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Outrage of the Month: Trump’s Rejection of Science Endangers Americans, Prompts Unprecedented Rebukes by Major Scientific Journals

Health Letter, November 2020

By Michael Carome, M.D.


If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

Image: Heidi Besen/Shutterstock.com

President Trump’s disdain for science was apparent long before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as his administration each year has proposed massive budget cuts at leading scientific agencies — including the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation — and challenged widely accepted scientific evidence related to the environment, human-caused climate change and public health, among other things.

More than nine months into the pandemic, most Americans now grasp the devastation wrought by the anti-science mentality that pervades the Trump White House. During the month of October, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. surged from approximately 7.2 million to more than 9.1 million, and the number of COVID-19 deaths rose from about 207,000 to more than 230,000 .

Trump essentially has cast aside Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, an expert on HIV infection, immunology, vaccine research and global health who was appointed White House coronavirus response coordinator in February, as key public health experts advising the White House’s federal pandemic response. In their place, Trump has anointed Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who has no expertise in infectious disease, as his de facto chief “scientific” adviser for the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, Atlas has endorsed Trump’s fantasy-based approach to the pandemic. For example, according to The Washington Post, Atlas has opposed attempts to expand desperately needed coronavirus testing, asserted that social distancing and mask-wearing were not useful tools for controlling the spread of the virus and advocated allowing the virus to spread naturally through most of the U.S. population in order to promote herd immunity — a dangerous approach rejected by most public health experts because it would result in tens of thousands of preventable deaths and overwhelm the country’s health care system. On Oct. 17, Atlas tweeted “Masks work? NO,” which prompted Twitter to remove the tweet because it violated the social media site’s rules against spreading dangerous misinformation.

Trump’s rejection of science in the face of the unrelenting pandemic toll has prompted several highly respected scientific journals in recent weeks to issue damning critiques of his handling of the pandemic and disregard for science. The following are representative excerpts from recent editorials rebuking Trump that were published by Science, Scientific American and Nature:

Science, Sept. 18, 2020, “Trump lied about science”:

When President Donald Trump began talking to the public about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in February and March, scientists were stunned at his seeming lack of understanding of the threat. We assumed that he either refused to listen to the White House briefings that must have been occurring or that he was being deliberately sheltered from information to create plausible deniability for federal inaction. Now, because famed Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward recorded him, we can hear Trump’s own voice saying that he understood precisely that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was deadly and spread through the air. As he was playing down the virus to the public, Trump was not confused or inadequately briefed: He flat-out lied, repeatedly, about science to the American people. These lies demoralized the scientific community and cost countless lives in the United States…

But now, a U.S. president has deliberately lied about science in a way that was imminently dangerous to human health and directly led to widespread deaths of Americans.

This may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.

Scientific American, Oct. 1, 2020, “Scientific American Endorses Joe Biden:
We’ve never backed a presidential candidate in our 175-year history—until now”

The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges…

The pandemic would strain any nation and system, but Trump’s rejection of evidence and public health measures have been catastrophic in the U.S…

Trump repeatedly lied to the public about the deadly threat of the disease, saying it was not a serious concern and “this is like a flu” when he knew it was more lethal and highly transmissible, according to his taped statements to journalist Bob Woodward. His lies encouraged people to engage in risky behavior, spreading the virus further, and have driven wedges between Americans who take the threat seriously and those who believe Trump’s falsehoods. The White House even produced a memo attacking the expertise of the nation’s leading infectious disease physician, Anthony Fauci, in a despicable attempt to sow further distrust.

Nature, Oct. 14, 2020, “Why Nature supports Joe Biden for US president:
We cannot stand by and let science be undermined. Joe Biden’s trust in truth, evidence, science and democracy make him the only choice in the US election”

No US president in recent history has so relentlessly attacked and undermined so many valuable institutions, from science agencies to the media, the courts, the Department of Justice…

The Trump administration’s disregard for rules, government, science, institutions of democracy and, ultimately, facts and the truth have been on full display in its disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its actions have had devastating consequences. With the nation’s death toll now exceeding 215,000, the coronavirus has killed more people in the United States than anywhere else. This undermining of research advice has been accompanied by the systematic dismantling of scientific capacity in regulatory science agencies.

These stinging reproaches against a sitting U.S. president by leading scientific journals is unprecedented. But the message from the scientific community couldn’t be any clearer: the country and the world cannot afford to wait any longer for the anti-science malignancy that resides in the Oval Office to be excised and for control of the federal pandemic response to finally be handed over to scientists and public health experts.