As Scientific American points out, the consequences of anti-science in politics can be disastrous on an enormous scale. In the 1920s, Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko developed a set of theories that rejected entirely the idea of genetic inheritance and grossly distorted the ideas of evolution. Lysenko proposed a kind of agricultural process in which he insisted that grain levels could be increased by planting seeds ever closer together, because plants of the same “class” would support each other rather than compete. Lysenko’s theories were easily worked into the political theories of Joseph Stalin, and Lysenkoism became the official position of the Soviet state. For decades, teaching about genetics or Darwinian evolution was forbidden. So was hybridizing seeds for greater yield. More than 3,000 biologist or agronomists were either exiled to gulags or simply executed, biological sciences in the Soviet Union were set back for decades, and tens of millions of Soviet citizens simply starved from the catastrophic effects of following Lysenko’s state-sanctioned pseudoscience.
A much more recent and much closer to home version of this event is still ongoing. With the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Donald Trump deliberately underplayed the threat, promoted ineffective quackery in direct opposition to research, and purposely refused to implement a national plan of testing and case management. Researchers and experts were either ousted from federal agencies, or—as Trump has claimed proudly—completely ignored. As a direct result, 400,000 Americans died needlessly.
This wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t ignorance. It was a purposeful campaign of disinformation that is part of a broader program of dismissing the results of research, scorning the knowledge of experts, and equating “gut feeling” with hard-won facts.
The effects of this campaign are still visible in the 42% of Republicans who say they will definitely not get a COVID-19 vaccine. This number has not declined despite the evidence of millions being vaccinated safely. In fact, it’s now slightly higher than it was before the first vaccine became available.
It wasn’t always this way. As Scientific American points out, both parties were once proud supporters of scientific endeavors. In the United States, the National Academy of Sciences was founded under Abraham Lincoln. NASA was a product of the Eisenhower administration. The Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t just signed into law by Nixon, he proposed it and originally created the agency through executive order.
But around 2015, the anti-vax movement—which had generally made a home somewhere on the left side of the political spectrum—found genuine support on the right with the increasing dismissal of basic science and skepticism of medical experts. The most visible instance of this change came in California, where a measles outbreak turned into a campaign for “health freedom” within the state Republican Party. The anti-vax community welcomed support of members of the Congressional Freedom Caucus and in barely over a year, these ideas were integrated into Republican positions at the federal level.
That break with medical expertise may have been the last thread still connecting the right to standard scientific consensus, and the snapping of that final connection could not have happened at a worse time. It made the party absolutely ready to accept the idea that Trump, on the basis of being “really smart,” could discard the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci, silence Dr. Nancy Messonnier, and run through a list of ever less qualified advisers until he ended up with Scott Atlas actually advocating to get everyone infected as fast as possible.
It’s why the “Great Barrington Declaration”—a proposal that specifically called for an end to social distancing, and for the United States to adopt policies that had already proven to be an absolute disaster in Sweden—didn’t come out of nowhere. It was generated by the right-wing think tank American Institute of Economic Research. Atlas was the product of another of those think tanks, the Hoover Institution. So were numerous papers that downplayed the threat from COVID-19, or played up stories that America was already on the brink of herd immunity from millions of undetected cases.
This bond between anti-science and the right is not limited to the United States. Across Europe, right-wing parties have become not just increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic but anti-fact, anti-expert, anti-reason. The threat from the right is not just a challenge to centuries of progress in representative government, but to the whole enterprise of civilization. That includes the ongoing resistance by the right to take the necessary actions to combat human-generated climate change. However, that’s only part of the picture.
Just like Soviet agriculture, our world depends on not just an understanding of science, but a constant increase in that understanding just to survive. Without a strong, diverse, and expansive layer of researchers, the potential disaster makes the starvation under Stalin look picayune.