantly reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, particularly climate Those that are linked to fossil fuels like carbon dioxide, we will be able to prevent a future [00:19:00] of intense weather disruptions, heat waves, droughts, food shortages, and other calamities.

This is what we're trying to accomplish. It is at its core. A pollution reduction problem, and we're not able to have an intelligent conversation about how to solve that problem because people who are profiting from the status quo are manufacturing doubt, creating doubt, not based on evidence, but based on evidence.

Flooding the zone with shit, to use an expression that was coined by someone, and I have heard before, it refers to the strategy of the It was Steve Bannon, actually. Steve Bannon? You knew who coined that? Yes, it's a good expression. I'm actually also thinking, because, one of the pivotal points in the history of manufacturing doubt for climate change was in 2003.

That was when President George W. Bush, at Vice President Dick Cheney's urging, fired [00:20:00] his Environmental Protection Agency head, Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman acknowledged that climate change was real, and although she preferred free market approaches to addressing environmental problems, she was not a science denier.

Cheney and the fossil fuel industry of which he was a part through his connection to Halliburton Wanted her gone and in 2003 when she was removed from power That was the tipping point at which the mainstream within the republican party Stopped acknowledging that human activity is causing climate change.

Before 2003, Republican presidents were not explicitly anti science. They preferred more conservative policy approaches to addressing environmental problems, but they didn't challenge the notion that scientific inquiry was in itself. Important. Now, there are millions of [00:21:00] people who distrust climatologists as a group, who distrust geologists as a group, who distrust whole branches of well established science that is based on centuries of research because philosophically it's incompatible with what they've been told to believe about climate change.

That is a form of mass insanity, is it not?

SHEFFIELD: It is, and one of the ways that they do that, and you, and you do talk about this, so, And just for reference we're, this discussion is built around two articles that you wrote for a salon, which will definitely be in the show notes. I encourage everybody to check those out after we're done here, but yeah, the

False dilemmas can protect false beliefs

SHEFFIELD: one of the, the techniques of, of creating this, thoughtless response in the to, to susceptible people is to create a false sense of urgency and to lie about mitigation efforts. And, and they did that [00:22:00] in the 90s when, when, when people were trying to say, look, secondhand smoking is, is killing people and giving them cancer they, they promulgated the idea that, well, you just want to ban cigarettes entirely and make them illegal.

And you're going to create this giant, massive black market and you're going to, create all these crimes and you're going to subsidize the mafia with this and et cetera, et cetera. And, and then they recycled the same thing today with regard to climate change policies to reduce carbon, claiming that it would create communism, that it would destroy the market.

And it's, they're, they're trying to create panic with people who don't really know anything about policy or or what would entail. And the reality is that, as the various renew deal proposals have demonstrated, these are not. Anti capitalist proposals that are being advanced.

And in fact, people would be given lots of money rather than having their [00:23:00] livelihoods taken away because people, because climate change activists understand that you have to make it possible for people to do this. So, yeah,

ROZSA: if I may, it reminds me of a quote from Dr. Michael E. Mann, a climatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who I interview frequently and in my article, the one that we're discussing about vice president Cheney and his role in. Creating this movement of misinformation, so to speak man said it was a harbinger of things to come because, of course, after this, the bad faith attack by Republicans on climate science has now metastasized to our entire body politic and to the very notion of fact based discourse.

That sums it up perfectly. Dick Cheney did not want Christine Todd Whitman as Bush's EPA head because her policies would cost fossil fuel companies money. And I do believe that fossil fuel companies are correct about one thing. [00:24:00] Eventually, we will need to transition entirely away. From use of fossil fuels, if you, if they do indeed acknowledge that the scientists are right, then they also have to acknowledge that their industry will need to be phased out.

But the question, the obvious question is what matters more their desire to make as much money as possible doing what they've been doing for decades, or the species of the planet needing to survive without the climate being changed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Both tobacco and oil companies hid their private research on the harms of their products

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and and there and there is another parallel between climate change denial and tobacco and big tobacco tactics earlier is that both of these industries had privately developed research, which showed that they were creating a problem for humanity through their products and they suppressed it and did not release it to the public. And can you talk about [00:25:00] that parallel? If you will.

ROZSA: Absolutely. And in 1994, as I mentioned before, there was a famous congressional hearing where seven members, the seven dwarfs, so to speak, of big tobacco were brought to Washington to discuss whether their products were addictive and they weren't.

Okay. Lied under oath, they perjured themselves. It was later proven through investigation that they had commissioned these inquiries, their own private studies into their products and knew through that independently financed research that their products were addictive. So when they told Congressman Henry Waxman that they did not think that their product was addictive, they were lying.

This was not a legitimate difference of opinion. They were saying something that they knew to be false. And today, with climate change denial, it's the same thing. When I wrote that article about Big Tobacco, I was inspired because because fossil fuel [00:26:00] executives were appearing in Washington. They were much better prepped than the tobacco executives were in 1994.

The purpose, though, was the same. Did they accept? The scientific facts, the fact that oceanographers and biologists and scientists from dozens of disciplines have, through their research, proved that the planet is getting warmer and that the primary cause is greenhouse gas emissions caught due to fossil fuels.

And it's very, very difficult, obviously, because that hearing was not watched. By most people, most people weren't paying attention, having done all of the research and so that they could call out the lies that were being spoken, but that's, I guess, where, as a journalist, it can be frustrating because I know people personally who are climate change deniers who will talk to me [00:27:00] about misinformation they read and act as if that misinformation is as valid as falsehoods.

The information that I received from scientists who spend years in the field, conducting research, having it peer reviewed, which means that, and that's what I think a lot of the public doesn't understand is that the peer review process, as long as it's done with integrity is very rigorous. It is you, there is no ideological agenda causing people to say that the earth is getting warmer.

These are scientists who just engage, go out. Do the research, bring it back, and then have to have it tested by other scientists to prove that it is worthy of being published.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and they also explicitly are testing alternative methods or alternative explanations for why phenomenon are happening. So it is the case, that not every single whether it's, insect population or erosion in an area or [00:28:00] whatever, like it's not always necessarily going to be because of climate change, whatever these things may be and but they are testing all of these alternative explanations when they're looking at something to say, well, why are there more of this particular species of grasshopper right now in this area?

What's happening? Where did this come from? And so they'll go and propose. Well, it's maybe this 1. Maybe it's this 1. Okay. And, but the research in many of these cases keeps coming to, well, the climate is changing for these, organisms or for whatever the natural phenomenon was, and that's just the reality of it.

Like you can, to your, I'm just underscoring your point there. You're, you're a hundred percent right with that and people it's it, but if you don't understand how science works and how it's made. It can seem like it's a conspiracy if you don't understand it.

ROZSA: I would also like to quote something. I actually had the privilege of interviewing christine Todd Whitman for salon for an article.

I wrote about centrism. I'll share the link with you [00:29:00] It was called where have all the centrists gone? And she said those who are yelling the loudest have gotten the microphone And those are the ones that get the attention of the press that Also succinctly encapsulates part of the problem when it comes to fighting misinformation is that they are the loudest voices and they are the voices which have the microphone.

In this case, the funding of special interest groups that want their agenda to prevail.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay, great. Let me click that.

ROZSA: So I love that. Okay, great.

Donald Trump's nonstop cascade of lies is the continuation of this dishonest tradition

SHEFFIELD: The techniques of disinformation, the, the methods of propagating it, the of spreading the idea of anti epistemology it's of course inherent in Donald Trump's entire shtick and his, especially in regards to his false claims about the 2020 election.

And, there are millions of, of, of right leaning people in the United States now that they want to desperately believe that [00:30:00] they themselves and their belief system are not linked to Donald Trump. And what he's done inside the Republican party, that they think that he did this uniquely and just sort of came out of nowhere and made everyone in the Republican party insane. But as we're, we've been talking about today, like all of this has just built upon each other that once you've established that nothing can be true, that expertise is not real, that academics and scientists are lying to you.

Then anything is possible. Anything can be true. Any belief can be you can believe whatever you want. And so that's why to this day, a majority of Republicans now believe that Donald Trump. Did not lose the 2020 election, and now we've reached the point where they believe that the January 6th Capitol invasion, the only invasion and refusal to concede peaceful transfer of power in American history was somehow Not inappropriate.

That is the Republican belief. [00:31:00]

ROZSA: I'm glad that you drew that connection because I think it's not, it's not only not a coincidence in one in ways you can understand one better through comprehending the other to understand how people can see footage of. These rioters pouring into the Capitol footage of Ashley Babbitt trying violently to murder the vice president of the United States, footage of, of police officers being abused.

