The man who spreads falsehoods in the Washington Post
My full conversation with Lawrence Gelman, the Texas anesthesiologist who is still buying ads spreading factually false claims.
Last month, HEATED reported that The Washington Post ran a full-page ad containing myriad falsehoods about the science of climate change. The article questioned if it was ethical for the Post, a trusted source of factual information, to profit from the spread of misinformation about a global public health crisis.
The Post didn’t speak with HEATED for the story beyond a brief e-mail statement. But the man who took out the ad did. Lawrence Gelman, a Texas-based anesthesiologist, told me he paid $25,000 to run the 1,421-word ad, which claimed falsely that “man’s combustion of fossil fuels has no effect on temperature or climate.” He also told me it wasn’t the first time he shelled out cash to get his otherwise unpublishable views published in reputable news outlets. In April, for example, Gelman purchased an ad in his local Texas paper claiming COVID-19 was “manufactured” by China.
It wasn’t the last time, either. On Tuesday, The Washington Post ran another full-page ad from Gelman—this one questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election results.
I assume he paid $25,000 for this one, too.
In light of Gelman’s new ad, today I’m publishing my full conversation with him from last month. I’m not sharing it because I want to promote Gelman’s inaccurate claims about climate science, nor because I want to see him personally ridiculed—though I understand both of those things could happen. I’m publishing it because I think it shows how effective the fossil fuel industry and its allies have been in their decades-long political campaign to get regular people to distrust peer-reviewed science, and how that campaign contributes to our current epistemological crisis.
America is “split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know—what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.” Folks often blame that split on Donald Trump, but it was politically expedient to deny reality long before Trump was president. The fossil fuel industry made it so.
When I talked to Gelman, I learned that we both value and want the exact same thing: to prevent the pain and suffering of millions. Our biggest difference is who we trust, and how we come to know things. When we spoke, I wondered how his thought process might have been different if a handful of powerful people had not decided to knowingly spread climate misinformation in order to maintain power—and if trustworthy news outlets like the Post hadn’t aided and abetted them.
People often ask me how I talk to climate deniers without getting mad at them. The simple answer is that they are not my enemy. If I could go back, I would ask Gelman more about the inspiration behind his thought process: who he gets his news from; who he listens to and trusts; who first told him that climate science was a scam. Those people are the manufacturers of our epistemological crisis. Gelman is simply their product.
Emily Atkin: I’m calling about the ad that you took out in the Post a few days ago. Was that you?
Lawrence Gelman: Yeah, that was me.
EA: I was wondering if you would tell me what spurred you to take out this ad, and if you've taken out others like it?
LG: I’ve taken out many ads, political ads, ads on the Roe v. Wade decision. And [climate change] is also one of my topics I’ve investigated. It kind of depends on the season. It's election time. I’ve placed ads around the country for different subjects which I have an interest in.
EA: Why climate change specifically?
LG: Because I think there's a lot of misinformation being spread around. If it was just a theoretical argument that wasn't going to affect my life, or the lives of other people, then fine—have your opinion and that’s that. But when you want to make national policy based upon assumptions which are unproven, that's something that needs to be looked at in a much more in-depth way.
There are so many truths and facts which are astounding, but people don't even seem to know basics. So I find it interesting that policies which have such a tremendous international impact can be based upon faulty science.
EA: There are a lot of assumptions and theories and unproven stuff out there, but there's also a lot of peer-reviewed science about about climate change and the detrimental effect it is already having on on the world.
EA: The Department of Defense, the Fed, everybody.
LG: Ok. Alright.
EA: So I'm wondering where the disconnect is.
LG: Well, I think most of the stuff that's written is just basically regurgitated from sources which are really questionable. I mean, you can start off with the fact is, do we even have the capability at our level of technology of determining what the global temperature is? What it was yesterday, or tomorrow, or the next or last year or 10 years ago? We don't. We don't have the technology.
We make certain assumptions based upon certain projections which are have no real basis. Essentially the technology that they're using is 300-year-old technology thermometers. They’re using thermometers spread out an average of 40,000 miles apart, almost none of them over water, which is 75 percent of the Earth. And they're projecting making calculations based on that. It's ridiculous that people fall for that.
But human beings tend to be a superstitious flock anyway. Our history is rife with superstition, controlling the way we we live. Whether it's interpersonal relationships and how we look at one another, there's so much superstition, nonsense and bias and emotion attached to it. That’s just what we are.
EA: I totally understand that. You're a doctor, right?
LG: Yeah. That’s right.
EA: I was just wondering if what you're saying is based on scientific papers that you've read, or if you have a background in atmospheric science?
LG: I mean, most climatologists don’t know what they’re talking about anyway. And if you don’t believe that, see how accurate they are with the weather in their predictions from one day to the next, let alone over 100 or 1,000 years. For the most part they’re not very good at what they do, what they’re supposed to do.
EA: So this is just a measure of your personal observations, your opinions?
LG: Yeah, but it's more than that. I’ve done a lot of study into it. Any logical person would wonder with the primitive methods that we have, how we can make these extrapolation. Well, we can’t. There’s too much politics in it, and not enough science. I don’t know where you are in all of this. I won’t go there.
EA: I mean, I'll be very honest with you. I approach climate change, as a reporter, from the perspective that the science is sound.
LG: Well, prove it.
EA: I would argue the burden of proof is on the person who does not accept the science.
