Yesterday (April 23, 2020), President Trump again interjected his own version of science into the daily government briefings on COVID in the US. He asked if it would be possible to “inject” some “disinfectant” into the lungs of COVID victims. He also recommended sunlight as a preventative measure and/or treatment, in response to a briefing about ongoing research that examines the virus’s virulence in hot, humid weather. The president’s statement then led the makers of Lysol to quickly issue a statement that its products are not a protection against COVID. In short, do not ingest (or inhale) Lysol! Then today (April 24) the FDA warned that people shouldn’t take the antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID; the president had touted these as “game changers”. Apparently, these can cause serious health problems and death! (For 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, I took chloroquine…Hmmmm)
We know from prior historical examples of pandemics (e.g., 1918 influenza) that such moments provide opportunities for all kinds of people to claim expertise on the causes of and treatments for the disease. The scientific uncertainty that accompanies a new disease, as well as the fear that comes with unpredicted and large numbers of sick people and deaths, provides the space for such “creative” science. But since when did the institution of the US presidency become the bully pulpit for quackery? The president is not supposed to know the science on a new disease: no one elects the president to play such a role. Instead, the president is supposed to lead; he (or she) is supposed to ask informed questions; he (or she) is supposed to help us have confidence in the scientific processes and institutions; he (or she) is not the country’s physician!
I have been homeschooling my teenager, and we have spent time in the last two weeks learning about the Enlightenment and reading Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke. (Just what every teenager would want during this lockdown—a mother/teacher who is a political science professor. Next week is Marx!). Anyway, what has happened to the Enlightenment? Well informed discussion? Looking at the relationship between cause and effect? Scientific process? Critical thinking? Civil discourse? Sure, Enlightenment ideas have problems, but gosh, what happened to thinking?
In the West, experts, the media, and scholars often look down on the “nonscientific” or “primitive” practices that affect health in low-income countries. But what makes the US leadership any different? Here, as a point of comparison, I’m thinking about President John Magufuli of Tanzania, who urged people to flock to churches, saying that the power of Jesus Christ will destroy the devil of coronavirus. Although religious institutions can play important roles in outbreaks—conforting the sick and dying, distributing food, providing care, and sharing health messages—most religious leaders would say that God created science and medicine to improve health! This message didn’t seem to be Magufuli’s emphasis. The discounting of science—or in Trump’s case, just making it up (which is another form of discounting)--is amazing in a world in which people have higher levels of education than ever before in history.