We are seeing what happens when the “fringe” goes mainstream. (Well, perhaps not mainstream as in “mainstream American society” but mainstream as in “takes over a President and his political party.” Mainstream Republican, in other words.)
When belief in science threatens the bottom line, when those pesky things called “facts” are politically inconvenient, when the complexity of modern life requires an acknowledgement of uncertainty–people who are profoundly uncomfortable with those realities retreat to the conspiracy theories and bright lines that have long characterized beliefs of people we might refer to as “untethered to reality.”
As Richard Wolffe recently asked about one such “untethered” person in the Guardian, “What kind of buffoon brags about taking a drug that could kill him?”
Wolffe acknowledges that–among the many ailments Donald Trump has inflicted on his own country – there is one worse than hydroxycholoroquine, unsafe and ineffective as the FDA says it is for this use.
But it’s even worse that he is a one-man delivery vehicle for a dunce cult that denies science.He represents the nadir of a long tradition of conspiracy-loving wingnuts who used to populate the fringes of the American conservative movement. Over the last half-century they have moved steadily into the mainstream of the Republican party, where their fact-free fairytales about the evil establishment have found a natural home in the cranium of the 45th president.
In this age of hyper-connected ignorance, there are no independent experts and there are no true facts. Your scientific theories are equal to my Twitter theories, just as your FBI investigation into Russia is equal to Rudy’s supposed investigation into Ukraine. All opinions are equal, but some are more equal than others.
As Wolffe notes, slap a respectable-sounding name on groups espousing bizarre theories, and watch the desperate-to-be-believers lap it up: the staid-sounding Association of American Physicians & Surgeons, for example, has denied that HIV causes Aids (citing “official reports and the peer-reviewed literature”) and revealed that Barack Obama was using “mass hypnosis to bamboozle voters with his fancy speeches,” among other “scientific” discoveries.
According to recent surveys, most Republicans want scientists out of the policy process. Before the pandemic, just 43% of Republicans thought scientists should play an active role in policy debates, compared with 73% of Democrats. This at a time when so many policy issues–from auto emission standards to public health standards–require an understanding of what credible science tells us.
Even fewer Republicans – 34% – think scientists are any better at making decisions about science policy than you or me.
These opinions did not crawl out of the primordial soup on their own. They have evolved over time in a warm bath of fringe conspiracy groups that have spent decades fighting against the teaching of evolution, among other social evils. One of those groups was Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, which worked to push evolution out of the classroom, almost as doggedly as Mrs America fought against women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.
So it’s no surprise to find her son Andrew named as general counsel to the AAPS. Among other projects, Andrew Schlafly founded a conservative alternative to Wikipedia, to correct its “liberal bias” on things like evolution.
Fringe beliefs aren’t new. Stupidity isn’t new (although I doubt we’ve ever had a President as monumentally stupid as Trump, who recently responded to a question about per capita comparisons with Germany and Japan by saying “You know, when you say ‘per capita’ there’s many per capitas. It’s, like, per capita relative to what? But you can look at just about any category, and we’re really at the top, meaning positive on a per-capita basis too.”)
What is new is the Internet and especially social media. What is new is the chutzpah of a President complaining that fact-checking his obvious lie on Twitter somehow deprives him of “free speech.” What is new is our ability to occupy information bubbles of our own choosing–bubbles that reinforce our bigotries and reassure us that Q is real and the pointy-headed intellectuals who trust science are part of the “deep state.”
What is new–and most definitely not improved– is the devolution of an entire political party into an adolescent, anti-science, anti-evidence, anti-fact cult of quackery.