Dr. Richard Feldman: We are living in a ‘post-truth’ era

Dr. Richard FeldmanIt’s been a long 2-1/2 years.

COVID-19 disrupted everyday life, education, personal finances, businesses, health care and the economy. Serious illness and death became an all-too-common fact of everyday life. Anxiety, depression, isolation and health care professional burnout were hallmarks of the challenges faced.

It has been a rough, bumpy road for the public health and for the scientific communities on a steep learning curve. The science naturally changed as the pandemic caused by this never-before-experienced virus progressed. What was thought to be true one week was not necessarily true the next.

The virus mutated into new variants, requiring changing messages issued by public health and governmental authorities, adjusted to best protect people’s lives and the foundations of our society. The public became confused; a significant segment became distrustful even of the miraculous developments of highly effective COVID vaccines and other new treatments. Compounding the situation were really poor communications from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were unclear, conflicted, confusing and too complicated.

On top of everything, COVID became politicized, further polarizing an already divisive nation. Even the CDC faced broad political pressures affecting its recommendations beyond the direct unprecedented interference by the Trump administration. Misinformation and, worse, disinformation flourished. Opposition to vaccination and masking became a political banner for the conservative right; in some states, public mitigation restrictions were unjustifiably discouraged and prematurely ended.

More than a million Americans have perished from COVID-19; many died needlessly due to the disinformation and political rhetoric responsible for much of the resistance to vaccination and other basic mitigation efforts. Mixing politics and public health is a bad combination and rarely ends well.

Unfortunately, amid the confusion and distrust present during an unstable and uncertain time, the stage was set for an escalating “anti-science” perspective with the public. Anti-science is the denunciation or discrediting of mainstream scientific views and prominent scientists, commonly replaced with pseudoscience or unproven or misleading assessments. We are living in what is termed a “post-truth era,” with baseless beliefs and subjective opinions taking precedence over proven facts—emotion over reason.

Often, these ideas are promulgated for personal or political advantage that might pose a threat to our societal security, health and well-being. Public debate is increasingly driven by what people want or expediently claim to be true rather than what is verifiably true. The trend is driven by the internet, social media, politicians and opinion-driven media.

Trump didn’t originate anti-science, but he did legitimize it. The Trump administration used it effectively during the COVID crisis with a deliberate disinformation crusade. It minimized the pandemic’s severity, predicting the virus would magically disappear, claiming hospitalizations and deaths were overreported or falsely attributed to COVID, discouraging the use of masking, promoting bogus treatments rather than actively promoting vaccination, and sidelining public health experts. Various members of Congress and red-state governors joined the bandwagon, and conspiracy theorists found fertile ground.

Today, one-third of Americans remain unvaccinated, disproportionately represented by conservative Republicans. Anti-science is not historically part of the Republican agenda. But partly due to Trump’s continuing hold on the party, anti-science is alive and well.

I don’t have the solution for reversing the proliferation of anti-science, especially among the conservative right. But the pendulum commonly swings; I hope this, too, shall pass.•


Feldman is a family physician, author, lecturer and former Indiana State Department of Health commissioner for Gov. Frank O’Bannon. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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