For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful. … Theorizing about “the social construction of reality” won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics, and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.
~Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, “Fashionable Nonsense” (1997)
Nowhere is the politicization of science more evident than in the pernicious absurdity of the anti-vaccination movement, which has received fresh impetus during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The internet and social media (not to mention malevolent bots and trolls) have enabled the rapid spread of vaccine misinformation. But what role do broader political beliefs play in fueling anti-vax sentiment and suspicions about science in general?
We know this is happening on the Right, especially in the United States, where resistance to COVID vaccines has become a marker of political and ideological identity among Trump supporters, even though their leader was among the first politicians to avail himself of the shots. Vaccine rejectionism fits comfortably with traditional right-wing opposition to certain types of science (such as evolution and the reality of anthropogenic climate change), but in a fiercely polarized political climate, it has been inflamed by suspicion of liberals who endorse vaccination. For some conservatives, a childishly contrarian resistance to the “progressive establishment” constitutes a kind of principled libertarianism.
But before the Left allows itself to become too smug about this particular right-wing rejection of science, a little history is in order. Seldom discussed, let alone acknowledged, is that right-wing vaccine rejectionism has its roots in mainstream left-wing doctrines. Twenty-five years after Alan Sokal’s celebrated hoax, anti-scientific nonsense from the Left continues to inspire and inform anti-vaxxers’ absurd abuse of science. Consequently, vaccine rejectionism in the US is now endemic. In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States saw a 10 percent overall decline in the number of parents who believe that it’s extremely or very important to vaccinate their children (from 94 percent in 2001 to 84 percent in 2019). An astonishing 11 percent say that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent. In 2015, almost two-in-five respondents to a Canadian survey stated that “the science on vaccinations isn’t quite clear.”
Before the pandemic, resistance to vaccinations in the US was fairly evenly divided between Left and Right, at least according to polling data. But the reasons were different, and telling. Conservatives were more likely to believe that vaccination should be the choice of a patient or parent, while leftists were more likely to embrace conspiracy nonsense. Many of the movement’s most ardent conspiracy-mongers were progressives and the largest pockets of anti-vaccine sentiment were in liberal US counties. The 2015 California measles outbreak, for instance, began in the wealthy, liberal enclave of Marin County, and the progressive San Francisco collar counties were the hotbed of opposition to the California law—passed in 2016 as measles cases soared—banning personal belief exemptions for children entering kindergarten.
As the left-wing publication Mother Jones noted last year:
The loudest [anti-vax] voices came from politically liberal, mostly white, and affluent enclaves—think famously hippie places like Marin County, California, or Boulder, Colorado—where parents worried about the side effects of what they perceive as toxins in vaccines. Anti-vaxxers in these places tended to pride themselves on the purity of their lifestyles—they bought organic groceries, railed against genetically modified food, and were suspicious of the electromagnetic waves emitted by cell phones.
In 2016, the feminist publication Jezebel published a list of high-profile anti-vax celebrities, many of whom have since fallen silent as vaccine denialism has become associated with Trumpism. Among the most outspoken is Jenny McCarthy, who has an autistic son, and who laid down the blueprint that conservatives are now following with public statements like these:
The reason why [parents] are not vaccinating is because the vaccines are not safe. Make a better product and then parents will vaccinate.
If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the fucking measles.
These actors and television personalities have offered various justifications for their stance, including concerns about autism, opposition to “Big Pharma,” and a belief that vaccines are “unnatural” and that protection is safely achievable by following homeopathy and sundry “wellness” doctrines.
The modern anti-vaccine movement has always had a media celebrity component. In 1982, reporter Lea Thompson sparked controversy in the US with her television documentary, DPT: Vaccine Roulette, which linked a vast range of childhood disabilities to the DTaP vaccine, leading to numerous lawsuits against the vaccine's manufacturers. Thompson’s campaign prompted the formation of the anti-vax group, Distraught Parents Together, which later became the still-influential National Vaccine Information Center.
Syndicated TV talk shows like Sally Jessy Rafael, the Maury Povich Show, and Real Time with Bill Maher provided celebrity anti-vaxxers with an uncritical platform. In 1990, The Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and compared vaccinations to "alien microorganisms" that could cause “cancer, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and sudden infant death syndrome” (none of which is true).
The modern anti-vax movement exploded in the late 1990s after British activist and physician Andrew Wakefeld and 12 colleagues published an article in the Lancet falsely claiming that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine may predispose recipients to behavioral regression and pervasive developmental disorder in children—autism. Their study was later retracted and Wakefield was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council for serious professional misconduct. Nevertheless, by then his fraudulent research had become a sensation, capturing the imagination of credulous celebrities, journalists, and a left-naturalist cultural movement already sympathetic to a wide range of anti-science nostrums.
During the COVID pandemic, some of these leftist groups remained anti-vaccine, although some twisted their views to distance themselves from the right-wing strain of rejectionism. Many wellness influencers believe that vaccines are unnatural substances that poison human bodies, and the anti-vax movement continues to grow on various “natural-focused” Facebook groups, freely spreading discredited theories that shots are dangerous. As the Washington Post reported in September:
There’s a whole genre of accounts of prominent social media figures that mix in vaccine skepticism with general healthy living posts. Evie Kevish, a CrossFitter and “certified juice therapist,” who frequently posts on Instagram about which vegetables and fruits she’s juicing, posted a video recently with her wearing a shirt emblazoned with “VACCINES ARE POISON” in a video she posted on June 27.
These groups’ websites are full of paranoid anti-vax misinformation promoted in the name of “natural health.” One site claims that “the [COVID] jab kills at least five times more than COVID”; another claims that “SARS-CoV-2 is, in effect, a US and Chinese-funded and engineered bioweapon, accidentally or deliberately released from a so-called ‘dual-use’ military and biomedical lab in Wuhan, China.” (These claims appear alongside articles about the “18 Medicinal Properties of Cucumbers” and how the best defense against “the flu, cancer, heart disease, and even engineered viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, is to cultivate a strong immune system, optimum Vitamin D levels, adequate Omega 6 intake, and a healthy microbiome.”)
Anti-GMO leftists and the Right
The Left’s suspicion of vaccines is linked to other strains of science denialism among progressives, most notably anti-GMO and anti-CRISPR activists. For more than two decades before the COVID pandemic, the most influential anti-vax organizations were organic advocates who fiercely rejected agricultural biotechnology. Over the past two years, many of these groups, ostensibly concerned with lifestyle fads like natural medicine, have morphed into COVID anti-vaxxers.
For example, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is a longstanding hub for granola-munchers, and its promotion of organic food and “natural” and “alternative” medicines is frequently cited in media foodie circles. The OCA has been one of the most influential demonizers of GMOs, CRISPR crops, and other sustainable agricultural tools, and positions itself as “not ‘anti-vax,’ but rather pro-vaccine safety,” disingenuously promoting what it calls “freedom of choice” while diligently working to undermine trust in vaccine efficacy and safety.
The OCA is by no means alone in its alliance of pro-organic and anti-vaccine claims. Anti-vaxxers, such as the “experts” featured in the notorious “docu-series” Vaccines Revealed, have littered the websites of anti-GMO activists for years. And who are these experts? Well, Andrew Wakefield, of course, but also Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has made millions from his legal work challenging GMOs and the herbicide glyphosate as part of a partnership with the Church of Scientology and the OCA anti-GMO attack dog, US Right to Know.
RFK, Jr. is the founder of the notorious anti-vax organization, Children’s Health Defense, the website of which is an internet rabbit hole of conspiracy and distortion featuring an “Exposing the Truth” section detailing the supposed lies of vaccination proponents. Earlier this year, Kennedy released a documentary entitled Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, which attempts to link vaccines to a history of racist medicine, including the Tuskegee syphilis study. Just last month, YouTube joined other social media sites in banning him for his promotion of vaccine disinformation.
“Natural health” promoter Joe Mercola, meanwhile, is an RFK, Jr. ally who has contributed more than $2.9 million to the pseudoscientific National Vaccine Information Center. Mercola’s eponymous website attacks fluoridation and mammography; claims that amalgam fillings are toxic; urges his followers to avoid “dangerous” electro-magnetic fields; is pro-organic and anti-crop biotechnology; and (of course) warns about the “dangers” of vaccinations, including shots to protect against COVID-19.
Mercola claims that many of the supplements he sells can boost immunity to COVID-19, and the New York Times has called him “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online.” He recently co-authored a book with OCA co-founder Ronnie Cummins which claims that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was a genetic engineering experiment gone awry and that the “effectiveness of the vaccines has been wildly exaggerated and major safety questions have gone unanswered.” RFK, Jr. wrote the foreword.
