Is science under attack? Vaccine specialist and author Dr. Peter J. Hotez would claim so and even go as far as to warn us about what he calls the deadly rise of anti-science. But, while his hair-raising futuristic scenery can darken even the most optimistic minds, we should take a step back and assess those assertions. To understand the root issue and solve the problem, we need to ask ourselves, “How grounded are his concerns?”
The scientific journal Nature recently published an interview with Hotez, a dean at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, specializing in tropical medicine and pediatrics. He co-led the team responsible for designing a COVID-19 vaccine known as Corbevax.
The conversation between Nature and Hotez revolved around his latest book, The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science, and his opinions about the increasing attacks on science and scientists.
During the conversation, Hotez portrayed anti-science rhetoric as something beyond mere misinformation. According to him, we’re experiencing a rise in organized and politically motivated anti-science sentiments embraced and promoted by authoritarians in the US and abroad. To visualize the path we’re heading, he parallels the situation with the 1930s Soviet Union, where, according to Hotez, scientists became enemies of the state.
These are serious claims about the current state of science that, if true, could deter our future understanding of reality and, eventually, public health and safety. In other words, we need to understand where Hotez is coming from and his proposed solution. We should first understand Hotez’s recent background.
Who’s Dr. Peter Hotez?
You may already have encountered Hotez, particularly if you’ve spent time lurking in the dark corners of Twitter debates or following the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. His vaccine advocacy and tireless fight against so-called anti-science supporters and anti-vaxxers have made him some enemies.
For instance, earlier this year, after Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Jr., who’s running for President in 2024, appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Hotez ended up in a heated Twitter discussion with Rogan, who wanted to see a debate between RFK Jr. and Hotez. Hotez was stalked outside his home after he refused Rogan’s challenge to debate RFK Jr and his – often extraordinary – claims about vaccines.
Before and after this heated discussion, Hotez has appeared on several news shows as a proponent of COVID-19 vaccines. He’s argued that anti-science threatens “global security, as much as do terrorism and nuclear proliferation.“
So yes, his apocalyptic portrayal of the future, with increasing numbers of far-right extremists attacking scientists and virologists “paraded on [television network] CSpan[sic] as though they’ve done something wrong,” can give any scientist (and science lover) goosebumps.
With his latest book and continuing battle against anti-science, Hotez wants to halt this development and state clearly, “No, this must stop.”
However, there is room to doubt whether his narrative accurately represents the state of science and its perception by the general public. Clear as “No, this must stop!” may seem, the lack of clarity in the arguments hints at a more optimistic reality. Yes, you can call me an optimist in this matter.
But before continuing, I want to clarify that Hotez has been threatened and stalked by ideological opponents, which I condemn full-heartedly. We should resolve ideological differences through conversations, discussions, and debates and never accept harassment. Ivory Embassy promotes independent and critical thinking through the dialectic method, which we define as discussions across perspectives to reach the truth. This article seeks to find constructive alternatives to Hotez’s take on anti-science.
The hidden figures behind anti-science
Whether intentionally or not, Hotez’s crusade against anti-science encompasses several logical fallacies. While many scientists and science enthusiasts may believe that addressing this urgent issue requires strong measures, the tendency to exaggerate can risk alienating both sides of the discussion, even with well-intended arguments.
For example, Hotez often mentions the rise of well-organized anti-science campaigns and sentiments without providing data supporting said trends. His claims may represent our current reality in the US and other countries. But, if we’re to believe him, we need data. Evidence.
We have to keep in mind that science has experienced criticism throughout history. For example, the so-called anticontagionists rejected the germ theory, the idea that diseases could be spread through minuscule germs or microorganisms. Before that, science experienced resistance when the catholic church ordered Galileo to abandon his heliocentric teachings, in which the Earth and the rest of the planets from our solar system revolve around the Sun.
How can we know that our current situation is worse? We cannot consider the claims credible unless he offers data and specifies examples. Feelings, emotions, and anecdotes are insufficient to back up claims. While anti-science sentiments may appear to be increasing, the evidence for the assertion remains unsubstantiated.
Vague and unsupported theories pose several challenges to the scientific discourse. They spread like wildfire, creating an unsubstantiated narrative that the community progressively takes for granted. Take the myth that we only use 10% of our brains as an example. Or how Albert Einstein failed math in school. How about the Great Wall of China that can be seen from space? These relatively harmless examples make for good water-cooler conversations, but they’re all false.
By contrast, if true, a rise in deadly anti-science should elicit discussions at scientific institutions and among policymakers. Shouldn’t we verify these claims before they spread?
During the conversation with Nature, Hotez also pointed out the severe consequences of anti-science aggression. He mentioned that many Americans have tragically lost their lives due to the effects of coordinated anti-science beliefs and actions. However, without a clear reference to the cause-effect relationship, the exact figure of 200,000 remains uncertain. This underscores the critical need for discussions within scientific institutions and among policymakers to address the rise of such beliefs and to verify these claims before they spread rigorously.
We often point to Brandolini’s law to depict the speed at which non-scientific bullshit spread on the internet. The law states that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than what’s needed to produce it.” Although we usually visualize a layperson spreading misinformation, scientists must also be accountable for their claims.
Failing to provide accurate information can harm the attempts to connect the general public and the scientific community. Instead, exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims may backfire on our attempts to combat anti-science, creating distrust in science – and perhaps even fueling actual science opponents with arguments. Weak evidence and claims can elicit heated debates and polarized thinking inside and outside the scientific community.
Perhaps Hotez bases his arguments on existing evidence indicating rising anti-scientific sentiments. In that case, the data should be referenced.
Hidden roots, few solutions
Let’s set aside the numbers for a moment. A certain vagueness in Hotez’s campaign leaves us with more questions than it offers constructive answers. His unclear claims appear based on personal experiences within aggressive environments, such as the debates surrounding vaccines and social media. Is it possible that his negative experiences from social media and professionally have blurred the lines between personal and science-covering issues? I cannot answer this question.
However, his index finger seems to ping-pong between different responsible groups, and the villain becomes hard to pinpoint. Throughout his campaign, Hotez has named several enemies of science and roots of anti-science by association, including Republicans, extremist groups, Fox News, Russia, members of the US Congress, the far right, and QAnon. It portrays an ever-switching boogeyman who’s hard to confirm, complicating our attempts to save science. How can we solve the issue if we only have a political explanation for the rise of anti-science and no causal explanations that dissect the root problem?
I don’t deny political influence in science. But the “us vs. them” argument is a recurrent theme in Hotez’s campaign to combat anti-science with a vague villain. It almost seems that Hotez has set the stage to mobilize the scientific community to fight an inexplicable perpetrator, a battle without clear solutions.
While Hotez’s storyline includes vague characters, it lacks the two most essential aspects to solve the problem: introspection and a clear call to action. Addressing these two details will help us improve science’s general perception, whether from worst to good or good to better. The following post will explore how parts of the scientific discourse and approaches may contribute to the lost connections between science and the general public.
What do you think? Is science under attack today more than ever, or is it just a feeling?
Feature image modified from Darwin Laganzon’s Hacker Hacking