by Marina Choy, PhD Student, Humanities
Instances of scientific information misuse, denial or disregard on the part of President Trump and his administration have been numerous since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and many have deplored the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge the severity of the Covid-19 crisis and to follow science-based recommendations. But on the other hand, many also seem to share the Trump administration’s antagonistic attitude toward science, and argue that the coronavirus pandemic is not as serious as experts find it to be. How can we make sense of science antagonism and its persistence during the current global pandemic? In the American context, science antagonism can be articulated to populism, but also to larger cultural divides that have marked American contemporary history.
We live in a moment where scientific opinion seems paramount in various aspects of our lives: scientists and experts are the ones with the tools to best understand the social, political, cultural and epidemiological circumstances surrounding this pandemic. They can best assess how we should accommodate our social, professional, and personal lives in order to stay safe, healthy and preserve others. In theory, given the novelty of the Covid-19 virus and the severity of its implications on people’s lives, political leaders cannot afford to disregard scientific findings and expert opinion. However, populist leaders will do so; one reason being that scientific, evidence-based policy-making often is inconvenient for them. Populist promises are typically straightforward and “simple”. Evidence-based policy-making can make these promises difficult to achieve (Hamilton, 2011). In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, scientific findings and expert recommendations are incredibly inconvenient to Trump’s ultra-liberal and nationalist priorities. Interrupting economic growth, promoting collective action and solidarity, cooperating with and learning from other countries were never part of his plan. These recommendations based on science are thus not followed, or agreed to only partially and very reluctantly by the Trump administration. Meanwhile, Trump spreads chaos and confusion through public statements that are scientifically inaccurate (e.g., suggesting the virus would disappear with warmer temperatures), questions the accuracy of expert findings (e.g., suggesting that the Covid-19 death count was inflated), and encourages people to protest against the establishment of stay-at-home policies in the name of their individual freedom (e.g., tweeting “Liberate Michigan!”).
Getting away with science denial in the middle of a global pandemic may seem unlikely, but it is not. As political scientist Jan Werner Müller argues, science is not the primary concern of populists (2020). The power of populist leaders like Trump comes from the way in which they position themselves within the antagonizing “us vs. them” matrix that structures populism; “us” calling to the hardworking, authentic, common people and “them” referring to the corrupted elite. Populist leaders present themselves as the only true voice of the common people and as the only member of the ruling elite who actively shares and protects their values and rights. Consequently, anyone who is opposed to the leader is a member of the corrupted elite. Trump publicly frames anyone who voices opposition against his actions or words as a corrupted liar that manipulates the American people to serve their own interests. For populists, the battle to fight is not primarily about science, it is about “being American” and protecting American values (liberty, self-government and individualism above all). Operating within this matrix, Trump has furthered mistrust and antagonism toward federal institutions and the federal state in general, as well as toward any institution, agency or governing entity that might oppose him in some way. Implicitly, those giving science-based recommendations for policy-making that do not fit the Trump administration’s priorities count among members of the “corrupted elite” just like other oppositional voices do.
Populism can only partially explain the pervasiveness and persistence of science antagonism in the United States, however. Trump’s populist leadership does contribute to articulating science as a mode of truth open to ideological bias, used against the people to serve the interests of a culturally progressive, cosmopolitan elite. But this articulation isn’t new: it has emerged and developed in the various “culture wars” occurring in the United States since the 1960s. In political battles over evolution, sex education, abortion, gay rights, and climate change, science has commonly been distorted, denied, and/or described by ultraconservative opponents of the Left as solely being used to serve the ideological interests of liberals. Opponents who then in turn often support their own arguments with conservative, think tank-produced research. In 2002, the Bush administration altered the National Cancer Institute website, removing an analysis stating that there is no link between abortion and breast cancer. They replaced it with a “fact sheet” that stated otherwise before their act was widely denounced as an attack on science and had to be undone (U.S. House of Representatives, 2003). This is just one example that shows how science has constituted a major site of struggle in deeply polarized and politicized cultural conflicts. Science antagonism has been tied to particular cultural perspectives and political agendas. In this particular example, it was tied to the Bush administration’s strong anti-abortion stance.
The extent to which Trump and his administration are able to be overtly antagonistic toward science today is due to the fact that science denialism is not new in the United States. Trump is not a conservative leader but he benefits from the way in which some prominent conservatives have articulated science, as elitist and serving a culturally progressive agenda. The Bush administration was widely considered as “the most antagonistic administration toward science” to have governed the U.S., until the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the Trump administration led more “attacks on science” in 2.5 years than the Bush administration did over the course of 8 years (Carter et al., 2019 ; UCS, 2017). Today, Trump can surf on a deeply entrenched, long-existing cultural divide and strengthen his own position by relying on discourses and beliefs that were popular before him. In addition, throughout the five or six decades of culture wars, science has often been framed as entirely ideological by both conservatives and liberals. Liberals too have criticized the “scientific” production of conservative organizations and think tanks for being ideologically driven. Culture wars have shown Americans that science can be made and used to support one’s perspective and values, whether liberal or conservative: they have contributed to framing science as a partisan issue. Within such a context, it does not seem so surprising that many people are inclined to science denial or science skepticism today, even in the middle of a global pandemic.
The current COVID-19 crisis further confirms the antagonist attitude of the Trump administration toward science, made salient in pandemic-related public discourse and policy-making. But beyond that, it exacerbates long-existing and complex tensions in American culture in which science itself is a major site of struggle.
Clive Hamilton, “Silencing the Scientists: the Rise of Right-Wing Populism”, Our World, United Nations University (March 2011). Retrieved from https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/silencing-the-scientists-the-rise-of-right-wing-populism
Emily Berman and Jacob Carter, “Policy Analysis: Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking Under Past and Present Administrations”, Journal of Science Policy and Governance 13, 1 (Sept. 2018).
Jacob Carter, Anite Desikan, Gretchen Goldman, “The Trump Administration Has Attacked Science 100 Times… And Counting”, Scientific American (May 2019). Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-trump-administration-has-attacked-science-100-times-and-counting/
Jan-Werner Müller, “How Populists Will Leverage the Coronavirus Pandemic”, World Politics Review (April 2020). Retrieved from https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28663/how-populists-will-leverage-the-coronavirus-pandemic
Union of Concerned Scientists, “Attacks on Science”, UCS USA (Jan. 2017). Retrieved from https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science
United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, “Politics and Science in the Bush Administration” (Report for Rep. Henry A. Waxman, August 2003). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20121215150603/http://democrats.oversight.house.gov/images/stories/documents/20080130103545.pdf