Science Denial and the Coronavirus

[Reporting for this post ended on April 29, 2020].


For the past three years, we have been writing blogs that contrast the mainstream scientific consensus on various controversial issues, with positions taken by groups that engage in science denial. Of all the issues that we have covered to date, the situation with the coronavirus COVID-19 is one of the cases where science denial is most evident. The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a powerful blow to national economies all over the world. The disease has spread through the world with enormous rapidity, in some cases overwhelming the public health systems of entire nations. This has tested the ability of doctors and epidemiologists to understand the epidemic and to mount effective defenses against it.

The coronavirus epidemic has also proved a tremendous challenge to countries, to devise strategies that can slow the spread of the disease and to minister to those infected. We will focus on the steps taken by the United States to coordinate responses to the disease, and to predict the spread of COVID-19 and the fatalities that it will cause.

At the same time, issues of science denial have been pushed to the forefront. A continuing theme of the Trump administration is the de-valuation of science, which manifests itself in ignoring scientific advice and targeting science funding for budget cuts. As we now know, during the Obama administration a global health security office was created within the National Security Council (NSC). However, in 2018 Trump’s head of the NSC, John Bolton, made major cuts in this organization, that almost certainly hindered our initial response to the coronavirus.

Furthermore, although the World Health Organization first reported a coronavirus outbreak in China on Dec. 31, 2019, for nearly three months after that President Trump insisted that the threat to the U.S. was minor, that it was completely under control, and that the virus would likely “disappear” as soon as the weather became warmer.

While scientists and epidemiologists were warning about the virus and urging action to limit its spread, there was significant pushback, and concerted attempts to denigrate the scientific claims that COVID-19 required a major response led by the federal government. In this post we will review attempts to impede the efforts of the international community of scientists. In addition we will cover the spread of rumors, conspiracy theories and dubious “miracle cures” for the coronavirus.

We will first review the actions of what we call the “Trump Brigades.” This is a group of conservative commentators and politicians, including many Fox News Channel pundits. These groups work in concert with the Trump White House. On the one hand, several of these commentators seem to provide the President with talking points; on the other hand, they go to great lengths in attempting to validate even Trump’s most far-fetched claims. As we will see, before the middle of March the official line was that COVID-19 was merely a disease similar in impact to the common cold or the flu; it was a minor issue, and totally under control in the U.S. But as soon as President Trump flipped his stance and stated that the coronavirus was extremely serious, with few exceptions the commentators pivoted at almost the same time.

At all stages of this pandemic the Trump Brigades have challenged the opinions and findings of scientists. They have instead engaged in “magical thinking” to put forth “alternative facts” that support their miscalculations of what will favor the President’s reelection. At first, scientists were derided for over-estimating the seriousness of the disease. But after thousands of Americans contracted the disease, leading to “shelter in place” orders in the majority of states, these commentators echoed President Trump’s assertions that our economy had to be opened up almost immediately. Now the claim from the right is that the models used by the epidemiologists were terrible, as they greatly over-estimated the number of deaths from the virus. Other commentators even accuse the doctors of collaborating with the media and the Democrats in a deliberate attempt to embarrass the President, and to keep the country shut down.

At the same time, COVID-19 has proved to be fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. The Web is full of coronavirus conspiracy theories. In this post we will discuss just a few of these theories, some of which have serious consequences for people trying to cope with the pandemic. There are Internet personalities who are constant sources of conspiracy theories. True to form, these people have jumped on the coronavirus bandwagon with their own outlandish hypotheses. We discuss a couple of these individuals or groups.

Finally, the rapid spread of the coronavirus around the world has left people fearful of catching the disease, and obsessive about ways to protect themselves from this invisible scourge. It is understandable that people would be receptive to products that claim to kill the virus or to insulate against catching it. Sure enough, the Internet is full of rumors of folk remedies and “magic bullets.” And of course, several unproven products that were hawked as cures for any number of diseases are now being re-purposed as “coronavirus killers.” We discuss a couple of these.

This blog post will differ from many of our other posts in two ways. The U.S. response to the coronavirus has been so politicized that we are forced to focus on the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. With respect to conspiracy theories and wacky coronavirus cures, these appear from both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. A second rather unique aspect of this topic is that we are writing this in real time, while the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic is still upon us. It is possible that events will overtake our analysis, so that a later assessment could be significantly different from our current understanding of the pandemic. At a later time, we will review this post and update it where necessary.

A Brief Coronavirus Timeline:

We begin with a brief timeline of events in the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic (courtesy of Politifact), which illustrate the crucial delays in taking warnings from infectious disease experts and epidemiologists sufficiently seriously.

• Dec. 31, 2019: the Chinese government confirmed the existence of a new virus, with many cases in the city of Wuhan.
• Jan. 21, 2020: the first U.S. coronavirus case was announced in Washington state. (It is now known from posthumous testing that two deaths from COVID-19 occurred even earlier in January in California.) The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the global risk from the virus was high. On Jan. 22, Trump was asked if he had any worries about a pandemic. Trump responded: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s … going to be just fine.”
• Jan. 24: Trump tweets: “It will all work out well.”
• Jan. 29: The White House forms a coronavirus response task force, initially led by Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
• Jan 30: The WHO declares a global health emergency. Trump blocks travel from China to the U.S. That night, at a campaign rally in Iowa, he says “We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at the moment – five … we think it’s going to have a very good ending for it.”
• Feb. 2: Trump tells Fox News host Sean Hannity, “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
• Feb. 4: The Diamond Princess cruise ship is quarantined in Yokohama, Japan. Within two days, more than 40 people, including 8 Americans, test positive for COVID-19.
• Feb. 14: Trump tells a group of Border Patrol agents: “We have a very small number of people in the country, right now, with it. It’s like around 12. Many of them are getting better. Some are fully recovered already. So we’re in very good shape.”
• Feb 24: after the WHO reports 77,000 cases worldwide in 27 countries, the Dow Jones Industrial average falls more than 1,000 points.
• Feb. 25: Nancy Messonnier, the Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, warns in a White House briefing of the impending community spread of the virus within the U.S., predicting that “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.” Trump requests $1.25 billion in emergency aid from Congress. He tweets that the virus “is very much under control,” and the stock market “starting to look very good to me!”
• Feb. 27: Trump claims the virus will be temporary. “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle – it will disappear!” On the other hand, top infectious-disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci says, “As the next week or two or three go by, we’re going to see a lot more community-related cases.”
• Mar. 4: House passes $8.3 billion emergency bill. On Fox News, Trump claims (falsely) that the Obama administration “didn’t do anything about” the swine flu. He tells reporters “The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing.” Eventually, that decision was traced back to 2006. The Obama administration had drafted, but never implemented, changes to rules to regulate laboratory tests run by states.
• Mar. 5: Vice President Pence concedes “We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.”
• Mar. 6: The Grand Princess cruise ship waits to dock off the California coast. Trump states his desire that the passengers stay on the ship, “because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.” Trump further claims (falsely) about testing for COVID-19, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test. They’re there. The tests are there. And the tests are beautiful.” That day, Trump tweets “The Fake News Media and their partner the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power … to inflame the Coronavirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”
• Mar. 10: President Trump says “Just stay calm. It will go away.”
• Mar. 11: WHO declares the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.
• Mar. 17: Trump says that for the next two weeks, “We’re asking everyone to work at home, if possible, postpone unnecessary travel, and limit social gatherings to no more than 10 people.” After pooh-poohing the idea of a pandemic for several weeks, Trump claims “I’ve always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Trump denied (falsely) that WHO had offered virus detection tests to the U.S., and he said that the WHO coronavirus test “was a bad test.” WHO pointed out that three independent labs had validated the test, which is currently in use in several countries.
• Mar. 19-23: Several states, including California, New York, Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois order all non-essential businesses to keep their workers at home.
• Mar. 24: Discussing economic shutdown to prevent COVID-19 from overwhelming state health systems, Trump tweets that “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Participating in a Fox News town hall Trump says he would “love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go by Easter [April 12].”
• Mar. 26: Trump claims that this pandemic “Was something nobody thought could happen … Nobody would ever have thought a thing like this would have happened.” This statement is false. In a 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates stated that a pandemic just like this would happen, caused by a new virus affecting human respiratory function, for which there would be no human immunity or treatments or vaccines. Gates showed that the U.S. was unprepared for such an epidemic, using the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak as an example. He repeated this in 2018 in a seminar in Massachusetts. And after Trump’s election, Gates repeated this warning in a meeting with Trump. In 2015, the Obama administration created a global health crisis unit in the National Security Office; the Trump administration closed down this unit in 2018. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations prepared, and passed along to the Trump team, guidelines for the federal management of such a pandemic, but these guidelines seem to have been ignored during the Trump administration.
• Mar. 27: Trump signs $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill from Congress.
• Mar. 29: At the urging of epidemiologists such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, Trump reverses himself and extends the stay-at-home guidelines until the end of April. He states “The highest point of death rates … is likely to hit in two weeks. Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all.” He further claims that his administration will have done “a very good job” if it keeps the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 to fewer than 100,000.
• Mar. 30: Responding to claims that the U.S. was still far behind in the number of tests required to track the spread of COVID-19, Trump tells Fox News that “We inherited a broken test” for the coronavirus. He also called the tests “bad” and “obsolete.” This is false: no such test existed before the virus appeared. One reason for the delay in testing was that the first shipment of tests from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were faulty, because they contained tainted reagents.
• Apr. 14: Trump claims that the U.S. response to the coronavirus was hampered because of lapses by WHO. Trump announces that as a result, he will withhold funding from WHO, while administration officials “Assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” WHO made a few questionable decisions near the beginning of the epidemic, but they are the world authority on infectious disease. They provide advice and assistance to countries around the world. In fact, it has been revealed that during the month of January 2020, scientists working at WHO were in active consultation with American scientists and were updating them on the course of the epidemic. In response to Trump’s action Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, tweeted “President Trump’s decision to defund WHO is simply this – a crime against humanity. Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”
• April 27: An article in the Washington Post reveals that in the months of January and February, President Trump was repeatedly warned by his intelligence agencies that COVID-19 represented a serious health threat to the U.S. and to the globe. These repeated warnings were included in the Presidential Daily Briefings (PDB), a written report prepared for the President. For weeks, the PDB traced the virus’ spread around the globe … and raised the prospect of dire political and economic consequences. This decisively refutes Trump’s repeated claim that “nobody could have seen this [pandemic] coming.” And it places Trump’s dismissive comments about the virus (prior to March 17) in a new light.

