Sometimes it feels as if we’re living in a dizzying house of narrative mirrors and anyone sincerely interested in walking the true path through the world risks being unable to see the true path as they get trapped in our horrific hall of insincere reflections.
The truth of any given matter, the objective facts and consilient theories, seems to matter less than the ability of an idea or narrative to reflect back to people what they wish to see. Our marketplace of ideas incentivizes manufacturing narrative mirrors that provide epistemological narcissists an opportunity to view themselves in a favorable light and secure a foothold in media outlets that have devolved from curators of our frontal lobe to antagonists of our amygdala.
Speaking of epistemological narcissists and narrative mirrors, let’s talk about Peter Hotez and his narrative of a growing “Anti-Science” movement.
Peter Hotez self-identifies as a scientist and appears to spend most of his time running around predominately liberal media outlets, using his stature as “The Scientist” to misrepresent, demean, and cry “disinformation” on information, worldviews, and even scientific theories that differ from his own. Any scientist who disagrees with Dr. Hotez and his outrageous, inhuman, insensitive, and irrational proclamations is blocked and ridiculed. While truth may bounce off Hotez like bullets off of Thanos, it appears our disagreements have successfully penetrated the armor of Dr. Hotez’s ego and a new ego-defense is materializing.
Now, Dr. Hotez claims that there is “an Anti-Science movement,” a cultural and political boogeyman that is out to undermine science and target scientists. I have little doubt he would love to snap his fingers and make what he views as “Anti-Science” people, beliefs, and institutions disappear in an act of anti-heroic benevolence for the world.
The whole notion of “Anti-Science,” however, is a narrative. It is not a physical object like “anti-matter” or “antigen” nor is it a process like “antibody maturation” nor an objective and diagnosable clinical condition like “antisocial personality disorder.” “Anti-Science” is nothing but an attempt to name a thing that Hotez sees, but he views our political world from a far-off silo and lives in a hall of mirrors of his own design. As a consequence of Hotez’ distance from the people and patterns he’s labeling “Anti-Science,” the thing he sees is not a thing that exists in our shared, objective universe.
To understand what Hotez sees, why he sees it, and why it’s not a thing in our universe, we have to provide, to the best of our ability, a minimal and objective set of historical facts that can reproduce what he sees. I hypothesize one can synthesize Hotez’ toxic worldview by following the 7-step recipe below:
- History of Scientists-Being-Right: Have serious scientific issues over which there is a legitimate consensus, like climate change or evolution, become politically divisive flashpoints.
- Socially and Politically Siloed Scientists: Slowly, imperceptibly, increase the political biases of the composition of scientists while having scientists spend more and more time in their social circle.
- A Scientific Emergency: Introduce an emergency that requires scientific interpretations to decide effective public policy (COVID-19 pandemic), resulting in an unprecedented surge in the political power and influence of scientists.
- Scientists with State Power: Have some scientists in unelected positions of power (e.g. Fauci and Collins) use the power of the State to silence critics and preferentially amplify the theories, papers, and implied policies they prefer.
- Uncritical Media: Have media with a long mutualistic history of using scientists to certify narratives and manufacture consent in exchange for providing scientists expanded narrative reach, and, through a mix of market forces and established social norms, have these media “trust the experts” and give them relatively uncritical coverage.
- History of Disinformation: Record a true history of disinformation, especially concerning scientific issues like oil and gas companies sowing doubt about climate change (while privately acknowledging it’s true).
- Diversity of Belief and Freedom of Speech: Have all of the above occur in a society that safeguards civil liberties, allowing people to speak up, criticize those in power, and advocate for their own position in public fora.
If these seven criteria are met, I believe someone like Peter Hotez will be a nearly inevitable social consequence. The simple explanation is that the criteria above polarized scientists (1) without them knowing they are polarized (2), gave them an opportunity (3) to exercise somewhat unchecked State power (4), and gave them media power (5) to suppress dissent by calling it “disinformation” (6).
