Anti-Science: Enemies of Knowledge

Review Article by Ross Thrasher

The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: A Scientist’s Warning, by Peter J. Hotez. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023.
On Disinformation, by Lee McIntyre. MIT Press, 2023.
Foolproof, by Sander Van Der Linden. Norton, 2023.

The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Peter Hotez was one of the experts who frequently appeared on cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC. A rumpled, avuncular figure sitting at his desk wearing a bowtie and a white doctor’s coat, Hotez offered practical advice and lucid explanations of the evolving crisis. As a professor and dean at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and a renowned researcher on vaccines, he was well qualified to comment on the coronavirus.

Dr. Hotez has been concerned for some years with the prevalence of health misinformation in the general public. For example, a 1997 study in the medical journal Lancet, linking childhood vaccines with autism, was later proven false. But by then the initial finding had taken hold in the wider community, leading to the rise of anti-vaccine propaganda. In an ironic twist, Hotez himself has an autistic daughter, prompting him to write an exhaustively-researched book of rebuttal, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism (2018).

In this new volume, he recounts how the COVID crisis became politicized, especially in the United States. A misguided appeal to personal freedom led many Americans to reject sensible precautions like masking, social distancing, contact tracing and vaccination. Hotez presents a wealth of data in The Deadly Rise to demonstrate that areas of the country with the lowest levels of vaccine acceptance suffered the highest levels of illness and death from COVID. Not coincidentally, these areas were primarily in “red states”, i.e. majority-Republican regions.

The pandemic had revitalized the anti-vaccine forces and a broader coalition of libertarian crusaders, tapping into public frustration with Big Government and scientific experts. Social media and conservative news outlets, like the much-watched Fox News, amplified this groundswell of protest. Politicians, especially Republicans from the Trump White House on down, resisted the experts’ advice and the government mandates that were eventually imposed when COVID casualties mushroomed. Thus, for millions of Americans “a small but vocal health freedom lobby [overcame] commonsense public health interventions”.

What made it worse was that these anti-vaccine advocates peddled misinformation, alleging that vaccines were not only ineffective but dangerous. Quack alternative COVID remedies were touted, such as hydroxychloroquine (an autoimmune and anti-malarial medication) and ivermectin (prescribed for intestinal parasites). President Trump even recommended swallowing bleach at one point. Later a hypocritical Trump was quick to take credit for Operation Warp Speed, the federally funded program of rapid COVID vaccine development, but then remained silent when his supporters trashed vaccines.

Before long individual scientists like Hotez and Dr. Anthony Fauci were the recipients of false corruption allegations, personal abuse and even death threats from public and private sources. Fox News celebrities and Republican politicians amplified the echo chamber of extremist anti-science rhetoric blooming on social media. “Elected officials abused their power to unfairly target biomedical scientists … [in] a systematic and organized campaign”. In the book Hotez includes several examples of disgusting and frightening e-mails he received during this period, some of them containing anti-Semitic content (he is Jewish).

These tactics harken back to Soviet and Nazi suppression of scientists, and in the US, Joe McCarthy’s campaign of innuendo and lies in the 1950s against scientists like Oppenheimer. Dr. Hotez also cites contemporary autocrats — Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil — whose vaccine denialism and whose disparagement of scientific expertise have resulted in millions of unnecessary infections and thousands of preventable deaths in those countries. “We now face our own internal authoritarian ecosystem whose leaders portray scientists as threats.”

It must be heartbreaking for a professor of pediatrics and virology like Dr. Hotez to observe these anti-science developments. He notes that “traditional support for pediatric vaccinations required for school entry and attendance has waned considerably…. Long-vanquished childhood diseases will rise again, just because parents have been fooled into rejecting safe, long-proven vaccines…. If immunization levels decline, we might see the widespread return of measles, or even polio.”

The inconvenient findings of climate scientists have, of course, been subjected to a similar playbook of denialism and disinformation, from the fossil-fuel industry and other self-interested parties. These tactics have polluted the public discourse around global warming, making it difficult for democratic institutions to take the vigorous action that will be required to forestall more and greater climate disasters.