The ‘Trump Brigades’

Ever since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and subsequent election, a group of conservative commentators have become his staunch supporters. This support frequently extends even to instances where President Trump makes claims that are clearly false. One remembers Trump’s claim that the crowds at his inauguration were the largest of all time; or that he would have won a majority of the popular vote in 2016 if it had not been for millions of illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton; or when a National Weather Service map was altered with a Sharpie to include the state of Alabama in the zone of Hurricane Dorian, after Trump had falsely claimed Alabama was in the path of that hurricane [In addition, employees at the National Weather Service were warned about making statements that contradicted the President.]. The support of many loyalist commentators has continued even in these embarrassing moments.

The Fox News Channel has an interesting and complex relationship with Donald Trump. On the one hand, the President is an obsessive watcher of cable news, and it appears that on several occasions he has absorbed and repeated talking points from his favorite commentators. On other occasions, these commentators unfailingly praise President Trump while simultaneously denigrating his opposition. We know of only two significant exceptions on Fox News. The first is Chris Wallace, who maintains a consistent neutrality in analyzing political events. The second is Tucker Carlson. Although Carlson’s views are generally aligned with the right, on some occasions he deviates from otherwise unanimous support for Trump at Fox News. The coronavirus is one of those occasions; at a very early stage, while Trump was minimizing any risk from the “Wuhan Flu,” Mr. Carlson insisted that it was a potentially dangerous epidemic and emphasized that it should be taken seriously.

In the following sections, we will intertwine descriptions of specific Trump loyalists and influencers, who devalue the science, with discussions of particular themes and “talking points” both they and the President himself have adopted to try to downplay the threat to the health and welfare of U.S. citizens.

Laura Ingraham

Laura Ingraham is a conservative American TV personality. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 1985 and earned a J.D. degree at the University of Virginia. Following that she clerked at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She began a career as a TV commentator in the 1990s, and then hosted a radio talk show for several years. In 2017 she became the host of a Fox News Channel show, The Ingraham Angle. Nothing in her background qualifies her as an informed voice on medical or scientific issues.

Figure 1: Fox News Channel commentator Laura Ingraham.

Donald Trump has always had an extremely close relationship with Fox News and several of its commentators. Although he rarely appears on other major broadcast or cable networks, Trump is a regular guest on Fox News programs. And the relationship between Trump’s positions and those of his favorite commentators is symbiotic. Trump frequently picks up on talking points from people such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

Several of Trump’s coronavirus stances appear to have originated from Fox News staff. Conversely, the Fox News commentators provide almost unwavering support for Trump’s agenda. This was certainly the case during the early months of the coronavirus. Initially, Trump maintained that the coronavirus was not a problem, and that his administration would easily prevent it from spreading across the U.S.

As is evident from the coronavirus timeline discussed above, until March 17 Donald Trump was dismissive about any threat to Americans from the virus. And during that period, Fox News commentators generally followed precisely this line. They downplayed any serious risk of the virus spreading, and several insisted that the regular flu was considerably more dangerous than COVID-19, ignoring predictions from medical experts that U.S. health services would likely become overwhelmed in many places by the surge of exponentially increasing COVID-19 infections requiring hospitalization.

Laura Ingraham certainly followed this “Fox News playbook” until mid-March. She treated media reports of the danger from this pandemic as nothing more than “liberal panic.” She urged her 3 million viewers to ignore statements from the CDC that, because the coronavirus spreads extremely rapidly through close contact with others, Americans should be wary of taking airline flights. In fact, Ingraham tweeted that this was “A great time to fly if not in at-risk population” (the tweet has now been deleted).

Along with fellow commentator Sean Hannity, Ingraham suggested that the coronavirus epidemic was simply a minor flurry of cases, and that it was being over-hyped by the liberal media, who were presumably working along with the Democrats, in an attempt to make Trump look bad. Shortly before March 17, the day that Donald Trump suddenly began to take the COVID-19 threat seriously, Laura Ingraham was still congratulating Trump for holding firm against the “panic pushers.” Ingraham argued that concerns over the virus were merely efforts by the media and the Democrats to “stoke panic.” She compared these efforts to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the subsequent impeachment proceedings. One of Ingraham’s guests even advised the TV audience to ignore the serious warnings issued by the CDC because “it’s a highly politicized organization.” (The reason the CDC’s warnings should be neglected? Because they maintain that guns kill people!)

Yet right around March 17, the day that President Trump suddenly changed his tune and announced that COVID-19 was a serious disease that required extraordinary steps on the part of the American public, the Fox News commentators immediately adjusted their own stance.

Well, nearly all of the Fox News commentators abruptly changed their tune. Fox News business anchor Trish Regan was actually let go by the network, after she delivered an emotional rant on Monday, March 9. The screen crawl below Regan read “CORONAVIRUS IMPEACHMENT SCAM,” while Regan asserted “We’ve reached a tipping point. The chorus of hate being leveled at the president is nearing a crescendo as Democrats blame him and only him for a virus that originated halfway around the world. This is yet another attempt to impeach the president.” She added “Many in the liberal media using, and I mean using, coronavirus in an attempt to demonize and destroy the president.”

Figure 2: Former Fox Business Channel anchor Trish Regan, who was removed from the air after she alleged the coronavirus pandemic was an “impeachment scam.”

Aside from the ferocity of her remarks, it is not clear in what way Regan’s comments differed substantially from statements made by Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Note particularly that the date of Regan’s rant, March 9, was still during a period when the administration was denying that COVID-19 represented a significant threat. Nevertheless, Regan was placed on indefinite hiatus, and on March 27 it was announced that she and Fox News Channel had agreed to go their separate ways.

The current stance of the Fox News commentators is that President Trump is doing a wonderful job of managing the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, they now assert that while the Democrats were still obsessed with impeachment, Trump was already taking steps to combat the coronavirus threat. Laura Ingraham has claimed “They [the liberal media] like this crisis point and they really don’t want things to go back to normal, and that a lot of them seem – as the news comes in that might be slightly better than we thought, they’re angrier and grumpier than they should be – it’s odd.”

Another point that Ingraham has hammered away at is the unreliability of doctors and scientists in predicting the toll from the pandemic. Epidemiologists studying the transmission and lethality of the virus had suggested that without social distancing, COVID-19 was likely to kill between 1.2 and 2.2 million Americans. Even with social distancing, it was estimated that 100,000 – 200,000 Americans would die from the pandemic. As of April 29, 2020, there are over one million Americans who have confirmed infections with COVID-19 (and likely many more, given the continuing paucity of testing in the U.S.), and more than 60,000 deaths so far. Figure 3 below shows the cumulative and daily U.S. death tolls from COVID-19, through April 29. It now appears that the total death toll in the U.S. is likely to exceed 75,000 people, without even accounting for possible subsequent waves of disease spread following the relaxation of stay-at-home orders in many states. According to Ingraham, this is proof that the models used by the doctors were greatly in error. Epidemiologists ascribe this to the fact that social distancing guidelines are so far largely being obeyed, and are working to stem community spread of the disease.

Figure 3: The cumulative number of U.S. deaths to date from COVID-19 (solid curves, left-hand axis), and the daily death tolls (vertical bars, right-hand axis). States other than New York and New Jersey (black curve) account for about half of all deaths (blue curve) to date, but account for more than half (dark vs. lighter bars) of the daily deaths over the past week, as infections spread from the coasts into the American heartland. The figure is reproduced from .

