III. Pandemic in an Anti-Science Era: Reflections from and for STS
The Trump presidency and its relationship to science and truth have prompted both reflection and action by STS scholars, including contributors to a recent thematic collection published in early 2020 in Engaging Science, Technology, and Society. For this newsletter, we requested that the contributors to that collection re-visit the arguments made there in a series of brief commentaries in order to speak to our unfolding experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. Please visit the ESTS website to read the original collection, edited by Daniel Lee Kleinman, in addition to the commentary below.
Anti-Science Nationalism and the Critical Role of STS
By Joseph Harris, Boston University
President Trump has promoted unproven and dangerous therapies for the treatment of coronavirus, including hydroxychloroquine, UV irradiation, and injections of disinfectant. President Trump and Vice President Pence have eschewed the use of masks in spite of scientific evidence that shows they slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. With encouragement from the president, armed demonstrators have stormed state capitals in defiance of stay-at-home orders, and some citizens have actively sought to congregate in large crowds in the name of liberty. Where disdain for expertise was once more of a footnote tucked within a broader populist message, it has now become the lead rallying cry for a new brand of anti-science nationalism.
This is not the first time anti-science nationalism has reared its ugly head, nor the first time its cost has been told in terms of human lives. In the 1990s, South Africa was emerging from the shadows of apartheid, and the political culture was deeply influenced by nationalist ideas. Prominent anthropologist Didier Fassin noted that the country was charting a new course for itself, and that meant breaking from established Western orthodoxy. Unfortunately, one way this took shape was the alignment of policy with dissident non-scientific views about HIV. Under South African President Thabo Mbeki, government officials promoted home remedies such as garlic, beetroot, and olive oil as treatment for AIDS.
President Mbeki’s misguided policies had dire consequences: Harvard researchers concluded that the government’s delay in implementing a scientifically proven treatment program cost the nation as many as 330,000 lives, not including those lost due to poor prevention efforts. The economic and societal impacts are still felt today. In the United States, as the federal government actively stands by and allows coronavirus to disproportionately ravage the nation’s black and brown communities, more than 90,000 have died, and the end is not in sight.
What are we to make of a common phenomenon with explosive consequences arising in two radically different contexts, one guided by the actions of a racist president and another by a president seeking to free his country from the legacies of racism? In what other not yet explored contexts has anti-science nationalism taken shape? STS offers a powerful lens for helping us think about how phenomena, like anti-science nationalism, are forged, take hold and are maintained, and their consequences for democracy and science. It understands the relationship between politics and science and connects the views of experts with those of lay people. At a moment when the broader discipline turns its focus to global health, sociologists of STS stand to make important new contributions on this issue and others with critical ramifications for the broader world.