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The immediate and negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are innumerable: serious illness, worsening mental health, economic downturn and more. But one of the most disastrous effects of the pandemic must not be overlooked: it has exacerbated already prevalent distrust in science and research. Tracing the devastating effects of this distrust reveals that we must consider its deeper causes and reverse course to restore faith in science and scientists for the sake of our society.

The pandemic is yet another example of making arguably the most objective, fact-based industry, the field of science, the source of ideological debate. Central political figures, like sitting President Donald Trump, have ignored science and turned indisputable facts, like the existence of the coronavirus, into matters of opinion. The virus was, at first, the Democrats' “new hoax” according to President Trump. Then, when its existence could no longer be disputed and the coronavirus was accepted as a real threat, its severity was brushed aside by government officials. This downplaying of the virus by a political leader can almost certainly explain not only the delay in action on the part of the United States, but also the confusion and polarization of the general public.

It is very likely that the denial of scientific research’s validity has led to a higher number of cases in the United States than we would have seen otherwise. As many as 36,000 lives could have been saved had social distancing guidelines been mandated one week earlier in March, according to research from Columbia University. At this time, Trump was prioritizing campaign rallies and vilification of the Democratic party over the safety of the country. In fact, Trump likened the virus’s severity to seasonal influenza. A considerable portion of the general public aligned their opinions with those of the president. In March, a poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR) found that only 56 percent of Americans found the coronavirus to be a “real threat,” echoing rhetoric from Trump.

The fear, distrust or complete dismissal of science exists, in part, because sources of “scientific” information are now coming from major media personalities and political parties rather than actual industry researchers. This is hardly the first time a topic in science has been the subject of political debate — the denial of climate change and global warming by conservatives is another key example. But in the context of the virus, the most glaring example of this fear of science itself is the anti-vaccination — colloquially known as the “anti-vax” — movement.

This movement is not a new phenomenon; fear of vaccination dates back to as early as the late 18th century. This fear has endured in modern times and is passed on mainly via hearsay. One of the largest pieces of anti-vax propaganda came from a former British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, and incorrectly linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism development in youth. Despite his unethical research methods being criticized and the fact that his claims were almost universally debunked, this objectively untrue belief is still widely held. While the circumstances are different, there are parallels between the misinformation spread of the broader anti-vax movement and that which has occurred throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdated, incorrect ideology continues to plague the public’s current thinking about scientific topics — from research on the effects of vaccination that has since been disproven to early rhetoric on the benign nature of COVID-19 that is now known to be completely false.

The danger that comes with deliberately foregoing immunizations speaks volumes about the intensity with which anti-vaxxers distrust science. Specifically, this evolving movement has implications for the safety of a post-COVID-19 world — people that refuse to receive a vaccine have the potential to start outbreaks. In May, as many as three in 10 Americans were undecided or would have refused the vaccine, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey. This number is already concerning, but it has grown even higher since: according to a CNN poll conducted last month, nearly half of Americans would not get vaccinated even if the vaccine were made widely available. The anti-vax movement is not limited to the U.S. — a survey conducted by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a British organization, found that one in six U.K. citizens would not receive the vaccine when it became available.

With such a large proportion of the population unwilling to be vaccinated, the chances of achieving herd immunity are bleak. In June, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, predicted that the chances of herd immunity for the U.S. were slim due to a “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling.” One case of serious illness that occurred during a vaccine trial has not helped to alleviate anti-vax sentiment.

But this entrenched opposition to a COVID-19 vaccine is not only caused by the general anti-vax movement: another major source of skepticism is that COVID-19 guidelines are ever-changing. Head U.S. epidemiology officials, like Dr. Fauci and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, as well as the World Health Organization and other official groups, have altered guidance provided earlier in the pandemic as they have gained new information. This is especially the case for guidance on mask-wearing. While in March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that the general public reserve masks for healthcare workers and sick people, by July they had reversed course and affirmed the fundamental importance of mask-wearing.

Unfortunately, once individuals accept and adapt to initial guidance, there is often a reluctance to transition to newer practices. And Trump’s blatant denial, refusal and belittlement of science only instilled greater confusion and suspicion in changing health guidelines. The science does not change: only our own understanding of it does. But, when national health guidance, already subjected to the interplay of objective fact and political ideology, is changed, the general public can believe the change is a sign that the guidelines are fake when the opposite is true: changing guidelines show the virus and the science behind it are real.

Beyond the context of vaccines, distrust in science may have even more fundamental root causes. Science tends to be inaccessible to the general public: research often remains behind paywalls and the language used to speak about new scientific research and discoveries can be hard to grasp if one is not in the field.

Separately, previous negative experiences with sources of scientific information can have a profound impact on people’s opinions of science. For example, unfavorable experiences with doctors and surgeons can produce a lifelong mistrust of these medical and scientific sources. The mistreatment of African Americans in research studies, for example, is rooted in identifiable instances of medical racism such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, which is widely criticized for its abuse and exploitation of African American communities. Overall, the field of science has a long way to go in terms of regaining the trust of the general public.

Misinformation and unethical studies mean that scientists and researchers need to be understanding of those who mistrust sources of scientific information. Scientists need to do more work to recognize and unpack why the average citizen is more likely to trust Trump over a researcher. What does a white lab coat mean to them? What negative lived experiences do people have with scientists?

Recognition of the history of inequitable interactions researchers and medical practitioners have had with the general public is the first step to understanding distrust of science and medicine. But politicians must also leave science to the actual scientists and refrain from spreading misinformation, weaponizing research for ulterior goals and vilifying the scientific process. Only then will we be able to combat the issue of widespread suspicion of science that the pandemic has only exacerbated. If left untreated, this skepticism of science can in itself be its own disease with ramifications that we will certainly continue to feel down the road.

Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at rachael_schmidt@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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