Recently, left-wing vaccine rejectionists have embraced a new celebrity endorser, Mercola’s girlfriend Erin Elizabeth Finn, the founder of the website Health Nut News. The Center for Countering Digital Hate has named Finn, along with Mercola and RFK, Jr. as part of the Disinformation Dozen—12 public figures it says are responsible for the majority of social media coronavirus vaccine misinformation. They dress their rejectionism in claims that the COVID pandemic is “a global power grab by Big Tech, Big Pharma, and big business billionaires, aided and abetted by indentured politicians, scientists, and the military-industrial complex”—anti-capitalist twists on the far-Right’s conspiracy playbook.
How did anti-biotechnology activists come to embrace COVID vaccine denialism? British environmentalist George Monbiot, an influential columnist for the progressive Guardian newspaper in the UK, has attempted to explain this phenomenon. Monbiot acknowledges that “there has long been an overlap between certain new age and far-right ideas” and that “for several years, anti-vax has straddled the green left and the far right.” He is also open about the “shocking” and “uncomfortable” fact that so many of his fellow left-wingers are falling prey to lunatic ideas.
Every few days I hear of another acquaintance who has become seriously ill with Covid, after proudly proclaiming the benefits of “natural immunity”, denouncing vaccines and refusing to take the precautions that apply to lesser mortals. … I hear right-on people mouthing the claims of white supremacists, apparently in total ignorance of their origins. I encounter hippies who once sought to build communities sharing the memes of extreme individualism. Something has gone badly wrong in parts of the alternative scene.
Yet Monbiot is nothing if not a hypocrite on this issue. Like many on the Left, he has been consistently and deeply critical of agricultural biotechnology, often uncritically embracing the rejectionist tropes of the same groups now fanning suspicion of vaccines. Like many of the left-wing vaccine critics he abhors, Monbiot believes that biotech innovations are dangerous products peddled by corporations forcing GM food on reluctant populations and polluting the global food supply.
And while he is honest enough to acknowledge the Left’s current slide into irrationality, he blames this development on the sinister machinations of conservatives. Naïve progressives, he claims, have been “lured to the far right by conspiracy theories” that accuse corporations of profiting from COVID and the booming vaccine market. George Santayana’s aphorism that “Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it” may be a cliché, but here it is apropos. Monbiot, like many Green progressives, is watching the dismal consequences of his own anti-corporate fear-mongering playing out in real time.
The environmentalist bind
When advocating for action on climate change, environmentalist organizations like Greenpeace are fond of intoning that “We should listen to science.” But when it comes to biotechnology and genetic science, it has been a different story. Indeed, the Greens’ well-documented distortion and misrepresentation of biotechnology—for instance, the panic over genetically modified “Frankenfoods”—has laid the ideological groundwork for resistance to COVID vaccines among any group reflexively skeptical of “Big Corporations” or “Big Government.”
Vehement and longstanding opposition to genetic modification has left Green political parties in Europe and NGOs everywhere in a bind. They rely on the votes and donations of supporters conditioned to distrust biotechnology and biotech companies. Yet now, due to a global health disaster, they are presented with bioengineered vaccines, created by hated biotech corporations, that can provide for the wellbeing of billions. How can these parties justify the embrace of life-saving vaccines made by the very corporations they have persuaded millions of people to distrust?
Greenpeace’s conversion was slow. Even at the height of the pandemic, the organization was still arguing that GE techniques “could effectively turn both nature and ourselves ... into a gigantic genetic engineering experiment with unknown, potentially irrevocable outcomes.” Other NGOs employed a particularly cynical strategy: they fell silent on the GE nature of the COVID vaccines for fear it would legitimize other uses of biotechnology (such as developing disease-resistant and nutrition-enhanced crops and food) while spin-doctoring support for mass immunization as a social justice cause. And here Green organizations have turned to a familiar anti-capitalist script, dodging the science while raising doubts about the nefarious intentions of profit-making corporations.
Search Green organizations’ websites for information on COVID vaccines and you’ll find nothing about the scientific miracle of bioengineering, which they have spent decades denigrating as unsafe and paternalistic. There is, however, plenty of material that links the COVID crisis to genetically modified crops. Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate known as the “rock star” of the anti-GMO movement, is one of many anti-crop biotech campaigners who has circulated the conspiracy theory that “We are feeding all our animals GMO soya and it could so easily be that this horizontal gene transfer is happening and the animals are developing super-viruses which are then jumping from animals to humans.”
