Science Conspiracies Are a Right-Wing Tradition

This is how they work

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Image credit: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Lying about science has been endemic to the rise of the American right. So is the political expedience of supporting those lies, either by directly promoting them or refusing to challenge them. According to today’s New York Times, many GOP lawmakers, who are themselves vaccinated, have adopted these strategies.

They hope that partisan conspiracies—particularly ones that feature powerful people in government preying on the weak—will serve the larger purpose of their own political power. But, again, we see this playing out in real-time. As the Delta variant of Covid-19 surges, the Biden administration becomes more aggressive about getting shots into arms by promoting a door-to-door campaign. Simultaneously, conservatives have invented in portraying these public health measures as a federal power grab and are doubling down on the God-given American right to die on a ventilator after infecting hundreds of others.

Mainstream Republicans have, of course, always outsourced the hard work of spreading conspiracies to their lunatic fringe. For example, at CPAC-Dallas, Representative Lauren Boebert (CO-3) shouted at the government to “Leave us the hell alone” with their “Fauci-ouchies.” Representative Madison Cawthorne (NC-11) predicted that if government officials were permitted to knock on people’s doors to offer vaccination, they would return to confiscate their guns and bibles.

Not that anyone is bitterly clinging to them or anything!

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Meanwhile, the Delta variant is ravaging states with low vaccination rates, a vulnerability that we can directly attribute to the mainstream Republicans tolerating these lies. The failure of the GOP leadership to firmly stand up to conspiracy theories about the vaccine creates needless fear and encourages the vaccine-resistant to live in a fantasy world. As the Centers for Disease Control Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, puts it: we are now in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

But is this unprecedented? No. In fact, the right has long fueled science skepticism embedded in conspiracy theories about government control. For example, look at the right-wing anti-fluoridation campaigns of the 1950s, making a resurgence in states with a long conservative populist history like Wisconsin.

Ditto COVID vaccinations: resisters will firmly say that the vaccine is untested and unproven when illness and death from the Delta surge demonstrate just the opposite. One of the loonier theories still extant is that the vaccine contains a microchip devised by Bill Gates.

Perhaps targeting the effects of vaccine science on women’s bodies has been the most effective strategy, in part because it works in tandem with GOP panic about declining American birth rates. One of the most prominent falsehoods, shilled by former liberal feminist and current crazy pants anti-vaxxer Naomi Wolfe, is that the Covid vaccine will reduce fertility. Wolfe was recently banned from Twitter for her refusal to stop promoting the falsehood that the vaccine not only interferes with women’s reproductive systems but that people who are vaccinated shed particles that interfere with other women’s uteruses. (I felt silly even writing that.)

This is bull sh*t. But this isn’t the first time that lying about science, and particularly about women’s health, has mobilized the right. Women’s bodies have been the target of fake science since the birth of modern medicine. Think, for example, of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century physicians who performed clitoridectomies on women and girls thought to have “disordered” sexual desires. Ponder the conspiracy theories that transfer from generation to generation that girls who use tampons are no longer virgins or the ones where corporations put cancerous asbestos in their products to make women bleed more and use more tampons.

But perhaps the science lie that has had the most impact on our contemporary political world is this double falsehood: that fetuses feel pain during the abortion procedures that became legal under Roe v. Wade (1973) and that the medical profession was callously ignoring fetal pain to profit from such procedures.

This lie was undoubtedly floating around the anti-abortion faithful who helped to mobilize evangelical voters after Roe. But it acquired a national platform in January 1984, when President Ronald Reagan stated in a speech to the Association of National Religious Broadcasters that “There's another grim truth we should face up to. Medical science doctors confirm that when the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.”

There was, and is, no science to back up this statement. We will get to that in a minute. But Reagan’s lie caused a firestorm on the right, one that conveniently distracted the president’s religious supporters from the fact that he would not act directly to ban abortion, a hope they had cherished since Reagan declared in 1981 that human life began at conception.

Yet twenty-six physicians recruited by the Value of Life Committee rushed to commend Reagan for his stand. "Mr. President, in drawing attention to the capability of the human fetus to feel pain, you stand on firmly established ground," they declared.

Immediately, 26,000 members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists noted in a public statement that this was false. Nevertheless, the Republican party saw its opportunity and moved to rebrand abortion as a human rights issue. The signal moment for this was May 1985, when Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) convened a Judiciary Committee Hearing on “The Medical Evidence of Fetal Pain” to investigate a fantasy about abortion that was gaining traction with Republican voters.

A medical conspiracy theory requires two basic elements: scientific ignorance on the part of the public and at least one charismatic person with an MD to contradict established research. Thurmond’s committee had that person in Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Moreover, in Nathan’s case, one of his credentials was his status as a convert, a former abortion provider who had turned anti-abortion zealot.

Nathanson was well known to the conservative public as the star of “The Silent Scream,” a short anti-abortion film released by the National Right to Life Committee in 1984, which circulated widely because of the new VCR technology. The film is long and boring. But its highlight is an ultrasound of an abortion which appears to show a fetus cringing away from an instrument used in the procedure, its mouth popping open in an apparent cry for help.

In other words, a series of blurry movements that the layperson could not possibly interpret were displayed over and over again as truth only Nathanson had the courage to tell: the fetus suffered not just pain but emotional trauma as it was being extracted from the uterus, its cries for help seen by medical personnel but unheard by the public.