And somehow they'll just buy what a right wing media outlet tries to sell them through manipulated edits as an alternative reality. It speaks to an almost cravenness, a craven disregard for the truth. And once you understand that they want to not accept reality, it suddenly is a lot easier to comprehend how they can deny [00:32:00] Thousands of scientists and their research and deny what thousands of politicians, their own elected officials experienced because they want to believe that Donald Trump isn't a would be despot and they want to believe that they can continue using fossil fuels in the ways that they find pleasurable without it harming the planet and damn anyone who will tell me not to drive to the polls in an SUV on November, 2024 and vote for Trump. Yeah.

Disinformation addicts mostly cannot be persuaded, so they must be opposed

SHEFFIELD: Well, so what are you thinking that are for people who are aware of what's going on in this regard?

Have you given any thought about, what can be done to sort of counteract this anti epistemology? And

ROZSA: I have spent a great deal of time pondering that question because I. Like I said, I know a lot of people who are right wing. I care about them. [00:33:00] I don't think that they are bad people. I just think that they have been misinformed.

But pride is a very difficult barrier for most to overcome. And at this point, my I'd say that the goal of most journalists in the climate change field is to just present the scientific reports as they come in as accurately as possible in a way that is accessible so that people who understand the problem are up to date with their information and people who are on the fence or just uninformed can receive accurate information. For the people who already swallowed the misinformation and only crave more, there is no hope. So we just have to create a political coalition large enough that their bad ideas don't lead to bad policies.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that that is That's [00:34:00] probably right. Especially because a lot of, the, the population just from a, from a age standpoint, I mean, the, the only age group that Donald Trump won in 2020 was people who were who were 55 and older, if I remember right, and or 65 plus and so, when you get to that age.

It's really hard to change your ways. Most people have gotten to that point and feel like they have figured everything out, that they know everything about the world. I mean, there's, there's, it is an irony, an unfortunate irony of society that people mock, correctly mock teenagers for thinking they know everything, but They also do not recognize that the elderly don't know everything either.

And are just as prone to being as arrogant and in that regard.

ROZSA: I would also add that there are many young people who are aspiring to leadership on the right. People like Vivek Ramaswamy, who is a climate change denier. He is from our generation. He was born in [00:35:00] the 1980s, like you and me, but. His ideas sound like something that a crotchety old grandpa who watches Fox News 12 hours a day would spout.

He is, he is, he is an octogenarian climate change denier in the package of a slick young millennial. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so, and and there is some, some there's, there is hope to be derived from the fact though, that generation Z in having been faced with the horrible circumstances that, the, the Trump voting elders have created for them, that they are now.

voting in self defense in percentages much higher than any other generation before them.

ROZSA: My concern though is when will it be too late? Because, and I, I, I often joke that I feel [00:36:00] like I live in. A sci fi movie, but it's an apocalyptic disaster film, which is never the genre you would want to live in.

And 1 of the themes of those films is that there is a countdown. And in this case, although we don't know exactly where we are in that countdown, there is a countdown. Once temperatures go beyond 1. 5 degrees Celsius above industrial levels, it is going to be much harder. To prevent a lot of the climate change related damage that will then occur, or at least mitigate its effects.

There is a threshold that we are close to hitting, and I'm not sure Generation Z is going to have enough time to turn things around and fix the mistakes that their Trump voting elders made. I feel horrible for them. All of their anger toward us, very justified.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, no, that's true. And, [00:37:00] and I guess, and we were talking before we were recording that, I think the other, that re that reality with both climate change, but also other issues like gun safety and things like that or police reform, these are all issues that are directly, directly impacting younger people much more than people who are older than them and the, the, the right wing basically in, in a lot of ways, humans, we have kind of been stuck in sort of the controversies, the philosophical controversies of the, the early 20th century and never gotten past them. Whether it is, people refusing to, believe that human beings evolved.

I mean, that to this day. remains in the United States, unfortunately, a controversial assertion in the views of many people. And like, even now, like in states like Oklahoma and others, they They mandate that textbooks have things in them that say [00:38:00] something like, well, evolution is just a theory it is, it needs, it needs more research to determine where did life originate and and I'm trying to remember what the exact verbiage is, but I'll, I'll find it later, but yeah, like it's, it, it just, they, they, there's this sort of continuing cycle where the right is sort of, it, Advancing Nietzschean nihilism and the American left and population at large never discovered existentialism, which is the antidote to it.