The right-wing commentators have now been joined by the climate-change deniers in criticizing the virus-transmission models. In fact, some of them are calling for congressional hearings into not only the infectious-disease models, but all modeling. Texas Senator John Cornyn tweeted “After #COVID-19 passes, can we have a good-faith about the uses and abuses of ‘modeling’ to predict the future. Everything from public health, to economic, to climate predictions. It isn’t the scientific method, folks.”

Actually, it is the scientific method. In situations that are too complicated to use first-principles scientific theories, we rely on models for guidance. First-generation models are often quite simple: they include only a few parameters and are required to neglect several important variables. Early versions of models can give general guidance on how the systems evolve, but important inputs must be added in order to obtain quantitative predictions. As time goes by, more and more forces are added to the later generations of models. Parameters of the models are adjusted so that they agree with past observations. The success of the models is then judged by their ability to predict the outcomes of future observations. In my own field, nuclear physics, we have nuclear structure models that are used to predict energy levels and other features and interactions of complex atomic nuclei.

Climate models have followed this trajectory. Since the atmosphere is dominated by complicated fluid dynamics with highly non-linear processes, the first climate models were one-dimensional and included only a few inputs. However, the models have steadily evolved over time, been extended to three dimensions, and added more and more features. By now, climate models do a fine job of predicting changes in global temperatures. However, an active group of deniers have claimed that climate models do a poor job of assessing global climate. In our blog post series “Debunking Denial,” we give several examples where climate-change deniers cherry-pick the data that they use and provide deliberately misleading “demonstrations” that climate models don’t work. We also have a “Profiles in Denial” section where we review the actions of noted climate-change deniers.

Patrick Moore, chairman of the CO2 Coalition, a major source of climate denial, stated that “The computer models for the coronavirus pandemic are about as accurate as the computer models that have failed so miserably on global warming … Proves you can’t predict a chaotic, multi-factor non-linear future.” And a group of Republicans on the Oversight and Reform Committee have requested hearings into the models used by the government in determining their response to this pandemic.

These politically-motivated attacks claim that the virus-transmission models predicted fatality levels that were much too high. Conspiracy theorists go even farther, and suggest that the forecasts were deliberately pitched too high. Various motives have been suggested for why scientists would deliberately over-estimate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. These include claims that left-leaning scientists intended to make President Trump look bad, or assertions that the effects of COVID-19 were inflated to provide justification for (presumably unnecessary) “shelter in place” orders.

Aaron Bernstein, interim head of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard, responded “Any insinuation that scientists distorted their models into scaring people and wrecking the economy is not only wrongheaded, it smacks of an ulterior motive for even raising it. There’s no evidence that scientists have done anything to models that have suggested we would have been far worse off having not done stuff to keep ourselves safe, and I would say the same about climate models.”

Gavin Schmitt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said “Models are absolutely fundamental to doing any kind of science, and so people that rag on models without being specific about what it is they are even talking about are just really betraying that they don’t understand how science works.” But that hasn’t stopped Laura Ingraham from weighing in on this controversy. While the crawl beneath her screen read “Faulty COVID Models Causing Panic,” she claimed the government now understands that “Those fancy COVID-19 models were wrong. This is a lot of money that we’re spending on a response that was based, again, on faulty numbers.” But epidemiologists argue that without guidance from the models, many more people would have died, the economy would have suffered even worse damage, and our public health system would have been subject to even greater stress. They insist the fact that fatalities in the U.S. during the current COVID-19 wave may now fall below the 100,000 – 200,000 deaths that were predicted, is because social distancing and shelter in place orders have been more effective than was assumed. After all, these models are being updated in real time, and they are hampered by the fact that testing in the U.S. has been so limited (only 1% of the U.S. population had been tested for COVID-19 by April 17).

Lately, Ingraham has also argued that the U.S. economy needs to restart as soon as possible. Re-opening the economy will mark a critical juncture. Millions of Americans are either out of work or furloughed because of the pandemic, and are experiencing major financial uncertainty. It is certainly important that the economy be re-started at the earliest appropriate time. However, doctors warn that easing up on social distancing too soon – in the absence of validated treatments or vaccines or even sufficiently widespread testing — could be disastrous, as the coronavirus might re-appear with even more ferocity. In this context, it is useful to reconsider the timeline illustrated in Fig. 4 below for the 1918 flu pandemic, which claimed tens of millions of lives worldwide in three distinct waves, the first of which was not the most lethal.

Figure 4: Deaths per thousand inhabitants in Britain from the 1918 influenza pandemic, as a function of date, showing the three distinct waves of infection and death.

However, Laura Ingraham claims that doctors have been far too cautious and their prognoses much too pessimistic. She implies that anyone whose conclusions differ from those of the President is guilty of animosity towards Donald Trump. And her recommendations for re-opening the country by May 1 explicitly contradict those of the President’s top epidemiologists. She is thus dismissive not only of the scientists, but also of the history of comparable (in transmission and fatality rates) pandemics.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh is an American right-wing media personality. He had a television show from 1992 to 1996 but currently hosts a radio program. He has probably the biggest audience of any radio commentator, estimated at 15.5 million listeners per week. Limbaugh is a member of the Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and in 2020 Donald Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Limbaugh is not only a staunch supporter of the Trump administration, but he is also a personal friend of the President.

Figure 5: Right-wing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh’s initial forays into radio broadcasting were unsuccessful, as he was fired from a number of early jobs. For a person who flunked out of college after only two semesters, it appeared that his prospects were slim. However, in 1984 Limbaugh began broadcasting in Sacramento, California. Ronald Reagan’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast media gave Limbaugh the freedom to say whatever he wanted, and he used his attack-style reporting as a springboard to fame.

Rush Limbaugh’s anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-black and anti-immigrant zingers have made him a darling of the right wing. As one might expect, he is also a vehement anti-environmentalist. He opposes the consensus by the scientific community that global change is accelerating due largely to human influences. He also denies that chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing any harm to the ozone layer. By now there is nearly universal consensus that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer and that the 1995 worldwide ban on CFCs saved us from widespread damage to human lives, crops, and animals. We covered this in an earlier blog post. We also critiqued the arguments of climate-change deniers.

On the coronavirus pandemic, one would have expected Rush Limbaugh to hew very closely to Donald Trump’s narrative, and he has not disappointed. Early in 2020, Limbaugh ridiculed claims that COVID-19 was a potentially serious epidemic. On Feb. 24, 2020, Limbaugh asserted on his radio show “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” On Mar. 13, Limbaugh upped the ante to claim that the coronavirus was actually a hoax. Limbaugh stated “We’re shutting down our country because of the – the cold virus, which is what coronaviruses are. This is COVID-19, the 19th version of the coronavirus. We’re shutting it – can you imagine our enemies watching this? You think the Chinese are not laughing themselves silly over how easy this has been? And it continues.” [To be clear, the label COVID-19 given by the WHO reflects the year 2019 in which the virus first appeared, not the “19th version of the coronavirus.” Such inconvenient facts only get in the way of Limbaugh’s narrative.]

However, when Donald Trump reversed himself on March 17, 2020, saying that the coronavirus was a serious epidemic and that the country needed to take drastic steps to minimize the loss of life from the pandemic, Rush Limbaugh shifted his focus. First, he claimed that liberals and left-wingers had over-hyped the disease for their own purposes. In late March Limbaugh said that the 10 million jobless claims filed in the past two weeks “aren’t enough for people like Bill Gates,” and others who “want to shut down the entire country.” [Gates, of course, is one of America’s most successful capitalists.] Next, he claimed that deaths of Americans from other causes were being falsified to state that they died from COVID-19. On April 1 Limbaugh pushed a theory “That with this new arrival of COVID-19, that coronavirus is being listed as a cause of death for many people who are not dying because of it.” There is a grain of truth to this comment. If people with COVID-19 die from pneumonia brought on by the disease, or other factors, they would be listed (quite accurately) as dying “from complications due to the coronavirus.” But to Rush Limbaugh this is simply part of a conspiracy by unnamed leftists (or perhaps named leftists like Bill Gates or George Soros) against Donald Trump and the American people.

Limbaugh also claims that the “shutdown” of the American economy has been a coup engineered by the Democrats, a “political effort to get rid of Donald Trump in the election this November,” and also a Democratic plot to “keep people fed without them having to go to work,” and “to fine them for going to church.”

Kayleigh McEnany

On April 7, 2020 Kayleigh McEnany was named the Presidential Press Secretary. Ms. McEnany previously worked for Mike Huckabee on his Fox News Channel program. She then served as a Republican commentator for CNN during the 2016 elections. After that she was named head of the Republican National Committee.

Figure 6: Current Presidential Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Ms. McEnany has a history of science denial and has been a staunch pro-Trump supporter. In 2012 she made several statements supporting the “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

She has also made statements that indicate she is a denier of global climate change. In 2014, during a rally by climate-change advocates on a winter day in Washington, DC, McEnany said “The science is not settled, so let’s stop the liberal hysteria, take a break from protesting, so get some hot cocoa.” When a scientist claimed that nearly all active climate scientists agreed that the climate was warming largely because of human influences, she asserted that “In the 1970s it was global cooling … they always change the verbiage. It’s the verbiage to justify the liberal mechanisms that they would like to put in place.”

Ms. McEnany claimed that mainstream climate scientists were biased. “Let’s be real. Who’s getting the grants? Who are the liberal universities giving the grants to? Of course it’s going to be people who buy into the fact that global warming does exist.” [Note that the vast majority of the research grants she refers to are awarded by the federal government, not by “liberal universities.”] In February, McEnany tweeted that the Democratic platform for climate change was “To eliminate more than 1 million jobs in American by eliminating the fossil fuel industry. Kill the economy!” [Many more jobs are currently being created in the renewable energy industry in the U.S. than by the fossil fuel industry.]

In February 2020, she appeared on Trish Regan’s Fox Business Network show, where she praised President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus threat, stating “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here. And isn’t it refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?” Again, on Fox News she stated “What is bad for America is good for Democrats. It’s incredible that they think this way. They root against the stock market. They root for [the coronavirus] to take hold. They have a demented dream of taking down President Trump. It doesn’t matter how many Americans they destroy in order to get there.”

The President’s latest press secretary (his fourth in three years) seems poised to continue the Trump Administration’s record of science denial.

Donald Trump and “Miracle Cures”:

One of the more surreal aspects of the daily briefings of the Coronavirus Task Force has been Donald Trump’s repeated claims that a drug commonly used to treat malaria might be an effective drug in combating COVID-19. The drug in question is hydroxychloroquine. It is a bit unusual that this drug should be effective against COVID-19, since malaria is caused by a parasite and not a virus. French doctors were said to have used a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to treat six patients suffering from COVID-19. It was reported that after six days of this treatment regimen, all six patients tested negative for the coronavirus.

This news made a significant impression on President Trump. Trump tweeted about the drugs, “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” A few days later he added, “It will be wonderful. It will be so beautiful. It will be a gift from heaven, if it works.” However, when Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked about this drug regimen, he emphasized that these drugs were in the early stages of trials to test their efficacy. Fauci also characterized the report as “anecdotal.” That is, it was not a report of a randomized clinical trial, but merely an interesting suggestion that needed to be thoroughly vetted.

However, this did not deter Trump from further hyping these drugs. In a later meeting of the Coronavirus Task Force, Trump dismissed statements that an adequate supply of ventilators was critical to success by front-line health workers in combating COVID-19. He also insisted that recommendations to obey social-distancing rules and wear face protection were merely recommendations, and said that he personally would not wear a face mask. At the same time, he announced that the federal government was purchasing 29 million doses of hydroxychloroquine for a federal stockpile.

This is just one example of Donald Trump’s disdain for legitimate scientific data, combined with an incredibly limited grasp of scientific principles and exacerbated by his confidence that he is the smartest guy in the room. When asked how he determined that hydroxychloroquine was truly effective, he pointed to his head and said, “Smart guy.” Trump also asserted “I’m not a doctor. But I have common sense. The FDA feels good about it. As you know, they’ve approved it, they gave it a rapid approval, and the reason [is] because it’s been out there for a long time, and they know the side effects and they also know the potential.” The FDA has not approved any drug as a coronavirus treatment. However, they have issued an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine.

It was pointed out to the President that hydroxychloroquine has serious side effects (one of its side effects is cardiac arrest, and other potential side effects range from vomiting and headaches to psychosis and loss of vision. Also, it is not recommended for people with heart conditions or liver dysfunction). Trump however doubled down on his recommendation to people infected with COVID-19. “What do you have to lose? I’ll say it again: What do you have to lose? Take it. I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s their doctor’s choice, or the doctors in the hospital.”

A few hospitals have begun providing it to some patients. However, the University of Michigan does not recommend its use, commenting “The current body of literature and local experience does not support the routine use of any specific treatment regimen, including hydroxychloroquine, for patients with confirmed COVID-19 infection.”

We now know some additional details about the trial that reported 100% success with the hydroxychloroquine – azithromycin treatment. It was actually given to 11 patients. However, one patient had a reaction to the drugs and the treatment was stopped, in three patients the disease had progressed to a further stage (they were intubated) and they were not tested after six days, and one patient died during the treatment. Furthermore, other trials involving hydroxychloroquine have shown mixed results. A randomized trial of 32 COVID-19 patients in Shanghai showed no improvement after seven days of treatment. However, two other small studies indicated that this chemical might have positive effects. Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, tweeted that “Patients with lupus, arthritis, other conditions are *already* on hydroxychloroquine. And we are diagnosing them with Covid-19 LEFT AND RIGHT.”

Obviously, it is time for this drug to be included in randomized clinical trials to judge its effectiveness, and to determine under what circumstances it should be administered to coronavirus patients. But the results of incomplete studies to date are not at all encouraging. For example, a recent study has reviewed the outcomes for 368 COVID-19 patients treated at U.S. Veterans Health Administration hospitals. The authors found that hydroxychloroquine, administered with or without coupling with azithromycin, did not reduce a patient’s need for a ventilator or reduce the risk of death. In fact, they found that those patients who received hydroxychloroquine alone had a higher risk of death than those who did not.

At this time, it is thus stunningly irresponsible for the President to continue hyping this unproven treatment. For example, after hearing about hydroxychloroquine, an Arizona couple purchased and ingested chloroquine phosphate, a product used to combat parasites in fish tanks. Both became seriously ill, and the husband died. Not only could Trump’s fulsome praise raise false hope among sufferers from the virus, but hydroxychloroquine is already becoming scarce, thus limiting supplies of the drug that should be used for its legitimate purposes, including people with compromised immune systems or with parasitic diseases.

So why would President Trump be so enthusiastic about an unproved remedy, contradicting the advice of his top scientists and potentially confusing hundreds of thousands of people with the coronavirus? It turns out that the report from the French doctors reached Dr. Mehmet Oz. He is a celebrity personality, known for his TV show on wellness. Dr. Oz passed along a report to various commentators at Fox News Channel.

Figure 7: Dr. Mehmet Oz, star of a TV program on wellness.

In the past few weeks, Dr. Oz has appeared on Fox News over 20 times to talk about hydroxychloroquine. In an interview, he told Sean Hannity, “This French doctor, Raoult, a very famous infectious-disease specialist, has done some interesting work at a pilot study showing that he could get rid of the virus in six days in 100 percent of the patients he treated.” Unfortunately, Raoult is also famous for his unconventional views on several topics – he is apparently skeptical about both Darwinian evolution and global climate change. But it is reported that Dr. Oz’s enthusiasm about the drug caught the attention of the President. And Dr. Oz subsequently pitched hydroxychloroquine to the White House as a likely “wonder drug” in the fight against COVID-19.

Unfortunately, Dr. Oz is known to be highly unreliable on the effectiveness of treatment of disease. We reported on Dr. Oz on our blog post on Wellness Fads. Although much of the information he disseminates on his programs is genuinely informative, he is well-known for going overboard at times to discuss “miracle” remedies, several of which have turned out to be scams. For example, he has touted the work of psychics and the virtues of homeopathy, and he has hosted anti-vaxxers on his show. He has pushed as “miracle” remedies such scams as green coffee beans and red palm oil. And he can regularly be seen on the cover of tabloid magazines pushing the latest “miracle” weight-loss regimen that promises to “burn off belly fat.” Frank Bruni, who wrote a New York Times Magazine profile on Dr. Oz claims that, over time, Mehmet Oz “morphed not just willingly but exuberantly into a carnival barker.”

A study of Dr. Oz’s TV show conducted by Canadian researchers found that only 40% of the claims made by Dr. Oz were supported by medical evidence. In another 11%, legitimate studies existed but Dr. Oz’s claims ran contrary to the medical literature. In short, Dr. Oz is well known not only as an unreliable guide to medical breakthroughs, but a person who frequently invokes the terms “miracle,” “magic” or “fantastic” to describe a new treatment. Furthermore, Dr. Oz is not an epidemiologist nor an expert in this area. In short, Dr. Mehmet Oz is the last person one would rely on to provide sound medical advice to someone like Donald Trump, whose command of scientific facts is extremely limited, but who is supremely confident that his intuition is unrivaled.

It is quite possible that hydroxychloroquine may turn out to have some effectiveness against COVID-19 or other coronaviruses. It is currently undergoing clinical trials to determine in what cases, if any, it might help or harm people suffering from this virus. However, the fact that Trump insists on pushing this unproven treatment, contrary to the advice of his top medical experts, shows both his lack of understanding of science, and his disdain for the entire scientific enterprise. James Hamblin points out that in one of his recent statements the President suggested that people with lupus don’t get coronavirus, presumably because the hydroxychloroquine they are taking protects them. “There’s a rumor out there that because it takes care of lupus very effectively, as I understand it, and it’s a, you know, a drug that’s used for lupus,” he said, “so there’s a study out there that says people that have lupus haven’t been catching this virus. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not.” Hamblin points out that there is no such study.

