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.
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.
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.