The first six steps of this recipe create an authoritarian ethos in scientists – Trust the Science, Follow the Science – and compel them to act on these politically ethnocentric and authoritarian impulses with few checks and balances except for popular discontent. Inevitably, the siloed and politically biased composition of scientists will result in policies that sow massive discontent (lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine mandates). When we add the 7th ingredient of the recipe, people exposed to an authoritarian bunch of scientists brushing aside their humanity, their political rights, and their distinct value systems will express their discontent. The people expressing discontent will correctly identify the scientists as the people and groups of scientists as the syndicate that corrupted the public policy process through unfair, undemocratic, and intolerant tactics, and the people will speak their minds at these scientists – like Hotez – in public fora.
The Hotez’s will need to be fermented in this social and media concoction of authoritarianism within grasp hindered by legitimate public criticism for some time. Eventually, they will need a narrative to brush away that public resistance so they will create an ego-defensive narrative that positions them as heroes, Scientists as Saviors (scientific saviorism). Hotez and others have somewhat of a manic pixie dream scientist view of themselves – the scientists who are apolitical heroes of infinite cultural latitude exist only in their imaginations to serve their fantasies of grandiosity and benevolence. They sincerely believe that if science says X is effective at reducing one disease then all of society ought to Follow the Science to adopt X, mandate X, do whatever it takes to make X ubiquitous and thank scientists for X. Of course, the tricky thing about society is that it is comprised of humans, a vast anthropological mosaic of beliefs and value systems, and there are other beliefs and value systems that believe we ought to do Y.
Science has become a central pillar of the Saviors’ self-identity and so they don’t distinguish between science (the objective and often messy process of fairly evaluating many competing ideas) and the authoritarian actions of scientists. As the Toxic Hotez nears completion from cooking in a vat of legitimate public criticism for their scientific ethnocentrism, they will conceive a global conspiracy targeting science and scientists, a monstrous “Anti-Science” that demands even more power and legal protection of scientists, even stronger measures to police disinformation. As they look at the restored image of Scientists as Saviors in this narrative mirror, they will descend even further into madness.
Indeed, it is madness because what Hotez views as “Anti-Science” does not exist, it is not a good reflection of reality but rather a story told from pride and ego-defense. Hotez, a set of scientists closely connected with the heads of the NIH, NIAID, and other global health science funders (none of them democratically elected), and even the funders themselves ate the forbidden fruit of authoritarianism. Many before Hotez have tasted authoritarianism, and the results are predictable. The Scientists who grabbed the reigns of society during the pandemic and steered it with insensitive ambition are experiencing not a novel monstrosity but an age-old and dignified human response called “Anti-Authoritarianism.”
Some – not all – scientists acted like authoritarians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some – not all – scientists rallied around models from the most powerful and well-funded scientific groups at the start of the pandemic, even if their models were clearly wrong. When some scientists like John Ioannidis spoke up about the shortcomings of models that were guiding policy, the politically siloed scientists reacted with vitriol and social power that could crush careers in scientific institutions. The informal social control of scientists suppressed diverse views and resulted in science not shared.
So some – not all – scientists became very vocal in advocating for lockdowns despite the policy being inhumane and a clear violation of civil liberties, such as when fellow scientists Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff, and Sunetra Gupta wrote the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) arguing that lockdowns were likely to cause harm and that all-cause mortality and morbidity could be reduced by focusing our protection and helping those with high risk of severe outcomes receive the best preventative support and treatment we could muster. The GBD was an alternative policy proposal that was also grounded in science and it differed in its moral calculus and focus on all-cause mortality. The GBD was assisted by a group whose beliefs aligned with the policies and ideas therein – the American Institute for Economic Research. That group was said to be a libertarian think tank.
There was just two problems with the Great Barrington Declaration: it was supposedly aligned with a group whose political preferences are anathema to many liberal scientists and it conflicted with the policies preferred by major science funders. A difference of political opinion also grounded in science and reason shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but for some reason it was. Major science funders, most of all the head of NIAID Dr. Anthony Fauci and the head of NIH Francis Collins, strongly believed that a better policy was to contain the virus – not mitigate its impacts – and hold off infections until vaccines arrived. The cost-benefit analysis of Fauci et al. differed from the GBD in that it prioritized only COVID mortality; costs were ignored and benefits assumed. Science, however, can’t decide which policy is better. The choice of what we ought to do is a problem as old as humanity, it is ethics and politics, religion, and morality. Thankfully, that’s why our system of government has a constitution and system of laws that provide us procedures for choosing policies even when equally good people disagree.
Constitutions and procedures be damned.
Drs. Fauci and Collins, both unelected and consequently not able to be unseated in an election, demanded a “devastating take-down” of the Great Barrington Declaration. They used their positions of immense scientific power to prod and poke and goad scientists who depend on Fauci and Collins for funding into action, generating a flurry of articles and media appearances calling the Great Barrington Declaration “fringe” and thereby imposing even stronger informal social control on scientists than that displayed during Ioannidis’ chapter of this saga. If you agreed with the GBD, you too were considered “fringe,” you were considered a “far-right Trump-supporting Libertarian.” That shouldn’t be a dis-qualifier in a sane scientific society, but such an accusation carries significant career costs in our politically siloed body of scientists.
After lockdowns, there were mask mandates and vaccine mandates. If you spoke up against vaccine mandates, whether your reasoning was scientific, religious, or political-philosophical, many scientists believed your speech should be labelled “disinformation.” Scientists, with the immense narrative power granted to them during this emergency, succeeded in labelling a great deal of information as “disinformation,” including scientific information such as early findings that immunity to COVID – including vaccine-induced immunity – may wane.
So some – not all – scientists did indeed fight too hard in our democratic society and their insensitive need to have everything their way risked tearing the delicate fabric of our society. They tried to force policies on people that conflicted with people’s beliefs, values, or even constitutional rights. Many people are predictably not happy about that. People spoke up and advocated for their beliefs as they are free to do in our society.
Some scientists tried to push back harder by saying that masks, lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and school closures were what The Science demanded. People, including many scientists like myself, then focused their criticism at this small band of authoritarians calling themselves The Science and interfering with our country’s representative and more inclusive policy process.
As people revolted to these Scientists’ undemocratic policies, our elected officials took note. Our democratic republic of states was a checkerboard of policies where not everyone Followed the Science, exactly as our laboratory of democracy was intended to be, but many scientists share the political belief that states’ departures from One Policy was immoral and unscientific (one and the same, in the ethical doctrine of The Science) and that the federal government should decide most things. Incidentally, the federal government is also a hub of scientific power with science-led agencies like the CDC, NIH/NIAID, and so concentrating power in the federal government would benefit scientists whereas letting states chose policies would put the decisions about public health closer to the people and their local elected representatives..
There was tension between the people, our local representatives, our federal representatives, and the Scientists. There was litigation challenging scientists’ suppression of speech, including Missouri v. Biden where plaintiffs include GBD authors were claiming Drs. Fauci and Collins infringed upon their freedom of speech by censoring these scientists and their sincerely held scientific and science-policy beliefs. There were court cases about masks on a plane that challenged the federal government’s deference of public health policy authority to unelected scientists. There were arguments aplenty, and scientists like Drs. Fauci or Hotez who felt they were lionized during the pandemic, who underwent an apotheosis to scientific authoritarianism in their pursuit of scientific saviorism, are now being bombarded by criticism from people, counties, states, elected representatives, and even scientists.
To make matters worse, one of the most consequential conflicts of interest in human history lurked beneath the surface. The virus that triggered the emergency was most likely a laboratory accident from a laboratory that received funding from these same heads of health science funding, Drs. Fauci and Collins. In fact, Peter Hotez himself subcontracted work to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It’s within the realm of possibility the NIAID money Hotez sent to Wuhan could’ve bought the exact pipette or restriction enzymes that caused the pandemic. That’s a conflict of interest when it comes to deciding policies to mitigate the harms of this likely research-related accident.