In an op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago, Frank Bruni concluded that “Oz is to medicine what Trump is to politics: someone who has bent the discipline to the dictates of entertainment in pursuit of ever more celebrity, ever more power, and has warped and cheapened it in the process.”

Fact-checking Trump’s claims about hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug he’s touting as a coronavirus treatment 

As we write this, the hype for hydroxychloroquine coming from Trump, Dr. Oz and Fox News commentators has waned markedly over the past two weeks, as negative test results have been emerging and the Food and Drug Administration has had to issue a “drug safety communication” warning against the use of either hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine outside a hospital setting or clinical trial, due to reports of “serious heart rhythm problems”. The FDA communication states: “Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing Covid-19.”

But this development appears to have made the President even more desperate in his search for ways to be viewed as a “savior” of American lives. Following a private briefing in which Trump was informed about the success of disinfectants in removing the virus from surfaces, he made the bizarre and dangerous suggestion in the April 23 Coronavirus Task Force briefing that perhaps disinfectants or bleach could be injected into, or ingested by, patients to fight off COVID-19. He was either unaware or dismissive of the ample evidence that such cleaning agents are poisonous when taken internally.

Members of the Trump Brigade tried zealously the following day to explain that those comments just indicated the President’s remarkable ability to out-think the “experts.” But the blowback from medical professionals, bleach and disinfectant manufacturers, and worldwide media has been so immediate and shocked that the incident may well end up providing Trump’s political epitaph for future generations. Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to blame the media for “taking out of context” the entire section of the White House briefing they replayed in horror. Trump himself tried to claim on the following day that he had made the suggestions “sarcastically.” Unfortunately, health departments around the country did see an uptick in internal exposures of citizens to bleach, Lysol and other household cleaners in the aftermath of Trump’s comments. The health and welfare of U.S. citizens who trust the President’s ill-informed suggestions over the expertise of scientists are placed in considerable jeopardy.

Figure 8: Cartoon lampooning Trump’s suggestion that disinfectant might be injected into the body.

Richard Epstein, Extreme Libertarian

Richard Epstein is a professor at the New York University School of Law. On March 16, 2020 he published an article on the Web site of the Hoover Institution, where he is the Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow. He is also the Laurence Tisch Professor of Law and director of the Classical Liberal Institute at New York University. He is widely known for his libertarian ideas and his skepticism regarding the role of the federal government. In his March 16 article, Epstein claimed that the worldwide response to the coronavirus COVID-19 was a gross over-reaction. He criticized the fact that the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. He claimed that public health measures against the disease “are done better at the level of plants, hotels, restaurants and schools than remotely by political leaders.” Please consider the idea of fighting the COVID-19 epidemic by having every restaurant devise its own health policy!

Figure 9: Dr. Richard Epstein, Fellow of the Hoover Institution.

Epstein claimed that progressives were spreading panic regarding COVID-19. Representing himself as an expert on epidemics, he made a number of incorrect statements regarding the earlier SARS COV-2 epidemic. He then predicted that the U.S. would experience “about 500 deaths at the end” of the COVID epidemic. I am writing this on April 29, a little more than a month after the publication of Epstein’s article, when a million Americans have been infected with COVID-19, the current U.S. death toll is over 60,000, and the next few weeks are predicted to bring many more deaths from the virus.

On March 30, Epstein was interviewed by Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker. In that interview, Epstein presented himself as an expert on evolutionary theory. He claimed that estimates that a million or more people worldwide might die from COVID-19 were outrageously high, and explained his reasoning that there were strong and weak versions of the coronavirus. Epstein claimed that the initial spate of deaths in Kirkland, Washington were a result of the strong version of the coronavirus. But, over a short period of time the coronavirus would weaken, which is what happened in the SARS epidemic. And because COVID-19 is currently so much more virulent than previous viruses, its transition to a weaker form will occur more rapidly. Epstein claimed that his theory fit the evolution of every prior epidemic.

Epidemiologists contacted by Chotiner stated that Epstein’s arguments regarding the weakening of the SARS and Ebola viruses and HIV were totally incorrect, that if weakening of the virus by evolution occurred, it would require a much longer timescale. Epstein’s comments are also refuted by the historical evidence shown in Fig. 4 above for the 1918 flu pandemic.

Epstein further asserted that it would be a gross over-reaction to assume that the large number of deaths in Italy would occur in the U.S. He explained that Italy had a significantly older population than the U.S., and that the American health system was much better and more equipped than Italy. Epstein also said that although New York currently had a few cases of COVID-19, he expected this number would soon subside because of the social distancing that was being practiced (even though he maintained that these stringent measures were a complete over-reaction to the threat).

Nevertheless, Epstein insisted that he was a world expert in “economic-evolutionary theory out of Darwin” and when Chotiner attempted to confront Epstein with critiques from scientific experts on viruses and epidemics, Epstein called Chotiner “a complete intellectual amateur,” and challenged Chotiner to “compare your resume to mine”! Epstein said that his estimate of 500 total deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19 was a simple error, and that the total number of U.S. deaths might actually reach 5,000. In his next interview, he will presumably be tempted to add another zero to his “accidental” miscalculation.

One would be tempted to simply call Richard Epstein a horse’s ass and dismiss his suggestions as those of an extreme libertarian; however, his paper was widely read and apparently quite influential in the Trump White House. Epstein asserted that doctors and scientists had completely over-reacted to the coronavirus. Epstein further claimed that a coordinated federal action was exactly the wrong approach to take, stating that the best approach was for individual localities and businesses to determine their own strategies. Furthermore, Epstein stated that shutting down businesses would likely be worse than the response to the disease.

Epstein’s paper – with its original estimate of a total of only 500 COVID deaths in the U.S., certainly one of the more disastrous predictions in modern times – may have had an important influence on Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the country must be ‘re-opened for business’ at the earliest possible date. In late March, Trump announced his hope that the epidemic would have subsided by Easter, and that the country might celebrate this by joyous celebrations of throngs of people in churches on Easter.

This euphoric aspiration turned around completely when on March 30, Trump announced that he urged “stay at home” policies be followed nationwide throughout the month of April. This was followed by predictions that even if social-distancing policies were rigorously adhered to, the total number of American deaths would still be in the range of 100,000 – 200,000 people. Clearly, this abrupt change occurred because scientists such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx were able to overcome the opposition of the libertarians. However, one shudders to think of the additional loss of life that would have occurred if the recommendations of people like Richard Epstein had prevailed.

Richard Epstein is an extreme libertarian. Therefore, it stands to reason that for an issue that appears to require not only intervention on a national scale, but even international cooperation, he would place a very low value on large-scale programs in favor of small-scale local efforts. And he would tend to under-value the threat that was posed. Not surprisingly, Epstein is also a denier of anthropogenic climate change. He states that for environmentalists, “it is axiomatic that carbon dioxide emissions pose a grave threat to the environment, even though the putative causal chain is filled with missing links.” He claims, incorrectly, that “sea level rises have, if anything, slowed down in recent years, notwithstanding increases in carbon dioxide levels.” He also claims that rapid melting of ice in Antarctica “is more likely attributable to underground volcanic activity.” His questionable scientific judgments appear to be completely driven by his politics, rather than by the weight of the scientific evidence.

The fact that Epstein’s claims about the coronavirus were taken seriously by the White House, despite the major errors in Epstein’s predictions of the course of the disease, is another troubling example of the refusal to accept the best scientific advice on topics. Instead, the Trump administration prefers to rely on projections that fit their own hunches and desires.

A major reason why the U.S. was so unprepared to fend off a major new pandemic was the fact that in 2018, the Trump administration terminated the National Security Council’s (NSC) global health security office. In May 2018, Luciana Borio warned at a symposium that a flu pandemic represented the greatest health threat to the U.S. The global health security office of the NSC was created in 2015 by the Obama administration as a response to the earlier Ebola pandemic. The aim was to have an office that could better prepare for future outbreaks of disease and prevent them from becoming pandemics. Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, stated that as head of the National Security Council, John Bolton “eliminated the senior director position entirely, closed the biodefense directorate, and spread the remaining staff across other parts of the NSC.” Konyndyk concluded that this move “clearly reflected the White House’s misplaced priorities and has proven to be a gross misjudgment.”

Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the Coronavirus

Jerry Falwell, Jr. became President of Liberty University following the death of his father, Jerry Falwell, the co-founder of that university, which was initially called Lynchburg Baptist College. Falwell, Jr. has been an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump. At the Republican National Committee convention in 2016, Falwell called Trump “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.” In a January 2019 interview, Falwell was asked “Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?” Falwell answered “No.”

Figure 10: Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty University.

