US anti-science sentiment comes back to hurt during wildfires, pandemic

  • The US is gripped not only be the coronavirus pandemic, but also an anti-science pandemic.
  • For years, conservative media and conservative politicians have attacked basic ideas of science form evolution to climate change.
  • Even President Trump has cast doubt on basic scientific recommendations during the pandemic.
  • This needs to change if America is going to address the biggest challenges facing the nation.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Lutchen is Dean of the College of Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

While the world is in the midst of a horrendous pandemic, the US is currently in the midst of two. 

One of those, COVID-19, has moved with lightning speed, killing hundreds of thousands of people and infecting millions more. The other pandemic has been spreading slowly through American culture for the past 30 years. It has now collided disastrously with the coronavirus.

This second pandemic, in the absence of an official name, might best be described as the anti-science pandemic. And unless we roll back this second, dangerous pandemic, we’re unlikely to regain control of COVID or be prepared for a potentially more lethal virus in the future. 

The anti-science pandemic has taken hold of America

From denial about evolution, human-induced climate change, and the efficacy of vaccinations to conspiracy theories about COVID and the politicizing of wearing masks, anti-science has become an increasingly worrisome tendency in the public. 

Rush Limbaugh, whose radio program reaches 15.5 million listeners weekly, calls science one of the “four corners of deceit” (government, academia, and the press are the other three). Fox News has repeatedly presented “experts” pushing all manner of positions that fly in the face of science. The downplaying of COVID early on in the pandemic by Fox anchors was particularly troublesome — half of the network’s viewers are over 68, one of the groups most vulnerable to COVID.

Anti-science now infects many of the leaders who are charged with guiding us through our worst health crisis in a century. Leaders are shunning science and technology when we need it most. 

In some cases, they’ve shunned rationality entirely — the President himself said “if we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases.” Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force, has a long history of rejecting health-related science. He even declared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” even as multiple states reported record increases in new cases following the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Anti-scientists believe that if the data does not convey the message desired, then just dismiss the data. As White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany put it on whether schools should reopen: “The science should not stand in the way.”

Unfortunately, the administration and a number of governors have been willing to sacrifice large numbers of their own people’s lives because they see a bad economy threatening their political prospects. Ironically, their failure to honor science will only compound the economic disaster.

Science is the way out of this crisis

We need science and technology to save us. Government leaders are literally helpless without tools and techniques provided by scientists and engineers. These tools and techniques are obvious now: a capacity to develop rapid testing, swift contact tracing, , validated models for projecting disease spread and impact of interventions, new treatments to reduce the severity of the virus’s impact, a vaccine, and finally a massive manufacturing and systems engineering approach to deploy all of these fairly at enormous scale. 

To succeed, scientists and technologists need political, financial and policy guidance that will facilitate the eventual deployment of the fruits of their labor to society. And, given the virus’s neutrality to whom it infects, these leaders need to insure all people regardless of race, religion, economic sector or country have access. 

At the same time, they should be aware of the fact that the burdens of the virus have fallen disproportionately on communities of color, a further problem that epidemiologists and public health experts could usefully address.

Our leaders have a choice. They can rapidly provide resources and new funding to the scientific and technological sectors to create real weapons against the virus while simultaneously providing economic support to their citizens until science develops new tools. Or they can choose to send everyone back to work and thereby tacitly admit that from their perspective it is fine to watch people die who didn’t have to. 

Ultimately, science and technology will bring us out of the COVID pandemic — either aided by, or in spite of, public policies and government leadership. 

But for the long term, our leaders at every level of government need to reaffirm — in word and deed — the value of science, if we are to conquer our other pandemic. 

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