Even without knowing the virus emerged from a lab, the mere fear they could be responsible for a global pandemic causing millions of deaths could reasonably be sufficient to cause scientists like Fauci and Hotez to exert undue influence on science and public health policy. Fears of a lab origin could explain why lab origin theories were branded as “conspiracy theories” with support from Drs. Hotez, Fauci and other health-science funders and the scientists close to them (Andersen, Holmes, Garry, etc).
Fears of a lab origin could explain why this syndicate of scientists prioritized reducing COVID mortality through extreme measures like lockdowns instead of drawing on decades of public health science by acknowledging competing risks, encouraging participation from anthropologically diverse people whose policies are being decided, and managing the more conventional all-cause mortality and morbidity instead of implementing a myopic focus on COVID.
The latter policy, incidentally, was that proposed by the GBD, none of whose authors were engaged in risky virological work in Wuhan and all of which had clear heads and sound arguments. Fears of a lab origin could plausibly lead scientists, concerned of their moral failings in possibly causing a pandemic, to desperately need a scientific saviorism success story like vaccines to balance the scales saving as many millions of lives as the millions of deaths they may have caused, leading them to label scientists’ divergent views on costs and benefits of vaccines as “disinformation.” The Wuhan COI could easily affect the observed irrational need to censor opposing views.
When we look at the pandemic history and our post-pandemic society from a more objective, less conflicted lens closer to the bodies of us innocent and diverse people Hotez labels “Anti-Science” from his siloed distance, we don’t see anything like “Anti-Science.” Instead, we see scientific authoritarianism and a predictable bipartisan anti-authoritarian response that even many scientists (including liberals like myself) support. Drs. Hotez and Fauci were authoritarians and now they are being challenged by the indomitable public that is reminding everyone who is in charge. As these authoritarians amongst us are being unseated from power, they create all manners of conspiracy theories and alternative narratives in a desperate effort to find purchase. If they can’t secure their newfound power, at least they may protect their reputations by casting their opponents as evil.
“Anti-Science” is thus not a real thing, nor is it sufficiently widely observed to warrant the dignity of being called a social construct. Anti-Science is an ego-defensive figment of Dr. Hotez’s authoritarian imagination, it is an effort to recenter The Science – the syndicate of scientists who attempted to center their own scientific paradigms and their own policy perspectives as if they were universally true and not merely political beliefs or value statements, possibly heavily conflicted ones – as deserving of power, sympathy, defense, and trust. Dr. Hotez is staring at the narrative mirrors the public uses to show him the monster he’s become, he is seeing a horrific – and true – reflection of scientists like him during the pandemic, and he is desperately trying to restore the image of himself from the current fallen general of an epistemological banana republic, back to the lionized Science and the Scientific Saviors we Followed. Hotez uses Anti-Science as an armor and an excuse to bypass a critical self-examination of the possible insensitivity and undemocratic behavior of he and his scientific savior colleagues during the pandemic.
The best way to assess whether a thing is objective or subjective is to ask different people if they see the same thing. That’s science. Of course, for things that hurt people like micro aggressions and the likes, it may help to ask the victims if it exists as they should experience the concentrated effects of the thing. I am a scientist, I was involved in both science and public policy during COVID, and yet I don’t see any horror of “Anti-Science” along my path in this narrative house of horrors.
Sure, I’ve seen disagreements in the public melee. I remember the history of disinformation on climate science, tobacco, and even Russian disinformation on all things, but that is not the thing Hotez describes and there isn’t generality other than institutions protecting their self-interests not because they are “Anti” anything but because they are “Pro” self and sometimes science reveals information that hurts a business’s bottom line. I’ve also seen companies act the same way when competitors enter the market, so past conflicts have nothing to do with science specifically. I’ve even been attacked, and even attacked for my science, but mostly I’ve been attacked by other scientists (including Hotez) who disliked the political implications of my findings. The Scientists who attacked me all form a relatively small, insular network of people closely connected with NIAID, NIH, or EcoHealth Alliance. While I was a researcher in the same wildlife virology community as EcoHealth Alliance, I didn’t conduct gain-of-function research, I didn’t subcontract work to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and I have maintained objectivity by critically evaluating the facts of the matter even where they inconveniently point to scientists’ mismanagement of risks. I’ve found flaws in Science papers and used my expertise to uncover evidence consistent with SARS-CoV-2 being a research product of EcoHealth Alliance’s pre-COVID research proposals.