LG: Did you read my article?
EA: I did.
LG: Is there anything within it which is factually incorrect? As far as the facts, is there anything factually incorrect?
EA: There are facts in it that are taken out of context, yes—like "The human body is made out of carbon, and we breathe carbon, and thus it can't be bad.”
LG: Are we not made out of carbon?
EA: We absolutely are made out of carbon, but that doesn't mean that too much isn’t bad. We’re made out of water, too, but if our bodies had too much water in them, we wouldn't be healthy.
LG: That wasn’t what I was getting at. I simply wanted to make that point that every carbon molecule in your body, in my body, at one time was in the atmosphere, that's all. Which is true.
EA: It is true. There is a push to restrict ads with false claims about climate science in newspapers. How many how many ads like this, specifically about climate change, do you think you’ve ran in papers?
LG: Over the years? A few. But I do find it kind of interesting that censorship is increasing throughout the United States. It's not as if I’m telling people go out and riot or create revolution.
EA: Well, I think it's because the science projects that climate change is going to kill a lot of people.
LG: What evidence do you have of that?
EA: Like thousands of scientific papers.
LG: Show me the evidence. No. If you’re saying we must do this and that because climate change is going to cause a certain damage to the world, prove it.
EA: There's a lot of scientific papers out there. It just sounds like you don't believe those papers.
LG: Well, prove it. No, no, no. Prove it. Clearly there have been a lot of lies by the environmentalists on this issue.
EA: Yeah but I'm not even talking about environmentalists, the Green New Deal or anything. I'm just talking about the science. I’m talking about the papers published in Nature, the papers published by the IPCC.
LG: Look, we can have a discussion or not. But if you’re going to throw those charlatans at me, and you believe them, then fine, that’s your right to do.
EA: I think we're just coming from different perspectives of the credibility of those sources. I consider them credible and you don’t.
LG: I don't consider Nature, or Scientific American, or the American Medical Association, or the Lancet, or the New England Journal of Medicine legitimate.
EA: You don't consider them legitimate.
LG: No, I do not.
EA: OK. Well then that makes sense why we have a disagreement.
LG: Well, yeah. We have... OK. I would guess that you’re… I don’t wanna go there.
EA: I’m happy to answer whatever question you have of me. It’s totally fine.
LG: No, that’s OK. I come from an era when critical thinking was important. And there’s very little critical thinking in the media today. It's all basically shot full of holes.If it weren’t shot full of holes, they wouldn’t censor it. But the very fact that it can be so easily proven to be false is why you have to eliminate any contrary opinion.
But once again, if there's a single fact in my ad that is not correct, it would be to my benefit to find out what that is, and I want to make sure that all my facts are correct.
EA: I'm happy to send you whatever I write. How much does it cost to take out a full page ad in The Washington Post? Is it expensive?
LG: Actually, they’re very nice about it, because I don't represent a political group or have a big organization. So they have a special rate. For the Democratic National Party or something, they charge like $80,000. But for me, because I'm just an individual, they're kind of nice about it, I admit it. It’s $25,000.
EA: Wow. That's still a lot of money for a regular person.
LG: Not insignificant. But not $80,000.
EA: It must mean a lot for you to proliferate this.
LG: It does. To be totally honest with you, I'm not thinking that there's going to be a big tsunami of opinion change. But I feel better about myself putting stuff out there, and maybe somebody smarter can come along and do a better job of it. But I don't want to be sitting on the sidelines when I think something wrong is being perpetrated.
The bottom line is, I think all the people who think that they're doing good on this issue, they're doing a bad thing. And it's going to hurt a lot of people. And a lot of people are going to die because of what these environmentalists are doing. What you’re talking about, that climate change is going to kill people; I’m saying what they’re doing in response is going to wind up killing a lot of people.
EA: Look, you probably aren't going to like what I wind up writing. I come from a perspective where I do think, based on the science I find credible, that climate change is going to kill people. I'll explain why, and if anything I empathize with your motivation, which is that nobody wants people to die. We just disagree on what’s going to make people die.
LG: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about it rather than just writing some screed attacking the ad itself. I'm sure you're not going to be sympathetic towards it. But that’s OK. I appreciate you at least listening to my side of this.
EA: I'll include what you said as much as I can. I appreciate you talking to me as well.
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From me and Fish — stay hydrated, eat plants, break a sweat, and have a great weekend!
Emily, you were MASTERFUL in how you interacted with Mr. Gelman. You found a point you could agree with him on, you were honest about your own point of view and that you had a disagreement with you - I could read how you disarmed him. I absolutely love that you let us into this report and I am so impressed by you. (I am a mediator and I often find this ability to empathize with someone with whom you disagree to be somewhat outside of the norm!)
I really do not know what to do with a medical doctor who states. "LG: I don't consider Nature, or Scientific American, or the American Medical Association, or the Lancet, or the New England Journal of Medicine legitimate.
One tends to view folks with this attitude as "cranks" outside the pale of civil society despite the words MD next to their name.
There are apparently a number of very wealthy "cranks" and perhaps that is the price of democracy but ever since our Republican Supreme Court decided that money spent on political communications is "constitutionally protected speech" the cranks can speak louder than the rest of the public including the scientists who publish "facts" in academic journals. The Supreme Court is their latest prize in the right wing war against public health and the environment. We need to recognize we are under existential threat to nature and we are part of the likely casualties.