Falwell apparently rules Liberty University with an iron hand. Professors do not have tenure, and can be fired at will. The administration controls the student newspaper. On a March 10 interview with Fox News, Falwell said “It’s just strange to me how many are overreacting” to the coronavirus. “It makes you wonder if there is a political reason for that. Impeachment didn’t work and Mueller didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”

When spring break ended, nearly every university in the country closed down and commenced instruction online only. However, Liberty University encouraged students to return to the Lynchburg campus. On Fox News, Falwell claimed that the cure rate for the coronavirus was “99.7 percent for people under 50,” and he claimed that medical personnel whom he contacted had agreed with his decision. While there is no evidence to support his quantitative claim about cure rate, he nonetheless overlooks the small issue that people who recover from the virus are still quite “successful” in transmitting it to others who may have very much lower survival probabilities.

Of the 1,900 who returned, as of Friday March 27, nearly a dozen Liberty University students had come down with symptoms resembling Covid-19. The Liberty University administration claimed that while the university was obeying the public health guidelines set forth by the Virginia governor, the students were disobeying those guidelines. After being criticized by the mayor of Lynchburg, the home of Liberty University, and the governor of Virginia, Falwell announced “Liberty will be notifying the community as deemed appropriate and required by law.”

On April 9, Liberty University requested arrest warrants for a photographer and reporter, accusing them of criminal trespassing. Falwell claimed that the only students who had returned to Liberty were international students who had nowhere else to stay, and he insisted that students on the Liberty campus were engaging in social distancing. The photo below shows students walking on the Liberty University campus on March 30. Obviously, no social distancing is being observed.

Figure 11: Students on the Liberty University campus after spring break. No social distancing is being practiced here.

On March 24, an Associated Press photographer on the Liberty University campus was approached by a campus security officer. The officer requested that the photographer leave the campus and delete all photos he had taken at Liberty. The photographer complied with that request; however, Associated Press later issued a statement that this was not in agreement with AP policy, which was not to comply with requests by a single law enforcement official, but to “fight such orders legally.”

Since Jerry Falwell, Jr. is a staunch supporter of Donald Trump, one might have expected that Falwell would have pivoted right at the same time that Trump shifted his position from denying that the coronavirus was a problem and insisting that it was completely under control, to acknowledging that this was a serious issue. However, he seems to have continued to underplay the seriousness of the pandemic.

There are certainly several states that include religious services in their list of “essential” activities. However, most of these states require that any such services must be conducted under a series of requirements; in most cases that means there cannot be more than 10 people present for an activity. Hopkins County, Kentucky experienced an outbreak of the coronavirus after a revival held in late March. And in Mount Vernon, Washington, of the people who attended a choir rehearsal on March 10, two people died from coronavirus and another 45 contracted symptoms of the disease.

Nevertheless, there are a few evangelicals who insist that religious services are the “most essential” activity they can imagine. On March 29, Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne held two church services in Tampa, Florida in defiance of emergency orders mandating that people stay at home and avoid large gatherings. His church even bused in parishioners who had no rides. The pastor claimed that his actions were justified by his First Amendment rights.

And Landon Spradlin, a Virginia pastor who had issued a post criticizing the press for creating “mass hysteria” around the coronavirus outbreak, and who asserted that COVID-19 was far less lethal than H1N1 under President Obama, died from complications of COVID-19 on March 25. [Note: approximately 12,500 Americans died in the first year of the H1N1 pandemic. Although Pastor Spradlin was correct when he made this statement, by now nearly five times as many Americans have died from COVID-19, and we are only a few months into the first year of this pandemic].

These evangelical leaders appear to believe, along with Trump and his loyalists, that they can bend the reality of viral infection to their will, or perhaps to divine intervention. The virus does not care what they think, and does not discriminate in its choice of hosts. The same is true of nature in the case of climate change. People who cannot accept scientific reality are ill-equipped to deal with it when it arrives.

COVID Conspiracy Theories: The Usual Suspects

The current coronavirus pandemic is the largest disease epidemic in our lifetime. It has shut down economies around the world, and its effects will be felt for decades. Currently, social media is awash in conspiracy theories on any number of topics. So it is completely natural that any number of conspiracy theories and false “facts” would arise and circulate regarding COVID-19.

Earlier, we have covered politically-motivated claims made by right-wing groups that were clearly associated with the denial by Donald Trump (until the 3rd week in March) that there was a real threat to Americans from COVID-19. Many of these groups “flipped” their stance as soon as both Trump and Fox News pivoted from the idea that the coronavirus was merely an attempt by Democrats to embarrass the President, to the notion that COVID-19 was a genuine threat. At that time the “Trump Brigades” adopted the party line that Trump was showing admirable leadership on the issue. They also supported (or perhaps initiated) the idea that the chemical hydroxychloroquine was quite likely a miracle drug for combatting COVID-19.

It is not possible for us to provide a comprehensive overview of all the baseless theories that have been put forth regarding the origin of the disease, and how best to combat the spread of the virus. We will concentrate on just a few general categories. First, this virus provides an opportunity to blame different ethnic groups for its origin and spread. Since the disease is thought to have originated in China, it is natural to expect theories that blame the Chinese for either accidentally releasing it, or for deliberately doing so. We also find the Jews (either as a group, or individual Jews) blamed for creating and releasing the virus, and/or profiting from it. Since many nations have closed their borders in an attempt to prevent the virus from entering their country, ethnic tensions in general are very high at present, as are nationalistic sentiments.

A second group of conspiracy theories revolve around the idea that the virus either escaped accidentally from a government laboratory (China and the U.S. are frequently the targets of blame), or was deliberately released. Again, there are several different scenarios invented to explain these theories. Such ideas are often propounded by groups who seem to specialize in conspiracy theories. We review two of these individuals or groups.

Then, social media is full of information about “miracle cures” for the coronavirus. Once again, several of these are remedies that are thought to have no legitimate medical uses, but have been hawked as cures for many existing conditions, so these products are simply being resold to claim that they kill coronavirus.

“It’s The Jews:”

David Clarke, the former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, is an avid supporter of Donald Trump. He urged people to rise up and protest the fact that the global media panic about COVID-19 was being led by – who else? – George Soros! On March 15 Clarke tweeted, “Not ONE media outlet has asked about George Soros’s involvement in this FLU panic. He is SOMEWHERE involved in this.” This is a common anti-Semitic trope; similar tweets suggested that the Rothschild family or the government of Israel were responsible for creating and/or releasing the virus. To the right wing, George Soros is a triple-threat enemy, as he is a Jew, a billionaire, and a liberal. An alternative theory was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in fact controlled by the Chabad Lubavitch movement (this is an Orthodox Hasidic Jewish organization); it was also claimed that FEMA was about to impose martial law on the U.S. (and by the way, it is pointed out that “Walmart” is a subtle reference to “Martial Law!”).

Figure 12: David Clarke, former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.

It has also been claimed that the entire pandemic is simply a hoax designed by the Jews, in order to force people to be vaccinated. Below is a cartoon of the “Smiling Jew” stereotype with the caption, “Of course it’s a real outbreak, just like SARS, bird flu and all the other recent epidemics. Hmm? You never hear about them anymore? Well that’s OK we have other hoaxes planned. I meant epidemics. What? There was a coronavirus vaccine patent applied for before the outbreak? * Nonsense. Quick! People are dying, we must get them vaccinated. Looks like a vaccine is available soon. Aren’t you all so lucky Goyim? Heh Heh.”
*Actually, there was a patent filed for a corona virus a few months before the outbreak; however, it was for SARS and not COVID-19, which was not yet known.

Figure 13: Anti-Semitic cartoon showing a “smiling Jew” stereotype in a hazmat suit.

These are just two examples of anti-Semitic tweets, suggesting that the Jews or the state of Israel created and dispersed the virus, and/or expect to make a fortune out of a vaccine they have created, and/or will force people to be vaccinated (I couldn’t determine whether the vaccine was somehow poisoning the Gentiles, or whether it was assumed the Jews would profiteer off the vaccine).

“It’s The Chinese”:

Since the COVID-19 virus was assumed to originate in China, this has unleashed a spate of anti-Chinese remarks on social media. For the first couple of months, Donald Trump was inclined to call it the “Chinese flu,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo preferred to call it the “Wuhan virus.” It has also been called “Kung Flu.” Chinese and Chinese-American students have reported being the targets of harassment, as they are assumed to be responsible for the origin and spreading of the disease.  Below are some of the racist cartoons that have gone viral on the Internet.

Figure 14: Racist anti-Chinese cartoons from the Web. Clockwise from top L: “Hi, I’m from China;” “When you are eating your food but the Chinese workers start coughing;” “When your one Chinese friend wants to take a sip;” “Me and the boys headed to the Chinese buffet.”
Figure 15: Anti-Chinese cartoon from the Web, “Kill the VIrus.”

Figure 15 is particularly disturbing.  If you can read the text to the right of a movie still of John Goodman, it actually recommends that if people see a Chinese person cough, they should harass them.  Furthermore, it suggests that people should be armed and that if you should kill a Chinese person, a good lawyer could get you acquitted (!)

