In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. And among those diseases could be measles and COVID-19.Unfortunately, Republican politicians and conservative media figures are increasingly joining up with the anti-vaxxers. Even before COVID, they were fighting vaccine mandates and other public health measures.
“As both a pediatrician-scientist who develops vaccines and a parent of an adult daughter with autism,” [Dr. Peter] Hotez writes, “I have had a front-row seat on the modern anti-vaccine movement in America.”
The historical roots of the anti-science movement date back more than 100 years, Hotez writes, to when authoritarian regimes such as Stalin’s recognized that discrediting scientific experts assisted their path to personal power. Its appeal to the modern Republican Party has much to do with economics — challenging the scientific consensus on global warming, for example, allows the GOP to serve the anti-regulation interests of its Big Business patrons.
The anti-vaccine movement was in many respects a natural fit. Its invocation of shibboleths such as “medical freedom” and “health freedom” — coded justifications for opposition to vaccine mandates — led to its getting “picked up by the Republican Tea Party in Texas,” Hotez says.
“It was mutually reinforcing,” he told me. “The anti-vaccine groups were getting attention and PAC money that they never had before, and the far right got a new set of adherents and a new faux outrage to rally the base. It just became part of the canon.”
The anti-vaccine and anti-science movements exploit and amplify the lay public’s ignorance about the scientific method and the technical aspects of how vaccines work.
Declining levels of trust in scientists and medical scientists have been particularly pronounced among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents over the past several years. In fact, nearly four-in-ten Republicans (38%) now say they have not too much or no confidence at all in scientists to act in the public’s best interests. This share is up dramatically from the 14% of Republicans who held this view in April 2020. Much of this shift occurred during the first two years of the pandemic and has persisted in more recent surveys.
Confidence in scientists has also moved lower among Democrats. The share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents with a great deal of confidence in scientists – which initially rose in the pandemic’s first year – now stands at 37%, down from a high of 55% in November 2020. But unlike Republicans, a large majority of Democrats (86%) continue to express at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests. The overall differences in partisan views remain much more pronounced today than they were prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
One of the starkest illustrations of polarization in views of science is the drop in the share of Republicans who view the societal impact of science positively.
Fewer than half of Republicans (47%) now say that science has had a mostly positive effect on society. In 2019, 70% of Republicans said that science has had a mostly positive effect.
A majority of Democrats (69%) continue to say science has had a mostly positive effect on society, though this share is 8 points lower than it was in 2019.
Republicans were largely critical of the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, large shares said too little priority was given to respecting individuals’ choices, supporting businesses and economic activity, and meeting the needs of K-12 students. In addition, many Republicans felt that public health officials’ personal views had too much influence on policy and that officials were too quick to dismiss views that challenged their scientific understanding.