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COVID-19 Exposes America’s Anti-Science Traditions

The anti-vaccine movement across Europe and America has led to sharp increases in vaccine-preventable diseases in recent years. This is particularly alarming, given that the only viable solution to COVID-19 is a potential vaccine. How did American politics turn so radically anti-science?

COVID-19 has humbled all realms of the earth, causing over 600,000 deaths worldwide with over 14 million cases. But the U.S. is currently the cynosure of all eyes. The country has done little to mitigate the disaster, resulting in over 140,000 deaths and the number of cases slowly working its way to 4 million.

Ever since President Donald Trump came to power, he has been waging a war on science. Just six months into his term, Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump said in 2012. More recently, he was countered on Twitter by a teenager Astha Sarmah from Jorhat, Assam, for giving the wrong connotation to global warming.

But the ongoing pandemic is something far greater in magnitude – the enormity of which will affect generations to come all over the world. For the first time in history, no country in the world is looking to the U.S. for leadership, despite the pressing and urgent need for global coordination and collaboration.

To lead the world’s fight against a global pandemic, countries need leaders with a strong belief in science, expertise and intellectualism. Successes against each of history’s major deadly diseases – from smallpox to Ebola – was achieved only through international collaboration in science and health.

Today, the ineptitude of global superpowers in tackling COVID-19 is not just grim news for nations in distress, but also a premonition of an imminent global disaster.

Anti-Science and Anti-Intellectual

“Windmills cause cancer,” Trump once said at one of his rallies. In recent years, several rabble-rousing populists have worked to slash budgets for research institutions in Brazil, Hungary, Italy, and the United States – inaugurating a new ‘post-truth’ era.

Among the most prominent and visible anti-science movements is the anti-vaccine movement across Europe and America, which has led to sharp increases in vaccine-preventable diseases. Last year, measles cases exceeded 100,000 in Europe and surpassed 1,000 in the U.S., owing to sharp decline in immunisation. Meanwhile, thousands of teenagers failed to receive cancer-prevention treatment through the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination – and America also saw many paediatric flu deaths among unvaccinated children.

While the anti-vaccine movement was merely a fringe element in the past, the proliferation of thousands of websites spreading misinformation has turned it into a major public health challenge. Leaders of the movement assert various falsehoods, including that vaccines can cause autism or chronic illnesses, represent a form of ‘vaccine injury’, and are unregulated or inadequately tested for safety. Other conspiracy theorists claim that vaccines contain toxic ingredients, and that the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) colludes with vaccine manufacturers to ‘push’ vaccines on an unsuspecting public.

The conspiracy theorists ask parents to assert their ‘health freedom’ in response – and they have had some success. According to a Gallup survey conducted last year, while 94 percent Americans believed that children should be vaccinated in 2001, that figure fell to 84 percent in 2015 and 2019. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as a leading global health threat.

This is particularly alarming today, given that the only viable solution to COVID-19 is a potential vaccine.

How did American politics turn so radically anti-science?

In 1963, Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, detailed the three forms of anti-intellectual thought that have been present in American public life since the nation’s founding. The first, anti-rationalism, is the rejection of critical thought as a desirable quality for individuals to hold. The second, unreflective instrumentalism, describes the preference for short-term payoffs, irrespective of carefully reasoned long-term consequences.

The third type of anti-intellectualism he identified has a more obvious connection to politics and public opinion: It is what Daniel Rigney calls the “anti-elitist form of anti-intellectualism”. This form of anti-intellectualism refers to the distrust – and perhaps even dislike – for individuals who claim to have superior knowledge or wisdom about a particular subject. Anti-science movements have an innate connection to the anti-elitist concept – a negative disposition toward scientists and experts.

This third form of anti-intellectualism has been common in American electoral discourse. At several moments in American history, presidential candidates have attempted to take advantage of the public’s misgivings of experts and intellectuals by employing anti-intellectual discourse. In the Progressive era, Theodore Roosevelt was successful in using his ‘experiential’ form of education to attack intellectuals. More recently, George HW Bush tried to alienate himself from the then-governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, by linking him to intellectuals with “fastidious disdain” for religious traditions.

Trump’s anti-intellectualism has betrayed a total and complete lack of even elementary knowledge – apart from a general disdain for experts. In 2018, he asked Bill Gates the difference between HIV and HPV twice on a public forum. More recently, he falsely suggested that scientists have developed a vaccine for AIDS.

According to government data, roughly 1.2 million people in the U.S. are currently living with HIV and upwards of 40,000 Americans become infected with the virus each year. When misinformation comes straight from the president, it amplifies the spread of that misinformation and vastly complicates the task of health officials in the country.

America’s Moment of Reckoning

For nearly four years, America has had a president who rejects climate science – and all science – altogether, instead embracing racism, sexism and homophobia. He also holds the democratic process in contempt, represses the voting rights of minorities, and violates plain human decency.

Trump is now exposing America and the world to the dangers of COVID-19. Science has and will always be the world’s only tool in the fight against COVID-19. The root of this fight is wearing a mask. It is beyond question that masks work, as upheld by health experts all over the world. A WHO-backed study recently showed that wearing a mask in public can decrease the chances of contracting the virus from a whopping 17 percent to just 3 percent. Another study published in the Nature journal found that if large-scale lockdown measures – the likes of which were implemented in India nationwide – were not enforced in the U.S., approximately 60 million more cases would sprout up throughout the nation.

Given the significant importance of scientific research and thought in solving many of the world’s most pressing existential threats – from climate change to COVID-19 – it is highly imperative that American voters actively seek answers from their elected officials and political candidates concerning these urgent topics. In the coming elections, voters should evaluate whether their leaders have the education, percipience and mental faculty necessary to govern in a science-driven century.

Ishan Basak holds a Bachelors in Commerce from the University of Calcutta and an MBA from Jaipuria Institute of Management, Noida. He is currently working with Byju's, the world's most valued Ed-Tech firm. He has a strong interest in marketing, technology and brand strategy, and also writes on American politics. He is a columnist for Bizmind, an online business blog for marketing enthusiasts.