Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
02 July 2020

The Earth is Round and Viruses Are Contagious

Commentary by Isabella Alcañiz

In her contribution to the Democracy Centre’s commentary series on democratic experiences in the coronavirus pandemic, Isabella Alcañiz explores the connection between anti-science protesters and governments, focusing on Brasil, the United States and Argentina. These protesters – says Alcañiz – represent a minority of the population, with the exception perhaps of the United States, where they have become an integral part of the Republican Party.

What do government scientists want? Around the world, groups of anti-science demonstrators protest both the shutdown measures implemented to fight the pandemic and the experts who recommend them. These protesters represent a minority of the population, with the exception perhaps of the United States, where they have become an integral part of the Republican Party. Despite their low numbers, anti-science protesters receive abundant media attention, especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is certainly remarkable that in 2020 there are people who deny the existence and human origin of climate change, the immunization effect of vaccines, and the spherical property of planet earth. It is also remarkable how anti-science claims have been politicized during the pandemic. In Buenos Aires, Brasilia, and Washington D.C., anti-science groups target government scientists responsible for public health.

In the United States - a country deeply polarized and in crisis- the country's leading infectious disease expert and coordinator of the federal coronavirus task force has even received death threats. Anti-science supporters of the US president accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of rejecting the treatment recommendations that Trump himself pushed without scientific evidence and of imposing draconian measures of social distancing. In Brazil, also polarized and led by an anti-science president, two health ministers resigned the past month due to the lack of science-based federal policy to fight the pandemic. It is not surprising that the United States and Brazil rank first and second in the number of COVID-19 cases in the world, with close to four million infected and almost 200,000 fatalities.

Political polarization and anti-science sentiments are weaker in Argentina. Even so, anti-science protesters have managed to raise their profile with the help of a few political opponents of the Peronist government of Alberto Fernández. They criticize the public health and social measures put in place to “flatten the curve” and avoid the collapse of the hospital system. Even though the Argentine government is adopting health policies recommended by the World Health Organization and a number of countries, anti-science detractors accuse it of establishing an “Infectocracia,” a political regime where infectious disease experts have too much power.

Anti-quarantine protests in Argentina, Brazil, and the United States reveal a mix of interests, as participants include members of the political opposition, desperate merchants, religious fundamentalists, and anti-democratic, racist, and anti-Semitic far-right groups. Still, the different anti-quarantine groups agree on three points. To them, state experts (1) have excessive power over the government; (2) they are "globalists;" and (3) they are Machiavellian in their manipulation of politicians. Yet these assumptions contradict what we know about state experts.

Even Without Investment, State Researchers Do Science

1-In Argentina and Brazil (and even the US), when the economy contracts, government research programs are often the first to be cut. For government experts, budget cuts in bad economic times are so predictable that they have even developed strategies to compensate, such as seeking technical training outside of their institution. If, as anti-science protesters claim, experts have excessive power, it is striking that they often lack the necessary investment in resources to carry out their work.

2- When government science programs see their budgets cut, their experts increase participation in international technical cooperation projects coordinated by international organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Organization or the United Nations Environment Program. To help fill the budget gap and maintain their skills current, public sector scientists in developing countries increase South-South technical cooperation. The globalist label accusation by anti-science groups assumes that local experts respond to global actors such as the World Health Organization over their own national government. In reality, international technical agencies have no formal power over national scientists, and their main mission is to assist in the dissemination of knowledge and training.

3- Government scientists rely on policy-makers in matters of budget and institutional resources. Even the experts at the head of agencies and ministries know they can propose and recommend policy, but politicians ultimately decide. Scientists realize that their “language” of data and probabilities is radically different from that of politicians. Often, experts in the public sector must "translate" their recommendations into politically viable proposals. This is far from Machiavellian manipulation.

The amount of know-how, science, and technology generated by researchers in the public sector with meager budgets is surprising. But it is much more astonishing that in the midst of a pandemic and in a world increasingly vulnerable to climate change, there are groups that see scientists as the greatest danger.

This article has also been published in Spanish in Agenda Publica.


Profile news - Alcaniz.pngIsabella Alcañiz,Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland