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.
Now, a new test of defiance and simultaneous allegiance to the Republican Party has emerged in the form of resisting COVID-19 vaccines. At least three surveys from the Kaiser Family Foundation, our study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, and the PBS News Hour/NPR/Marist poll each point to Republicans or white Republicans as a top vaccine-resistant group in America. At least one in four Republican House members will refuse COVID-19 vaccines. Once again, we should anticipate that many of these individuals could lose their lives from COVID-19 in the coming months.
Historically, antiscience was not a major element of the Republican Party. The National Academy of Sciences was founded in the Lincoln administration; NASA in the Eisenhower administration, and PEPFAR (U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), PMI (President’s Malaria Initiative) and the NTDs (neglected tropical diseases) program were launched in the George W. Bush Administration. I was a professor and chair of microbiology at George Washington University, based in Washington, D.C., during the 2000s and worked closely with members of the Bush White House to shape these programs.
I trace the adoption of antiscience as a major platform of the GOP to the year 2015 when the antivaccine movement pivoted to political extremism on the right. It first began in Southern California when a measles epidemic erupted following widespread vaccine exemptions. The California legislature shut down these exemptions to protect the public health, but this ignited a “health freedom” rallying cry. Health freedom then gained strength and accelerated in Texas where it formed a political action committee linked to the Tea Party. Protests against vaccines became a major platform of the Tea Party; this then generalized in 2020 to defy masks and social distancing. Further accelerating these trends were right wing think tanks such as the American Institute of Economic Research that sponsored the Great Barrington Declaration, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the home of physician Scott Atlas, who became a senior advisor to the Trump White House coronavirus task force.
The full antiscience agenda of the Republican Party has now gone beyond our national borders. In the summer of 2020, the language of the antiscience political right in America was front and center at antimask and antivaccine rallies in Berlin, London and Paris. In the Berlin rally, news outlets reported ties to QAnon and extremist groups. Adding to this toxic mix are emerging reports from U.S. and British intelligence that the Putin-led Russian government is working to destabilize democracies through elaborate programs of COVID-19 antivaccine and antiscience disinformation. Public refusal of COVID-19 vaccines now extends to India, Brazil, South Africa and many low- and middle-income countries.
We are approaching three million deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is increasingly apparent that the SARS CoV2 alone is not responsible. Facilitating the spread of COVID-19 is an expanded and globalizing antiscience movement that began modestly under a health freedom banner adopted by the Republican Tea Party in Texas. Thousands of deaths have so far resulted from antiscience, and this may only be the beginning as we are now seeing the impact on vaccine refusal across the U.S., Europe and the low- and middle-income countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Containing antiscience will require work and an interdisciplinary approach. For innovative and comprehensive solutions, we might look at interagency task forces in the U.S. government or among the agencies of the United Nations. Given the role of state actors such as Russia, and antivaccine organizations that monetize the internet, we should anticipate that any counteroffensive could be complex and multifaceted. The stakes are high given the high death toll that is already accelerating from the one-two punch of SARS CoV2 and antiscience. We must be prepared to implement a sophisticated infrastructure to counteract this, similar to what we have already done for more established global threats. Antiscience is now a large and formidable security issue.