I critically examined early case data, found evidence of large pools of unascertained cases consistent with a lower-severity pandemic and was told that my science risked “upsetting public health policy.” I argued otherwise, helped in part by my brilliant wife who has a PhD in public health policy. I argued that the only way sincere science and rigorous analyses could “upset public health policy” would be if public health policy were unscientific, if scientists were usurping the public’s seats in the policy process, centering Scientists, their belief systems, their value systems, and their institutions at the expense of decentering a larger, more diverse public. I found evidence that corroborated the Great Barrington Declaration’s cost-benefit analysis, and I shared that evidence privately with policymakers without grabbing the reigns and forcing them to choose any one policy.
As a scientist who maintained independence, who presented evidence without invading the deliberative jury or the policy process, I see scientists who became intolerant, petulant authoritarians; I don’t see “Anti-Science” as anything other than a reflection of Hotez grappling with the legitimate criticisms of his and his colleagues’ improper authoritarian scientific conduct before, during, and after the pandemic.
Far from being “anti-scientific,” the anti-authoritarianism unseating Hotez as one of the hallmarks of a true scientist and it is a hallmark of the people our republic. You don’t have to be an expert historian or anthropologist to recall that Americans went to war with the British because my ancestors despised authoritarians ruling without representation.
Throughout the pandemic, many members of the public have been better scientists than many prominent scientists. Members of the public and independent scientists have resisted convenient explanations when the data did not support them, such as the claim that lockdowns are indisputably wise policies when the public knew that lockdowns carried costs that were not being considered by scientists like Hotez on MSNBC.
Members of the public and independent scientists have rightfully questioned the efficacy of masks, and only years later are their hunches about the low efficacy or possible inefficacy of masks as a public health policy becoming known by scientists.
Members of the public and independent scientists questioned the safety and efficacy of vaccines, especially at reducing the risk of infection in the long term, and slowly, only after being labelled as “disinformation,” we are obtaining evidence of myocarditis, vaccine evasion in Provincetown, and more. Our citizenry has proven brilliant and remarkably agile, and predictably anti-authoritarian.
Hotez calls anyone – even scientists – assessing possible costs and estimating the true benefits of vaccines as “anti-vax.” It’s not “anti-vaccine” to err on the side of caution, to help doctors maintain their Hippocratic oath by ensuring benefits of a treatment or vaccine exceed the risks on a case-by-case basis (in science, we call this “individualized medicine”).
On the contrary, supporting systems that shake down and test hypotheses of vaccine safety and efficacy is one of the most pro-vaccine things we can do as it will inspire trust in vaccines that survive the gauntlet of scientific cross-examination. It is both pro-vax and pro-science to question the safety and efficacy of treatments, even those that have passed clinical trials, because that process of shaking down the answers gives us more confidence in the treatments we use and the science we’ve settled on. How many treatments have passed clinical trials only to be later discovered to have intolerable side effects? Would Hotez prefer “science” not uncover such later-discoverable complications?
Similarly, it is not “Anti-Science” to question the policies recommended by scientists or to investigate the possibility that scientists caused a pandemic. What Hotez calls “Anti-Science” is the core of science itself: an independence of mind, a diversity of perspectives, and an anti-authoritarian proclivity that conflicts with the interests of authoritarians masquerading as scientists. It is this independence and anti-authoritarianism that inspires confidence in science as well as democratic society, not the toxic ramblings of a scientific authoritarian as he’s unseated from power.
Republished from the author’s Substack
Alex Washburne is a mathematical biologist and the founder and chief scientist at Selva Analytics. He studies competition in ecological, epidemiological, and economic systems research, with research on covid epidemiology, the economic impacts of pandemic policy, and stock market response to epidemiological news.