April 30, 2021

The Antiscience Movement Is Escalating, Going Global and Killing Thousands

A sign held at the March for Science in San Francisco, California, on April 22, 2017. (Photo: Matthew Roth/flickr/cc)

Rejection of science and medicine has become a key feature of the political right in the U.S. and increasingly around the world.

By Dr. Peter Hotez
Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology
Baylor College of Medicine

Antiscience has emerged as a dominant and highly lethal force, and one that threatens global security, as much as do terrorism and nuclear proliferation. We must mount a counteroffensive and build new infrastructure to combat antiscience, just as we have for these other more widely recognized and established threats.

Antiscience is the rejection of mainstream scientific views and methods or their replacement with unproven or deliberately misleading theories, often for nefarious and political gains. It targets prominent scientists and attempts to discredit them. The destructive potential of antiscience was fully realized in the U.S.S.R. under Joseph Stalin. Millions of Russian peasants died from starvation and famine during the 1930s and 1940s because Stalin embraced the pseudoscientific views of Trofim Lysenko that promoted catastrophic wheat and other harvest failures. Soviet scientists who did not share Lysenko’s “vernalization” theories lost their positions or, like the plant geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, starved to death in a gulag.

Now antiscience is causing mass deaths once again in this COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in the spring of 2020, the Trump White House launched a coordinated disinformation campaign that dismissed the severity of the epidemic in the United States, attributed COVID deaths to other causes, claimed hospital admissions were due to a catch-up in elective surgeries, and asserted that ultimately that the epidemic would spontaneously evaporate. It also promoted hydroxychloroquine as a spectacular cure, while downplaying the importance of masks. Other authoritarian or populist regimes in Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines and Tanzania adopted some or all of these elements.

As both a vaccine scientist and a parent of an adult daughter with autism and intellectual disabilities, I have years of experience going up against the antivaccine lobby, which claims vaccines cause autism or other chronic conditions. This prepared me to quickly recognize the outrageous claims made by members of the Trump White House staff, and to connect the dots to label them as antiscience disinformation. Despite my best efforts to sound the alarm and call it out, the antiscience disinformation created mass havoc in the red states. During the summer of 2020, COVID-19 accelerated in states of the South as governors prematurely lifted restrictions to create a second and unnecessary wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Then following a large motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.Dak., a third surge unfolded in the fall in the Upper Midwest.  A hallmark of both waves were thousands of individuals who tied their identity and political allegiance on the right to defying masks and social distancing. A nadir was a highly publicized ICU nurse who wept as she recounted the dying words of one of her patients who insisted COVID-19 was a hoax.




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