How can this insidious undermining of medicine and science be countered? Hotez argues that “scientific communication and public engagement represent key areas for expansion and improvement”. The academic/research community must shrug off its traditional neutrality and be willing to enter the public arena to counter erroneous declarations. He proposes the inclusion of training in media and communication skills within scientific postgraduate programs. Scholarly associations need to become more proactive and more adept at articulating scientific information to the lay public. Pro-science alliances can be cultivated among professional bodies and spiritual leaders. Legal protections must be available to scientists whose integrity is questioned or whose careers are threatened.

Scientists are dedicated to advancing knowledge, saving lives and improving living conditions on the planet. This is a heroic endeavour. Telling their personal stories can humanize them and their work in the eyes of society.

The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science sounds the alarm that libertarian and authoritarian voices in America and elsewhere are trying to portray scientists as enemies of the state. It’s a naked power play. These voices need to be neutralized if we are to avoid descending into a new Dark Age.

On Disinformation

A spate of other recent titles reinforce this Hotez message. One example is a pocket-sized “little red book” by Boston University research fellow Lee McIntyre, On Disinformation: How to Fight for Truth and Protect Democracy. McIntyre dissects the post-truth playbook that relies on conspiracy theories, illogical reasoning, selective evidence and fake experts to paint false narratives like the Big Lie about the 2020 Presidential election. He fears an authoritarian takeover of the U.S. government as a result of the information silos of right-wing networks and social media that have captured millions of minds. McIntyre proposes a number of personal and legal strategies to overcome these disinformation biases.


Cambridge social psychologist Sander Van Der Linden offers a more nuanced analysis in Foolproof: How Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How To Build Immunity. He draws a distinction between misinformation — sincere but erroneous beliefs — and disinformation — deliberate distortions of reality. Van Der Linden cites research indicating that “people will become further entrenched in their worldview if you repeatedly try to challenge their beliefs with factual evidence…. [They] are motivated to protect the kinds of values and beliefs that define their commitments to important groups with which they identify and affiliate.” This explains, for instance, the stubborn adherence of MAGA Republicans to Trump’s Big Lie about a fraudulent election despite more than 60 adverse court decisions.

People in this kind of disinformation bubble are prone to concocting (and swallowing) conspiracy theories, which “are psychologically appealing because they offer certain and simple explanations of otherwise seemingly random and complex events. They also help restore a false sense of control.”

Van Der Linden reiterates points made by Hotez and McIntyre, namely that:

  • the speed and reach of social media (via platforms like WhatsApp and X/Twitter) have amplified the viral spread of mis- and disinformation.
  • the self-imposed information silos of many people have blocked the input of debunking data.
  • disinformation is used by anti-democratic actors to gain political advantage.

Unscrupulous campaign advertisers are now using social media to “help optimize the identification and micro-targeting of those individuals most open to persuasion via their digital footprints”, and then to post disparaging fake news about the opposition or deter these gullible folk from voting altogether. They are stoking fear, anger and distrust of authorities and experts.

“What we need now is a vaccine — a process that can produce psychological immunity to protect people from malicious and harmful online manipulation.” The last 100 pages of Foolproof are devoted to just such a process. Van Der Linden calls it “prebunking”. For example, he has conducted experiments in connection with fake news about global warming, such as the claim that there is no consensus among scientists about human-caused climate change. He found that, at least among neutral or undecided individuals, it helps to forewarn them that politically motivated groups will try to mislead them with this bogus claim.

Van Der Linden and his colleagues have invented simulation games to illustrate this inoculation against popular myths. They have also tried to scale up this prebunking strategy on YouTube and X/Twitter. The goal is “psychological herd immunity … enough people need to be vaccinated against the misinformation virus” to prevent its continuing spread. Will it work? It’s a race against time. Climate-change deniers and the forces of autocracy are busily washing brains with fallacies.

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