Several sites have suggested that COVID-19 was developed in a Chinese lab. Of these, some assert that it was accidentally released from the lab, others that it was intentionally released in order to profit from sales of a vaccine, and yet others maintain that China deliberately released it in order to cull their elderly population and to institute martial law.

“It’s Bill Gates.”

As one of the world’s richest people, and because of his interest in public health, Bill Gates is a natural target for conspiracy theorists during a pandemic. Gates’ interest in public health has led him to think seriously about epidemics. In 2015, Gates gave a TED talk called The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready. He remarked that Ebola should have been a wake-up call; that the world was actually quite fortunate that Ebola was not transmitted through the air, and that it remained largely in rural areas. However, he stated that a world pandemic, akin to the 1918 Spanish Flu, could have devastating effects. He emphasized that the U.S. was not prepared for a major pandemic.  Here is Gates’ 2015 talk.

Gates then outlined steps that we should take in order to prepare for a pandemic. The talk is remarkably prescient in foreseeing the current course of COVID-19. The last sentence in Gates’ talk is “If we start now, we can get ready by the next epidemic.”

When Donald Trump took office, Bill Gates visited him and once again suggested that the U.S. take advance precautions so that the nation would be poised to act quickly in the event of an epidemic. Instead, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton shut down the one office created specifically for this purpose.

So it is truly ironic that some conspiracy theorists have focused on Bill Gates as the source of the coronavirus. In part this is because Gates has funded research into contagious diseases. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recently announced that it will commit up to $250 million to combat the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. Gates’ wealth also makes him a target for conspiracy theories.

For example Joanne Wright, Republican congressional candidate for California’s 34th District in Los Angeles, tweeted on February 27, “The Corona virus is a man-made virus created in a Wujan [sic] laboratory. Ask @BillGates who financed it.” A second tweet from Wright stated: “Doesn’t @BillGates finance research at the Wuhan lab where the Corona virus was being created? Isn’t @georgesoros a good friend of Gates?” Upon being questioned about the tweets, Wright took them down from her Website.

Fig. 16: Joanne Wright, Republican candidate from California’s 34th Congressional district, and conspiracy theorist.

An additional reason that Bill Gates is a target of conspiracy theories is that he has recently been vocal in pointing out how unprepared the U.S. was for this pandemic. He has pushed for states to issue stay-at-home orders, and has emphasized the importance of widespread testing and development of a vaccine. Perhaps most important, he has criticized a number of the steps taken by the government; in the most recent instance he criticized President Trump’s statement that he will withhold support from the World Health Organization.

Through mid-April 2020, malicious information about Bill Gates was the most widespread of all false theories about the coronavirus. Gates was cited in over 16,000 Facebook posts, that generated over 900,000 likes and comments. On YouTube, videos containing malicious claims about Bill Gates were viewed 5 million times.

Of course, since Gates has criticized the Trump administration, he has come under fire from the Trump Brigades. Gates has pointed out the importance of contact tracing to determine if individuals have been exposed to the virus, and antibody testing to determine if one has antibodies to COVID-19. He suggested that “digital certificates” might be a way to confirm who had immunity to the disease. On her show, Laura Ingraham stated that “Digitally tracking Americans’ every move has been a dream of the globalists for years.”

For some time, Bill Gates has been squarely in the sights of the anti-vaxxers. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, one of the leading anti-vaccination crusaders, maintains that he is speaking out against Gates because of the “terrible damage” that vaccines have wrought across the world, through Bill Gates’ support. [In our blog post on Vaccination, we point out that vaccination is arguably the most important health development in human history]. Kennedy has claimed that Bill Gates strongly endorses vaccination campaigns in order to make more money. On April 16, Kennedy posted a cartoon of Bill Gates holding a syringe, with the caption “Your body, my choice.”

Figure 17: Cartoon tweeted by anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy, Jr. showing Bill Gates holding a syringe.

The work of the anti-vaxxers may turn out to do the most lasting damage. After the first waves of the pandemic have subsided, and once a vaccine for the disease is available, the anti-vaccination movement may succeed in persuading individuals, and even some governments, to refuse the vaccine. This could insure that the coronavirus continues to return at regular intervals (as shown in Fig. 4 for the Spanish flu), and we as citizens would be helpless to prevent unvaccinated individuals from transmitting the infection. This is particularly dangerous for a disease like COVID-19, where apparently asymptomatic individuals can move through the population, infecting many of those with whom they come in contact.

It’s Not A Virus, It’s 5-G:

On January 27, the Web site Connectiv_Events asked the following question: “So what if the deaths weren’t a virus, but a cell breakdown caused by 5G that mimics the effects of a virus?” That post went viral, and people began claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic was perhaps not a virus at all, but simply serious health effects supposedly caused by the higher electromagnetic (EM) frequencies being used by the new 5G technology.

The idea was that the new 5G technology produces serious health issues. This theory claims that major companies backing 5G technology have a vested interest in covering up any side effects, so the “coronavirus” explanation is simply a smokescreen for the harmful effects of this technology. The Website also claimed that “exposure to 5G waves causes flu-like symptoms.” Unfortunately, those claims contradict the statement from an international commission formed by the World Health Organization. That commission states that “None of the studies on 5G exposure show any conclusive evidence of adverse health effects.”

A second theory is circulating claiming that 5G waves cause health issues that make people more susceptible to contracting the virus. Such claims are viral (no pun intended) on the Internet, but they are particularly potent in Britain. Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of the EU DIsinfoLab, a Belgian group that tracks conspiracy theories, says that “Most conspiracies stay online, but this is having real-world impact.”

In Britain, more than 30 acts of arson and vandalism against wireless towers and telecommunications gear have taken place in the past month. On April 2 and 3, two wireless towers in the U.K. were set on fire, and a telecommunications box was also set ablaze. It has also been reported that telecom workers have been harassed. Conspiracy theorists have promulgated rumors that Britain’s shelter-in-place orders were only a smokescreen to allow British workers to install 5G equipment in secret.

Figure 18: A telecom tower in the U.K. that was recently vandalized by people motivated by a theory that 5G technology helps spread the coronavirus. Photographer: Darren Staples/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It did not help that in January, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed an agreement that allowed the Chinese company Huawei to install 5G infrastructure in the U.K. Or that the Chinese city with the largest 5G network was Wuhan.

To their great discredit, actors Woody Harrelson and John Cusack were tweeting about possible links between 5G technology and coronavirus to their large network of followers. Harrelson posted to Instagram, where he has 2 million viewers: “A lot of my friends have been talking about the negative effects of 5G.” He referenced an article that claimed a link between the advent of 5G technology in Wuhan and the subsequent coronavirus outbreak. However, in recent days both Harrelson and Cusack have taken down their posts. But the New York Times found 487 Facebook communities, 84 Instagram accounts, 52 Twitter accounts, and scores more videos and posts supporting these conspiracy theories.

In addition, for some time now the Russians have been spreading false claims that 5G signals have been linked to brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors and Alzheimer’s disease. This is part of a much longer-term Russian strategy of spreading malicious rumors in Western democratic societies.

Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones:

Alex Jones is a right-wing radio talk show host. He has promoted a whole series of conspiracy theories. He claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre at Newtown, Connecticut was a hoax. He has also accused the U.S. of staging the 1985 Oklahoma City bombing, the 9-11 attacks, and of faking the 1969 Moon landing. For example, Jones has claimed that no one died at the Sandy Hook shooting. After a 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Jones claimed that both of these massacres were staged by gun-control advocates in order to take away firearms from Americans. Jones also accused student David Hogg, who survived the Parkland shooting, of being an actor who was hired as part of the false-flag operation.

Figure 19: RIght-wing talk-show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Jones is the creator and publisher of the Website Infowars. Infowars combines publication of conspiracy theories with advertisements for Jones’ products. These include “dietary supplements, toothpaste, bulletproof vests and ‘brain pills.’” Indeed, hawking his products represents a major fraction of Jones’ broadcasting.

It would thus be natural for Alex Jones to latch onto various conspiracy theories regarding the coronavirus. In early 2020, Jones was pushing the theory that the coronavirus had been deliberately engineered and released by globalists and other enemies of the people, in an effort to decrease the population of the planet. Jones claimed that the coronavirus was clearly man-made, stating that “the coronavirus crisis is as synthetic as plastic fruit.” [Note: epidemiologists insist that there is nothing synthetic about the coronavirus, and that they can tell from its structure that the virus appeared naturally].

However, Jones also suggested that the coronavirus crisis was an excuse for the Deep State to take over not just the U.S., but the world. “The world is going into martial law. Criminals, armed robbers, rapists, they are all being let out of jail by the tens of thousands … If your neighbor sees you cough, you’re being taken away for six weeks … This is how America dies, this is how it all unfolds.” The fact that all of this is false has never stopped Alex Jones, and as we will see sowing fear in this manner dovetails perfectly with Jones’ other role as a snake oil salesman.

