- The pandemic ushered in a new breed of attack on scientists and public-health officials.
- Unlike previous anti-science movements, the war this time was more personal.
- Lasting resentment towards scientists could hinder the US’s ability to handle future public-health crises.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Renae Moch never expected that she’d feel scared to leave her house. As the public health director of Burleigh County, North Dakota, she was accustomed to warning residents about the dangers of vape pens or a bad flu season without much pushback. Then the pandemic hit.
Moch found herself being called a “Nazi” and “tyrant” on social media. People protested with signs and bullhorns outside her office. At city commission meetings, attendees would boo audibly or grumble under their breath when she spoke.
“I would get accused of fear-mongering and lying to people and making things out to be much worse than they are,” Moch told Insider. The messages came in all forms, she said: letters, emails, phone calls.
Distrust of science isn’t new in the US. The anti-vaccination movement dates back to 19th century New Englanders who opposed the smallpox vaccine. Climate-change deniers have been vocal since the 1980s. But the pandemic intensified a new type of attack – one that focused not on the research itself, but on experts and health officials as people.
“A lot of the attacks were not necessarily based on the science,” Moch said. “A lot of the backlash and attacks were personally against me.”
Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, said opposition to scientists in the US is “a bit more virulent this time around because it’s so closely tied up with political polarization.”
One reason for this, Schwarz and other experts think, is that the pandemic arrived at a time when a broad segment of the US – primarily working-class conservatives – was already expressing increased distrust of big institutions, including the healthcare industry. Scientists, then, were an easy target.
“Populist movements are anti-elitist and there’s nothing more elitist than the science thing,” Schwarz told Insider. “These guys do things that are not quite clear to you. They have fancy titles, and they live in better houses, and they have better jobs and bizarre things like tenure, and they can’t be fired, and they’re usually liberal.'”
Moch said many of the responses to her public-health guidance seemed to question her authority.
“It was like, ‘Who are you and what gives you the right to tell us that we have to do this?'” she said. “It was a difficult period.”
Even with the pandemic now tapering off in the US, psychologists don’t think the anti-scientist trend is over.
“We have this sort of zeitgeist phenomenon in the country where people are losing faith in these big institutions,” Peter Ditto, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, told Insider. “Science is going through kind of a crisis.”
More than 180 public-health leaders resigned in less than a year
In the fall of 2020, North Dakota experienced a dramatic surge in coronavirus cases. Moch encouraged Bismarck’s city commission to instate a mask mandate, but residents railed against it. At a contentious commission meeting in October, Moch listened to people denounce masks for four hours.
One woman said she refused to “blindly follow the herd and put a piece of cloth over my face,” even after she’d lost two close family friends to COVID-19.
Moch considered resigning.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why in the heck am I doing this? Do I want to continue? Why am I subjecting myself to this?'” she said.
Had Moch quit, she would have joined a long list of public-health officials who did just that during the pandemic. From April to December 2020, more than 180 state and local public-health leaders across 38 states resigned, retired, or were fired, according to a joint investigation from the Associated Press and Kaiser Health News. In North Dakota, where Moch lives, three state health officers have resigned since May 2020.
Even if there is consensus in science, there is dispute. That means for many people that scientists don’t know what they’re doing.
In Orange County, California, Nichole Quick left her job as chief health officer in June 2020, after public backlash to her proposed mask mandate. Residents brought a banner depicting Quick as a Nazi to a Board of Supervisors meeting. At another meeting, one woman read Quick’s home address aloud and threatened to bring a group to “do calisthenics in masks on her front doorstep” as a form of protest.
Tisha Coleman, a public health administrator in Linn County, Kansas, was sued last year for telling a resident to quarantine. At a November county commissioner’s meeting, one resident equated Coleman’s proposed mask mandate to “peaceful slavery.” The county never implemented the rule.
Like Moch, Coleman chose to stay in her post, even as she faced harassment – and even still after her mother died of COVID-19.
