For a limited time, read the full keyword essay on “Science”
In 2020, as the weeks of pandemic lockdown that began in March stretched into months, the question of what to do about the novel coronavirus in the name of public health came to dwell on the status of science and its legitimacy. As the Covid pandemic saw a rapid spread of vaccine rejection on the political right, liberals and progressives who had once been critical of big Pharma and the social and cultural authority of scientific knowledge started saying, “trust the science,” while conservatives (long inclined to defer to authority) started urging each other to become “critical thinkers” and to “do their research,” offering a counter-science of Silicon Valley elites, 5G towers, microchips implanted through vaccines, dangerous side effects, including heart attacks and infertility, and a 2020 election stolen from Donald Trump through a science that loosed Covid on the world. While this may have begun as a fight over the role of government in managing a public health emergency, it quickly came to turn on the status of science.
In December of 2022, Elon Musk, in his new role as owner and CEO of Twitter, wrote “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.” In this mocking self-identification, he picked up on a right-wing anti-trans and anti-feminist discourse that claimed that “science” told us that there were only men and women, and their sex/gender could not change. The tweet simultaneously referenced a claim to reinterpret (regular, evidence-based, academic) science: that Covid was produced by a lab-leak in Wuhan, China, where scientists had done gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses, research that had been supported in part by the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, headed by Anthony Fauci. Fauci was a key advisor to Presidents Donald Trump and then Joe Biden on how to manage the novel coronavirus pandemic, and was blamed for the quarantine, masking, closed schools, and the massive government infusion of cash into the economy that followed from efforts to minimize mass infection and death.
Pandemic science-skepticism relied on the growing centrality of racist and white nationalist thinking on the right. One transitional figure was Charles Murray, whose view of supposedly deficient Black intelligence had long attracted critique by scientists and social scientists, as I noted in my original keyword essay on “Science.” He became what some critics have called an “alt-light” gateway to white nationalism. Demonstrators who denounced his racist claims about Black IQ were targeted as part of a broader attack by the right on universities and their claims to authoritative knowledge. It was not exactly a fight about science, but it was broadly about what constituted reliable information, and hence fed the fights over the meaning and usage of the term science. Conservatives insisted that universities were “biased” because students rejected what conservatives called “free speech.” Meanwhile, liberal and left commentators responded that what they were rejecting was offering an academic platform to racist trolls engaged in hate speech and “flat-earthers” who were only engaging with academic audiences because they were sponsored by right-wing political funders like Robert Mercer and Turning Point USA. Students at Middlebury College (loudly) and Harvard University (with greater decorum, in The Crimson) objected to the presence of Charles Murray.
The deepest and most persistent wellspring of pandemic-era science denialism was the anti-abortion movement. On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision, insisting there was no right to privacy in the Constitution, and hence no protection for abortion rights. An energized “Right-to-Life” movement, anticipating this moment (even before the decision was leaked, perhaps by Justice Samuel Alito himself) had passed laws in many states in the South and Midwest criminalizing abortion. This time, the movement was much more radical than it had been before Roe v. Wade in 1973. It leaned heavily on what Cecil Richards of Planned Parenthood called “junk science” to attack abortion rights and even birth control. It sought to reverse the FDA approval of abortion pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, claiming that they were anything but the safe and effective medication that researchers and doctors had long found them to be.
One marker of this radicalness is that anti-abortionists today largely dismiss what had been commonplace “exceptions” to the criminalization of abortion in the middle of the twentieth century – in cases of rape, incest (especially involving young children), or when a pregnant person’s life was at risk. Ectopic pregnancy or incomplete miscarriages, they insisted, were not life-threatening; “there are no medical indications to terminate a pregnancy,” they argued (without evidence), because if someone is healthy enough to become pregnant, they are healthy enough to give birth to a baby. Notwithstanding the broader cultural effects of #MeToo, conservatives largely persuaded themselves that rape and incest charges were usually made up and, as a Missouri Republican Senate candidate, Todd Akin explained, a person couldn’t get pregnant that way because, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Anti-abortionists also tried to ban “Plan B,” a post-coital form of birth control that works by preventing ovulation or implantation, as well as the pill and IUD, claiming they caused abortions. There is nothing new about the anti-abortion movement’s insistence that it has its own (true) science, distinct from that of the Food and Drug Administration, academic medical research, and physicians; this move to muddy the waters has been going on for decades, from claims about an invented procedure they called “partial birth abortion” and legislated against, or the belief that there was a “fetal heartbeat” at six weeks, before embryologists would say there was a heart (or a fetus).
While some feminists, physicians, and journalists fought fiercely for scientific truth in the context of the firehose of made-up information from anti-abortionists, science studies scholars had less faith in science per se. Thomas Laqueur, for example, pointed out that Todd Akin’s claim about the female body’s ability to deny consent to rape-sperm at the cellular level is rooted in the seventeenth-century science of reproduction. Angela Willey noted that scientific research that insists on the naturalness and evolutionary necessity of human heterosexual monogamy is rooted in assumptions that do not stray far from Akin’s. In other words, science studies scholars (while not defending or endorsing Akin’s beliefs), suggested that the objectivity and veracity of “science” could not be relied upon. The stories we tell about nature, they argued, are only as egalitarian and genial to the autonomy and freedom of pregnant people as those who tell them. In this, Laqueur and Willey were as skeptical as those in the field of science studies had ever been about the totalizing, universalizing truth claims of science and their alliances with capitalism, misogyny, racism, and the state.
The pandemic and the Trump administration with which it coincided did not fundamentally change the nature of debate over science. Rather, it would be truer to say that this period saw an intensification of processes already underway: specifically, the alliance of the conservative right with anti-science, racist, anti-university, and misogynist beliefs. These processes, together with a public health crisis which science and medicine seemed to offer some good tools to combat, strengthened a growing left-liberal affinity for science, leaving science studies, as a left critique of scientific authority and its military and imperial alliances, increasingly orphaned.