When attacks on science threaten our survival

We’re living through an extraordinary triumph of science — the deployment of new vaccines that promise to stop a pandemic that just a year ago looked unstoppable. But just as governments and health organizations around the world are racing to protect billions of people, malevolent agents of death and despair are working just as hard to persuade anyone they can that these life-saving vaccines are dangerous, ineffective or part of a global mind-control conspiracy.

As we report in this special issue, misinformation and deliberate disinformation about vaccines is rampant — and nothing new. The introduction of smallpox vaccination in the late 18th century sparked decades of opposition, even though inoculation was a game changer — the virus had been killing up to 30 percent of those infected. As freelance writer Tara Haelle reports, anti-vaccination groups argued that requiring vaccination violated personal liberty and interfered with parents’ rights to “protect their children from disease.” Those intent on delegitimizing vaccines today — from shots that protect against COVID-19 to measles and more — use the same arguments.

Most people are eager to get a COVID-19 vaccine and return to something approaching normal life; in the United States, over half of people ages 18 and older had gotten at least one shot by mid-April. But about 20 percent of U.S. adults say they remain unwilling to get vaccinated, and partisanship is a big factor: Forty-three percent of Republicans say they will shun vaccination compared with 5 percent of Democrats, according to a Monmouth University poll.

Leading conservative media outlets including Fox News have relentlessly promoted unproven COVID-19 cures and attacked scientists for doing what scientists do — saying when they don’t yet know the answers, as in whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be causing rare, serious blood clots. Scientists under attack include Anthony Fauci, a leader in both the Trump and Biden administrations’ COVID-19 response teams. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but it’s intrinsic to the process of science.

The shift to social media as a primary source of news has turbocharged the spread of antiscience disinformation worldwide. But as contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze reports, studying that flood of messages has also given researchers a much better understanding of why false information is so compelling. Recent work is beginning to reveal ways that the general public, scientists and social media platforms can identify falsehoods. Senior writer Laura Sanders maps out the anatomy of misinformation, with real-world examples of the tricks that hook us. And earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling talks with scientists about their work countering decades-long efforts to cast doubt on the realities of climate change. These are battles that won’t be easily won, but they must be fought if we are to ensure the health and safety of our families, our communities and our planet. We’re all susceptible to being manipulated by misinformation. But knowing how it works is the first step in beating back the tide. And, not surprisingly, science is here to help.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.