“I could give up and throw in the towel, but I’m not there yet,” Coleman told the Associated Press in December.
Trump stoked a revolt against scientists
During the Ebola crisis in 2014, conservatives in the US called for tighter travel restrictions than Democrats did. At the time, psychologists theorized that conservatives were more inclined to react strongly to a perceived danger.
“Conservatism is a strategy to protect a society from harm from both outsiders and diseases,” journalist Brian Resnick wrote in The Atlantic in 2014. “Ebola hits this exact conservative nerve – it’s a deadly disease from a foreign country.”
But in the case of the coronavirus, the idea that scientists were trying to dupe the public swelled among conservatives, leading many to fear a loss of liberty more than the virus. President Donald Trump, of course, played a major role in shaping that narrative. He had already painted himself as the David that would put the Goliath industries of science and medicine in check, and also regularly suggested that Democrats were exaggerating the virus’ severity as a political stunt.
“That’s really what general populist politics is about: ‘The elite are somehow screwing the folks out there and I’m here to defend you,'” Ditto said.
A Cornell University analysis found that Trump was the largest driver of coronavirus misinformation during the pandemic. He touted the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential COVID-19 treatment without much evidence, and used racist misnomers like “Chinese virus,” or “kung flu” to push blame onto a foreign country – a time-tested move from the populist handbook.
“The president needed to use the pandemic in a way that would minimize it,” Dan Romer, research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, told Insider. “His point of view was, ‘let’s get the economy rolling,’ because his ace in the hole for the election was that the economy was doing quite well.”
Thomas Jepsen, a 28-year-old who was born in Denmark then moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in 2016, said he used to believe China had deliberately released the virus into the population. The pandemic, he thought, was China’s way of teaching Trump a lesson.
“I just saw it as extremely well-timed to disrupt an election,” he told Insider.
That was before Jepsen got COVID-19 himself.
Many Americans saw scientists as in the pockets of ‘big pharma’
A June 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center found that one quarter of US adults believed at the time that there was some truth to the idea that powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak. Conspiracy theories like these can make people feel like they have a valuable secret in circumstances they can’t control, Schwarz said.
“It gives you a certain sense of superiority,” he said. “You are ‘in the know,’ and these other guys are just sheep who get fooled.”
Moch said she heard North Dakotans claim that hospitals wanted people to test positive for COVID-19 so they could admit them and make money. Another common refrain, she said, was that doctors had a financial incentive to falsely attribute deaths to COVID-19.
Schwarz said he’d encountered similar distrust of doctors years before the pandemic – in focus groups ahead of the 2016 presidential election. One response stood out, he said: “‘Why am I with Trump?’ some guy says, ‘Because I’m sick and tired of my doctor speaking down to me.'”
Jepsen said the nature of the US healthcare system bred distrust on his part.
“You just feel like you’re being thrown around from a system to a system, filling out papers,” he said. “Then eventually you’re seen by a doctor for about seven minutes and 15 seconds before they tell you exactly what you knew already.”
That impression, he added, made it easy to believe that the coronavirus wasn’t as deadly as scientists suggested – and that masks, by extension, were unnecessary. Pharmaceutical companies, he reasoned, were in on it too, in order to profit off vaccines and treatments.
“I saw a lot of big pharma companies potentially standing to gain from mass fear,” Jepsen said.
A lack of clear, consistent messaging didn’t help
In October, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator at the time, visited Moch’s city of Bismark. In a rare public indictment, Birx said the city had the worst coronavirus protocols she had ever seen and urged residents to utilize masks and social distancing.
But Moch said that for the most part, people paid Birx little attention. That could be, in part, a result of the federal government’s inconsistent messaging. Until April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged the public from wearing masks, partly to save them for healthcare workers. One study estimated that requiring masks for public-facing workers in the US starting March 14 could have saved 34,000 lives.
“It’s easy to criticize the public-health community in this particular case,” Romer said. “I don’t think they do as good a job of explaining to the public why they’re making recommendations. And if you don’t explain it well, then – big surprise – people don’t necessarily buy it and that makes them susceptible to alternative explanations.”