The film energized anti-abortion forces, confirming their conviction that real children, not fetuses, were being killed—and tortured.

That too was false, but conservative committee members seized upon it to amplify falsehoods about the violence and inherent criminality of abortion. One of these men was New Hampshire Republican Gordon J. Humphrey. Questioning Nathanson, Senator Humphrey posed a gruesome and irrelevant moral analogy. “Dr. Nathanson, supposing it was necessary to amputate the leg of a child within the first week after birth,” he conjectured, “for some medical reason, and supposing that procedure was carried out without anesthesia. What would be the reaction in the medical community?”

Nathanson predicted a “full-scale revolution” on the part of nurses and physicians.

What if that happened 75,000 times a year, Humphrey pressed, the equivalent of the number of abortions performed annually? “I think there would be massive public revulsion at such a proposal and that it would be quickly scrapped,” Nathanson replied.

What was the difference between what Humphrey had just described and “the real example of the 75,000 unborn children late in term whose whole bodies are cut up?” the Senator asked.

There was none, Nathanson replied.

And did fetuses feel pain? Humphrey encouraged the doctor.

This is where both the falsehood of fetal pain became apparent, and that falsehood transformed itself into a “fact” that bolstered the conspiracy. “I think even the most hardened abortion advocates will concede there is a primitive level of pain here,” Nathanson began.

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He then wove a set of medical facts that actually contradicted that position. “Now, there is no cognition of it perhaps, no sense of it in the cerebral cortex, and I don’t think the child would intellectualize it, but certainly there is this primitive level of pain, and there is the avoidance of the source of pain.” In other words, nerves existed, but the brain was incapable of receiving or experiencing those signals.

Humphrey concluded triumphantly that there was “no mistaking what the doctor has said….The child feels pain just as we do.” But that was not what Nathanson had said. Humphrey then concluded: “I think the medical establishment in this country…is guilty of the most unspeakable crimes and has a great deal of housecleaning to do.”

In other words, fake evidence produced the falsehood, and the falsehood was then backed up, not just by the fake evidence but by an appeal to the viewer’s common sense that did not reflect medical facts.

It was an enormously influential lie, one that has embedded itself so deeply in the anti-abortion movement that it has become common sense, along with other falsehoods: for example, that a preponderance of women who have abortions are emotionally traumatized by the decision, that they suffer depression and regret their whole lives, and that abortion leads to infertility.

One of the reasons to defeat current COVID vaccine conspiracy theories is that medical falsehoods are easily institutionalized in conservative and religious schools and may have a huge impact on our ability as a nation to deal with future pandemics. “The Silent Scream” circulated widely, particularly among the young. “If you went to a Catholic school in the 1980s or 1990s, it's highly likely that you saw it,” wrote Monica Dux in 2019, “a real live baby murder.” The film also lifted anti-science conservatives out of the lunatic fringe of Communist anti-fluoride plots and the government putting radio transmitters in your fillings and into the mainstream.

The current crisis of misinformation, similarly propelled by the Republican party’s silence, cements the role of malicious conspiracy-mongering in political power grabs. The rise in cases, almost exclusively caused by the Delta variant, isn’t just a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Yes, thousands will die and become disabled because cynical political operatives and culture warriors told them that the COVID-19 vaccine is the leading edge of a government conspiracy. That’s true.

But it also feeds the political pandemic of lies.

As importantly, the unvaccinated who survive will see this as proof of their fake science, not good luck in the face of a lethal disease that they refused to view as a credible threat. And that makes all of us more vulnerable to the next medical crisis that conservatives choose to lie about.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


Short takes:

  • Where was Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who heads up the Republican Attorneys General Association’s dark-money nonprofit Rule of Law Defense Fund, during the days that bookended the January 6 insurrection? According to Eddie Burkhalter of the Alabama Political Reporter (July 20, 2021), the RLDF Marshall “paid for robocalls detailing when and where citizens should meet” to muster at the Capitol to protest Joe Biden’s election as president. On January 5, the Director of the Association and Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville met with “Donald Trump Jr.; Eric Trump; Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; adviser Peter Navarro; Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski; and 2016 deputy campaign manager David Bossie” to discuss how to pressure Congress to overturn the election. Was Marshall there? He won’t say.

  • Ruh-roh! The chair of the Florida GOP, State Senator, and former state chair of the Trump campaign Joe Gruters is battling sexual harassment charges. The accusations originate in an alleged car fumble inflicted on a male staffer on the way home from a bar. As Jacob Ogles reports at Florida Politics (July 20, 2021), Gruters claims to be “unaware of any open investigations against me,”— which is true. It isn’t open. The state party opened an investigation in January and allegedly closed it in March. Gruters is married, with three children, and could soon be spending more time with them (isn’t that the euphemism?) Yesterday he met with party officials, including the counsel to the Florida GOP counsel Ben Gibson, which makes the investigation seem not very closed after all.

  • Historian Leslie J. Reagan reports on the “novel twist” to anti-abortion legislation in Texas: private citizens are empowered to investigate their neighbors. They can earn up to $10,000 for turning in people who break the restrictive new law. It sounds like Stalinist Russia, right? North Korea? No! Texas! But as Reagan points out, there’s a long history of coercion when it comes to criminalizing women’s right to govern their own bodies. (Washington Post, June 28, 2021)