Citation: Hotez PJ (2021) Anti-science aggression on the rise in the United States. PLoS Biol 19 (7): e3001369. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001369
Released: July 28, 2021
Copyright ©: © 2021 Peter J. Hotez. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which allows unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that the original author and source are acknowledged.
Financing: The author did not receive any special funding for this work.
Competing interests: The author has stated that there are no competing interests.
A group of ultra-conservative members of the US Congress and other public officials with far-right tendencies are carrying out organized and seemingly well-coordinated attacks against prominent US life scientists. In parallel, conservative news outlets are repeatedly and deliberately promoting disinformation aimed at portraying key American scientists as enemies. As a result, many of us receive threats via email and social media while some are followed at home to create an unprecedented culture of anti-science intimidation.
Four major incidents were noticed in spring and summer 2021. First, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA) submitted the house bill 2316. in front  . The Fire Fauci Act required payment of Dr. Anthony Fauci as director of the National Allergy and Infectious Disease Institute and review his digital correspondence and financial transactions. The follow-up press conference of the Greens on 21.
Also in June, Republicans organized a House Select subcommittee on the origins of COVID-19 on the assumption that it was detonated by genetic engineering research by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Despite evidence suggesting that viral infection in bats spreads to other mammals, and ultimately humans, responsible for previous coronavirus epidemics  , the hearings took on an eerie tone, pointing fingers at virologists in the US and China. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) stated that Dr. Fauci was “afraid of something” and falsely claimed that he was covering up the development of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus  . Far right media harass or persecute other prominent US scholars, including Dr. Peter Daszak, who heads the EcoHealth Alliance and researches the zoonotic origins of human viral infections  .
Vaccines and vaccine scientists are also being targeted. In addition to the hearings on Republican COVID-19 origins in June, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) organized a round table in Milwaukee to highlight the rare side effects of COVID-19 vaccines  as nightly Fox News anchors promoted fake claims of deaths from COVID-19 vaccinations  . In July, Rep. Green stated on Twitter that a COVID-19 vaccine was “a political tool to control people,” while Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) said door-to-door COVID-19 vaccination was just one step away from US government confiscation of guns and Bibles, and MP Lauren Boebert (R-CO) called the vaccinated “needle Nazis”. Days later, the Tennessee Department of Health’s medical director for vaccines was abruptly fired for her efforts to vaccinate minors (ages 14+) without parental consent. These actions coincided with government efforts to stop vaccine advocacy and public outreach among teenagers and adolescents, and at a time when the Delta variant is accelerating  . As a vaccine scientist and author of a book that explains why autism, including my adult daughter’s autism, has nothing to do with vaccines  , I am also a target of anti-vaccine activists, including those who write threateningly about “patriots” who will come to see me. During a June 2021 interview with the decidedly conservative Florida governor, a Fox News host described me as “notorious” and “notorious”.  .
These events have a context. Prior to 2021, an anti-science disinformation program that rejected the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic was being aggressively pursued by an America First White House. The America First element of the far right focuses on nativism, anti-immigration and a foreign policy based on strong military build-up and deterrence, as well as confrontation with China. A darker view connects it with the suppression of voters and loyalty tests against the former president, which call into question the veracity of the 2020 presidential election. Harvard University political scientist Steven Levitsky (co-author of How democracies die), indicate how these elements converge in a modern authoritarian regime  that tries to concentrate power on a few while limiting the reach of opposition groups.
Historically, such regimes viewed scientists as enemies of the state. In his 1941 essay Science in the totalitarian state , Waldemar Kaempffert, outlines details using the example of National Socialism under Hitler, fascism under Mussolini, and Marxism and Leninism  . Under Stalin, for example, the study of genetics and relativity physics were treated as dangerous Western theories and possibly contradicted official social philosophies of the state  . Today there are examples of authoritarian regimes holding similar views. In 2019, the Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took control of the Hungarian Academy of Scientists. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has cut funding for Brazilian scientific institutions and universities while downplaying the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic or undermining evidence of deforestation in the Amazon due to climate change.
Such activities are sometimes carried out under an alternate or substitute intellectual framework. In the book Dawn of democracy: The seductive lure of authoritarianism, Anne Applebaum illustrates the rationale for authoritarian targeting and ultimately the replacement of intelligence, including scientists  . She quotes the work of Julien Benda, a French essayist, who appeared in his 1927 bookThe betrayal of the intellectuals (in French, La trahison de clercs), identifies the need to establish a core element of intellectuals to legitimize the authoritarian regime. In order to dismantle a legitimate scientific infrastructure, it is imperative to create an alternate narrative. For this reason, Orbán does not close the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, but takes control of it. In the 1930s and 40s, Stalin replaced Vavilov with Trofim Lysenko and his pseudoscientific vernalization theories  . Similarly, the rise of anti-science in an authoritarian America is characterized by its intellectual cover. Experts associated with far-right think tanks have taken positions on herd immunity, vaccinations, and other COVID-19 prevention approaches that fit the America First narrative. In some cases, these views are reinforced by intellectuals on the dark web.
In summary, the aggression against science and scientists in America comes from three sources: 1) far-right members of the US Congress, 2) the conservative news outlets, and 3) a group of thought leaders who intellectually underpin the first two elements (Fig . 1).
In order for researchers working on the pandemic response to continue to do so effectively, we are asking for help to stop the aggression. This is vital not only to our personal or national security, but also to the fact that attacks on science and scientists both promote disease and lead to the loss of human life. For example, more than 99% of COVID-19 deaths currently occur in unvaccinated people and almost as many hospital admissions. At the beginning the following steps are to be observed:
- The President of the United States should work with federal academic leaders to prepare and deliver a solid, public, and high-visibility statement of support. The declaration would reaffirm the contribution of scientists to the history of the United States.
- We should look at expanded protections for scientists currently affected by right-wing extremism in the United States. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) has tabled a bill known as the Scientific Integrity Act of 2021 (HR 849) to protect US government scientists from political interference, but this needs to apply to scientists at private research universities and – institutes are expanded. Another option is to expand federal protection against hate crimes.
As the Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once pointed out, neutrality or silence favor the oppressor. We must take steps to protect our scientists and take quick and positive action to counter the growing wave of far-right anti-science aggression. Failure to do so is tacit approval and a guarantee that the integrity and productivity of science in the United States is eroding or losing ground.