From 'Smoking Doesn't Kill' to Conversion Therapy—Mike Pence's Most Controversial Science Remarks

Vice President Mike Pence was selected to lead the country's response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak during a press conference on Wednesday, in spite of a rocky reputation when it comes to health related matters.

In response to Trump's decision to name Pence "Coronavirus Czar," Brian Schatz, a Democratic Senator for Hawaii, tweeted some of the most anti-science opinions voiced by the VP over the years, from rejecting climate science to saying smoking does not kill.

Mike Pence is for conversion therapy. Mike Pence said smoking didn’t cause cancer. Mike Pence doesn’t believe climate science. Mike Pence questioned whether or not condoms worked. So, 😬

— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) February 26, 2020

Here are a few of Pence's most controversial science remarks.

"Smoking doesn't kill"

"Time for a quick reality check," Pence wrote in an op-ed back in 2000. "Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill."

He then went on to list smoking-related statistics: Two out of three smokers do not die from smoking-related illnesses. (False—it may be the opposite: two in three smokers die as a result.) Nine out of ten do not get lung cancer. (It makes it 15 to 30 times more likely you will.) But he did add "smoking is not good for you" and suggested those "reading this article through the blue haze of cigarette smoke" should quit.

The scientific consensus, as per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC): "Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death."

Condoms are "very poor" protection against sexually transmitted diseases

Pence has been very vocal about his preferred method of contraception: abstinence. In 2002, he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN, "condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted disease."

According to Snopes, the comment was made in response to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's advocation for condom use. Pence told Blitzer "the only truly safe sex" is "no sex."

According to the CDC, "correct and consistent use of the male latex condom is highly effective in reducing [sexually transmitted disease, STD] transmission." Though it might not offer 100 percent protection, condoms are the only form of contraception that can protect against STDs as well as pregnancy.

"Only the theory of intelligent design" provides a rationale explanation for the universe

In a speech to the House of representatives in 2002, Pence told politicians: "I also believe that someday scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rationale explanation for the known universe."

During the speech, he "humbly" urged legislators to "consider teaching other theories of the origin of species," saying evolution is just a theory.

His view: "The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female. He created them. And I believe that, Mr. Speaker."

More recently, he has refused to state point-blankly whether he does or does not believe in evolution, telling MSNBC host Chris Matthews: "Do I believe in evolution? I embrace the view that God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that's in them."

Evolution may be described as a "scientific theory" but as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) explains, the formal scientific definition of a theory is different from the layman's use of the word. It is used to describe "comprehensive explanation" of a natural phenomenon upheld by "a vast body" of evidence.

On the theory of evolution, NAS states: "Many scientific theories are so well-established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially... the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence."

That is not to say our understanding is not continuing to tweak and improve with the accumulation of more scientific research.

Mike Pence Colorado Rally
Vice President Mike Pence speaks to supporters before President Donald Trump took the stage during a Keep America Great rally on February 20, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty

Climate change is a "myth" and actually the planet is "cooler than it was 50 years ago"

In an old op-ed, Pence wrote: "Global warming is a myth. The global warming treaty is a disaster. There, I said it."

According to Pence, warnings about climate change were a "'chicken little' attempt to raise taxes and grow centralized governmental power." He went on to claim "the earth is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago."

It is true that the piece is a few years old but at the time Pence was writing, climate scientists had confirmed: "continued accumulation of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would lead to climate change whose rate and magnitude were likely to have important impacts on natural and human systems."

At the same time, fossil fuel giants were funneling huge sums into lobbying to cast doubt around the science—despite the fact that they had (secretly) known about climate change for years.

Even today, Pence refuses to answer questions on climate change.

Resources should be directed towards institutions that "provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior"

According to Snopes, Pence hasn't outwardly expressed his support for conversion therapy, but he has advocated for programs offering assistance to people looking to change their sexual behavior—which many have argued is a coded encouragement for conversion therapy.

In 2000, he called for Congress to limit support for institutions helping patients living with AIDs to those that discourage "behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus."

In full, he wrote: "Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior."

There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the practice of conversion therapy—which attempts to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ+ people either psychologically or spiritually—and it has been discredited by the vast majority of medical and mental health organizations, who say the practice can be dangerous.

However, it continues to be touted by some social conservatives as a valid "cure" and there is evidence that it is routinely being used as a "treatment" to cure non-hetero sexuality, including a 2018 report from The Williams Institute, UCLA.

"America has the cleanest air and water in the world"

Last year, the Vice President told Jake Tapper on CNN: "America has the cleanest air and water in the world."

Tapper replied: "That is not true. We don't have the cleanest air and water in the world. We don't. You get back to me with statistics to show it."

President Trump has also hailed America's air as "the cleanest air in the world" but the stats don't back this up. According to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Australia and Barbados tie for the accolade, being the two countries with the cleanest air. The U.S. comes in tenth place, three places behind its "baseline rank."

The EPI measures a number of economic indicators, including "water and sanitation" and "air pollution" where the U.S. comes in 29th and 83rd respectively.

The solution to the HIV epidemic: "Pray on it"

When his state was facing an HIV outbreak between 2011 and 2015, then-Governor Pence chose to "pray on it" rather than introduce a needle exchange to limit its spread—as recommended by health officials.

He eventually caved, calling the situation a "a public health emergency," but the delay resulted in substantially more infections. According to a study published in The Lancet, the outbreak could have been avoided if elected officials had taken action sooner.

It's also been pointed out that Pence and others' mission to shutdown Planned Parenthood, one of the leading HIV testing centers in the state, contributed (if not led to) to the outbreak in the first place. In 2013, the county affected (Scott County) lost the only provider offering free HIV testing.

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