On March 17, Jones’ guest was Jim Hoft, the head of the media outlet The Gateway Pundit, an organization whose mission is to “expose the wickedness of the left.” The Gateway Pundit has previously published a number of stories that have turned out to be false, and seems particularly prone to endorse conspiracy theories. Regarding the coronavirus crisis, Hoft claimed that “we’re looking at something that’s been contrived at this point,” and blamed the media for “creating this crisis.” Hoft further maintained that the coronavirus was “the third time the deep state was trying to take [Trump] out.”

However, at the same time he was labeling the coronavirus as contrived, Alex Jones was also maneuvering to profit from it, through his many dubious ‘health and wellness’ products. Many of these products feature colloidal silver, a liquid containing tiny suspended particles of silver. Roughly 100 years ago, several products were marketed that contained colloidal silver; however, nowadays there is no scientific evidence that colloidal silver has medical benefits for treating or preventing any disease. Nonetheless, it has been touted as being effective against a host of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, arthritis, AIDS, herpes and tuberculosis.

Silver is not an essential mineral in humans, and if ingested at sufficiently high doses it can produce serious side effects. Nevertheless, several of Alex Jones’ products contain colloidal silver. This includes SuperSilver Whitening Toothpaste, SuperSilver Wound Dressing Gel, and ABL Nano Silver Gargle. Jones was quite specific about the motives of the enemies of the people. “This is the plan, folks. They plan on, if they’ve fluoridated you and vaccinated you and stunned you and mesmerized you with the TV and put you in a trance, on killing you.” At the same time, the deep state was determined “to make sure you don’t learn about the known antivirals that are in the environment.”

Jones assured his gullible listeners that his products were effective. “This stuff kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range. It kills every virus.” Sadly, but not surprisingly given Jones’ track record, this statement is false. The F.D.A. has warned “There currently are no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure coronavirus disease.”

For Alex Jones, the coronavirus pandemic is simply another issue to which he applies his tried and true formula. He scares the pants off you with dubious conspiracy theories; then he peddles a list of medications and survivalist gear to help you survive the coming chaos. In many cases it is unclear whether the more important motive for Alex Jones is creating the conspiracy stories, or using them to boost the sales of his products.

Conspiracy Theorist Jordan Sather:

Jordan Sather is also a professional conspiracy theorist. A number of his posts are YouTube videos from QAnon. QAnon is a right-wing group that espouses a number of conspiracy theories. It began in October 2017 with a post on the anonymous imageboard 4chan from a poster called “Q,” who alleged that there was a secret plot by the “deep state” against Donald Trump and his supporters. There have been further posts by “Q” that have raised several bizarre and false claims. At present, it is believed that “Q” is now a group of people.

Travis View of the Washington Post has studied the group, and he explains their conspiracy theory. “There is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who rule the world, essentially, and they control everything. They control politicians, and they control the media. They control Hollywood, and they cover up their existence, essentially. And they would have continued ruling the world, were it not for the election of President Donald Trump.”

QAnon members believe that this struggle will culminate in an event called “The Storm,” when there will be mass arrests of members of the cabal. The U.S. military will take control of the country, and the result will be a utopia on Earth. The patch below contains the “Q” which designates that the person (in this case, a member of a Florida SWAT team) belongs to QAnon.

Figure 20: A patch worn by a SWAT team member in Florida that indicates he is a follower of QAnon.

On Jan. 21, Jordan Sather tweeted that a United Kingdom research group the Pirbright Institute, that studies infectious diseases in farm animals, had filed a patent for a coronavirus vaccine in 2015. Sather asked “Was the release of this disease planned? Is the media being used to incite fear around it? Is the Cabal desperate for money, so they’re tapping their Big Pharma reserves?”

This tweet gained support both from QAnon members and from anti-vaccine groups. In a second tweet, Sather mentioned that the Pirbright Institute was linked to Bill Gates. Indeed, in 2019 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had announced they would fund a Pirbright Institute project to study livestock disease and immunology. However, it was soon revealed that Sather’s conspiracy theory was false. The 2015 patent application was to facilitate a vaccine for an avian coronavirus that was found in chickens; it had no relation to COVID-19.

We mentioned earlier that Bill Gates had given a TED talk in 2015, that suggested a flu-like pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu could potentially infect millions of people worldwide, leading to possibly millions of deaths. Gates expanded on this at a presentation in 2018 to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Gates’ motive was to demonstrate the deadly potential of such pandemics. He also listed things that individual nations and bodies such as the World Health Organization should do to prepare for such pandemics, and urged funding of a program of research that would lead to rapid development of both vaccines and anti-viral drugs to combat such diseases. Gates stated “The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war.”

However, conspiracy theorists took an entirely different view of Gates’ talks. They suggested that Gates and his globalist cronies might engineer and release a virus, in order to maintain their control over the world economy and to personally profit from such a disaster.

Sather has also championed the use of a product called Miracle Mineral Solution or MMS, as a product that will kill the coronavirus. “I’m going to have to get home and MMS the whole state,” he stated in a video. “MMS the whole shit out of everything.” Another QAnon poster called “Chief Police 2” also urged his followers to buy an MMS-related product called “20-20-20 spray.”

Like colloidal silver, MMS is another product that is touted as helping to cure or avoid any number of serious diseases. When combined with a citric product such as lime juice, MMS produces chlorine dioxide, which is a bleaching agent. The FDA says that there is no scientific evidence that MMS confers any medical benefits. In 2009, a woman who took MMS to avoid contracting malaria died almost immediately after swallowing it. The FDA has warned that MMS can cause severe vomiting and acute liver failure, and in 2019 FDA Acting Commissioner stated that “Ingesting these products is the same as drinking bleach.” That particular warning appears not to have reached the President’s ears, or at least his memory.

However, that has not stopped people from hawking this product. Through his Mexican church “Genesis II Church of Health and Healing,” Jim Humble touts his MMS. “All kits have the 20-20-20 essentials that can kill the coronavirus or any other virus – just spray your mouth twice a day.” MMS is also plugged as a cure for autism, cancer and HIV/AIDS. We can guarantee that it is equally (in)effective against all these diseases.


The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world on a scale not seen in our lifetime. It has challenged scientists and government leaders around the world to devise strategies on a massive scale to combat the spread of the coronavirus. In the U.S., we rely on the federal government to devise a coherent strategy for fighting this pandemic, and to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has proved that he is not up to the challenge. First, he dismissed the severity of the coronavirus; he likened it to the common flu, and insisted that his administration was totally on top of the situation. His public remarks were somewhere between reassurances to the financial community and campaign-rally comments.

The administration’s hostility to science and scientists left the country in a huge hole. Having closed down a global health security team in the NSC, the Trump administration was forced to improvise. In marshaling efforts to fight the COVID pandemic, top scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx had to contend with political hacks who knew nothing about infectious diseases. In this administration’s efforts to shrink the “Deep State,” many career diplomats and scientists have left the government, leaving them with fewer knowledgeable professionals to deal with the disease.

When the Trump administration finally organized a response to COVID-19, it was badly bungled. No one knew who was in charge of anything – was it the CDC, FEMA, the military, Alex Azar, Jared Kushner, Mike Pence? – and Trump appeared to think that all he had to do was make a few phone calls to friends in industry, and a national strategy would organize itself. This was compounded by Trump’s inability to be truthful, his incessant boastfulness, and his insistence on taking credit for any accomplishments (real or imaginary), coupled with a refusal to shoulder the blame for anything. Finally, he insists on running daily national pandemic briefings as though they were campaign rallies, misleading rather than leading the public.  Trump lies so frequently in the daily briefings that commentators keep a running tally of his false statements.

We see that Trump’s actions are enabled by a significant group of political commentators. The entire Fox News Channel appears to be a cheerleading squad for the President. They attempt to validate even the most blatantly false statements by Trump, and they regularly disparage scientists and consensus science. This group is joined by right-wing commentators ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Alex Jones. Under normal circumstances, a nutty conspiracy-theorist such as Alex Jones would remain a largely underground fringe figure. However, in the Trump administration such figures are considered loyal members of the base.

During the Trump presidency, conspiracy theorists have crawled out from under a rock and are now receiving much more press than before. And even more radical groups such as QAnon have surfaced with coronavirus conspiracy theories. Other groups have railed against high-tech industries, and the advent of COVID-19 has led to some bizarre notions. One particularly disturbing phenomenon is allegations that the new 5G technology being rolled out for cell phone and computer transmissions is dangerous, and its effects are somehow related to this pandemic. Appallingly, groups of activists are setting fire to or otherwise damaging 5G cell phone towers in the U.K. And the anti-vaxxers are already at work sowing falsehoods about the safety of vaccines. This raises the disturbing possibility that even when a vaccine is finally developed for COVID-19, people may refuse to take it because of false allegations about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Will people still believe in scientists and the scientific method? Will the organized resistance to science erode the trust of the public to the extent that evidence-based strategies will be rejected? And can science survive the manifold attacks from conspiracy theorists and Internet trolls (and by the way, it turns out that many Internet attacks on science and scientists are coming from Russia)? When we finally emerge from the worldwide shutdown caused by this disease, we will discover the answers to these questions.

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