Changing CDC guidelines sparked confusion again just last month, when the agency announced that vaccinated people could ditch their masks indoors and outdoors, after months of slow-moving recommendations that discouraged vaccinated people from traveling, going maskless, or seeing unvaccinated friends and family.
Of course, communicating the science of a new virus isn’t easy. But Moch said many Bismark residents lost trust in the CDC, and by extension other public-health officials.
“Usually even if there is consensus in science, there is dispute,” Schwarz said. “That means for many people that scientists don’t know what they’re doing.”
The Fauci backlash
Few scientists have endured more rampant backlash than Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci revealed in August that he and his family had received death threats and that his three daughters had been harassed. He got a security detail.
“‘Fauci is like Hitler.’ ‘Fauci has blood on his hands.’ Are you kidding me?” Fauci told Kara Swisher, host of the New York Times’ “Sway” podcast, this week. “I mean, anybody who is just thinking about this in a dispassionate way has got to say, what the heck are those people talking about? Here’s a guy whose entire life has been devoted to saving lives, and now you’re telling me he’s like Hitler? Come on, folks. Get real.”
But in many ways, Fauci is the embodiment of the scientific establishment: Erudite, measured, and careful with his words.
It was very easy to fall into the camp of believing that Fauci’s just a big fat liar.
“When I listen to Fauci, I can see how he talks to the public, while also having in the back of his mind his scientific colleagues who may frown at him if he overstates the confidence that he has in anything,” Schwarz said. “You can see Fauci being tripped up by the scientists in his head.”
Trump, by contrast, relied on a simple message that never changed: that the virus wasn’t a major threat.
“Every time something is easier to process, you’re more likely to believe it,” Schwarz said, adding, “The more often you repeat things and the more others agree in your network, the more true it becomes.”
Jepsen, who identifies as a libertarian, said he at one point considered Fauci a puppet for pharmaceutical companies.
“It was very easy to fall into the camp of believing that Fauci’s just a big fat liar,” he said, adding, “if the big pharma companies manage to get a guy like Fauci to tell everyone to take a vaccine, then that’s beneficial for them.”
Just before Christmas, however, Jepsen developed a fairly severe case of COVID-19. He had a fever, struggled to breathe, and would get exhausted from walking up a flight of stairs. He had to cancel his plans to visit his girlfriend’s family for the holidays.
“The wake-up call came from me having the disease myself,” he said. “I felt untouchable previously. I’ll be happy to admit that. Realizing that’s not the case definitely was eye-opening.”
Distrust of scientists probably isn’t going away
Psychologists don’t expect anger toward scientists to disappear anytime soon. Schwarz said that even the threat of physical violence against scientists remains a disturbing possibility.
“It doesn’t take large amounts of people – it only takes a few to have a real risk to scientists,” he said. “And I don’t think that is going to go away. I think that will stay.”
Even after Trump left office, he continued to frame public-health officials as corrupt and conspiratorial – though the US’s vaccines are the products of his administration’s Operation Warp Speed. When reports of rare blood clots linked to the Johnson & Johnson shot surfaced, Trump suggested that the Food and Drug Administration had temporarily paused the J&J rollout “maybe because their friends at Pfizer have suggested it.”
Moch, however, is hopeful that the anti-scientist sentiment she experienced will abate. Many Bismarck residents ultimately acknowledged the threat of the pandemic, she said – albeit after they or their family members got sick.
“The ones that were taking care of patients with COVID, the ones that lost people to COVID, the ones that were severely ill and hospitalized, understand the severity,” Moch said.
Jepsen is among those who’ve had a change of heart. He wears a mask where it’s still required. He’s been vaccinated. He’s even started to warm to Fauci.
“I very much respect Dr. Fauci for the work that he’s doing,” Jepsen said. “But I would not want to be in his shoes because I imagine about half the country probably would want to ship him off to someplace not very pleasant.”