ROZSA: I think that is an excellent point. In our prerecorded conversation, I also discussed the politics of aesthetics that is used by fascists, where they convince the working class to. Engage in artistic displays and performances and met modes of self expression that are indeed satisfying, but that don't in any way, substantively address the underlying social and [00:39:00] economic problems that have caused their suffering in the first place.

That is the essence of fascist politics is to use this and then weaponize it. to help right wing dictators rise to power. That's the formula that they use. I would say what concerns me about the climate change issue specifically is this is one where denying the truth could radically alter the planet itself.

To return to what you said about evolution versus creationism, obviously the creationists are just as anti science as the climate change deniers. But the stakes are lower because the species does not risk being significant is suffering billions of deaths and a radical civilization altering series of intense weather occurrences because people don't want to admit that humans evolved from monkeys.

The stakes are lower. That doesn't mean that science is any less poor, but the stakes of the misinformation being promulgated are much lower.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, [00:40:00] that's true. Yeah. And I think that is unfortunately one. Problem with the, the, the moment that we live in where, in the past, the, the false beliefs, you, there, there, there weren't, there, there was, I think early, in the earliest stages of human history, if you believe, that diseases were caused, by being unholy or, whatever, whatever random thing that could be harmful to you but then as we sort of, you Achieve some sort of rudimentary medical science.

Most people seem to get on board with that, right? They, they understood, you don't see almost anybody challenging germ theory, for instance, or, or things like that. And so the stakes for false. Scientific beliefs went down drastically because, Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster or, aliens or Area 51, that didn't affect you in any way, whether you believe that was true.

If you believe that, the CIA shot [00:41:00] JFK, even like that didn't really. Impact your life or the rest of the society.

ROZSA: But then you have the anti science rhetoric that emerged during the worst days of the COVID 19 pandemic. People would refuse to get vaccinated. People would refuse to wear masks.

I always focused on the anti masker ideology because the anti vaccine ideology again. anti scientific, I under, vaccines are complicated enough that I can comprehend how someone might struggle to understand how vaccine platforms actually work. Especially mRNA as well. Yes, but by contrast, wearing a mask, it's obvious.

That's why when you sneeze, you cover your hand, your nose and mouth because you don't want your snot. Spraying germs everywhere. It shouldn't require a PhD in biology or infectious diseases to understand why you should wear a mask to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses. Yet a lot of people [00:42:00] began arguing that I don't need to wear a mask.

A mask, the scientific literature says masks don't even really help. And you shouldn't require scientific literature to tell you that masks help. What does it say about people's Ability to comprehend reality. And the answer is most of these anti maskers are right wingers. They're part of what one friend of mine refers to as the right wing griftosphere.

And they don't accept that they can be duped into ignoring the evidence before their very eyes about something like wearing a mask to prevent the spreading of respiratory illnesses, because their ideological masters tell them to believe. And that extends to climate change, to the 2020 presidential election, to any, to cigarettes and lung cancer, any number of subjects.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and just on that point it is interesting that Republicans in the let's say 90s or in 2000s [00:43:00] were just as likely as Democrats to support vaccines. Actually and so they, but they became more radicalized on this point because. Their media told them to do it. They, they tell them what to believe.

And while also telling them that they're independent thinkers. I mean, that is the horrible irony of this.

ROZSA: They define an independent thinker as someone. It becomes a brand. It becomes a brand that is disconnected from the objective meaning of the phrase independent thinker.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, they became a herd of independent thinkers with all the same ideas.

ROZSA: They did indeed. They did indeed.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, it's been a good discussion here today. Matt, Matt let's well, we already got up on the screen. So let me say that again. All right. So it's been a great discussion today, and I hope the audience has enjoyed it as well. And for people who want to keep up with you, [00:44:00] you are on social media at Matthew Rocha.

And if you're listening, that's M-R-O-Z-S-A. And and I guess they can get you on salon. com as well. Right?

ROZSA: They can indeed.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Awesome. All right.

ROZSA: Thank you, Matt. I appreciate this. This was a lot of fun. I appreciate you having me on. I'm looking forward to seeing this go up.

SHEFFIELD: All right, so that is the program today. I appreciate everybody for joining us for the conversation. And you can always get more of this program if you go to theoryofchange.show. You can get the full video, audio, and transcripts of all the episodes. And I also do encourage everybody to visit flux.community.

Theory of Change is part of the Flux media network. So go to flux.community for more podcasts and articles about politics, religion, media, and society and how they all interact and affect each other.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.