The example Down Under
New Zealand’s environmentalist lobby offers a revealing case study. It’s small but hugely influential—especially since the election of charismatic progressive Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, in 2017—and provides a microcosm of the attitudes emerging in other Western democracies. The country’s Green Party is an ally and former coalition partner of the current left-leaning government, and it has (like its fellow Greens the world over) consistently opposed genetic biotechnology while steadfastly supporting draconian GMO restrictions first drafted in the 1990s.
This has resulted in a staggering irony: biotech research that could help mitigate the climate impact of New Zealand’s agricultural industry and protect the country’s endangered native fauna from introduced predators is being stymied by the very party that claims to prioritise the natural environment. The NZ Greens’ official policy demands that “Public funding should focus on fundamental and applied scientific research”—so long, of course, as genetic engineering never leaves the lab. As an example of inconsistency and scientific incoherence, this is hard to beat.
This goes beyond mere irony. Given the confusion and fear encouraged by environmental activists, openly backing genetic technology is seen as a vote-loser by New Zealand’s two major political parties. Thus, neither party is willing to officially endorse biotech innovation despite its widely acknowledged sustainability benefits in lowering the use of harmful chemicals, reducing natural inputs such as water, curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing agricultural yields (which in turn limits the need to clear carbon-sucking, oxygen-generating forests).
The rationale offered by the right-leaning National Party’s “cautious approach” is revealing. “We need to be mindful of market perceptions as well as the science,” it said in 2017, arguing that it has to protect New Zealand’s global reputation as an exporter of non-GMO products. “We will continue to monitor global rules around the regulation of GMOs and adapt our system over time in line with international developments,” it claimed, even as almost every region in the world, outside of precautionary-obsessed Europe, embraced GMOs and in many cases enthusiastically encouraged CRISPR crop innovation. That puts political expediency over science.
New Zealand’s anti-biotechnology views are so entrenched that when COVID struck, vaccine proponents were forced to walk a political tightrope, fearful that bioengineered vaccines might fall foul of the country’s strict GMO legislation. In the end, the sheer magnitude of the crisis overwhelmed political correctness, at least in part, and key influencers downplayed the contradiction for fear of fueling latent anti-vaccination sentiment. Playing the anti-capitalism card, the environmentalist Left ignored the biotechnology angle altogether, and focussed instead on the need for a “People’s Vaccine” that, in the words of the New Zealand Green Party, “put[s] human lives before the interests of multi-billion dollar pharma companies.” This is boilerplate anti-GMO activist rhetoric.
This is a farcical state of affairs, and it highlights the selective absurdity of restrictions targeting crops but not medicine. After all, if the process of bioengineering makes crops dangerous to our health—as Green propaganda claims—it ought to wreak havoc when used to craft treatments in which human life hangs in the balance. Among those who conscientiously refused to make political capital from this tragic irony were members of The Opportunities Party (TOP), the country’s only party with a coherent policy on genetic engineering. Its policy position is that GE is “designed to help New Zealanders lead healthier lives, develop healthier crops, protect our precious environment, and benefit from leading international scientific developments.”
Sowing (GE-free) seeds
Like many high-profile anti-GMO activist organizations, Greenpeace has been adept at muddying the waters over the science of modern biotechnology. This is most obvious in its decades-long opposition to Golden Rice, a strain of rice genetically modified to make beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A approved in the Philippines last summer. According to the World Health Organization, “250,000–500,000 children who are vitamin A-deficient become blind every year, and half of them die within 12 months of losing their sight.” Golden Rice has the potential to prevent millions of needless deaths and ensure improved health and wellbeing for many millions more. And yet, 20 years after it was developed, this life-saving food is still opposed by Greenpeace and many other left-wing groups even after its approval.
As with Green political parties, Greenpeace’s “especially persistent, vocal, and extreme” opposition to GM crops like Golden Rice (which a former Greenpeace director describes as “morally unacceptable”) has put it in an awkward spot with regard to bioengineered COVID vaccines. Unwilling to concede that its anti-biotechnology stance is ideological and unscientific, the NGO has (in keeping with other Greens) simply repositioned itself as supporting mass immunization for the sake of the world’s poor. This is egregious hypocrisy—where is the concern for the millions of the undernourished poor suffering from Vitamin A deficiency who could be helped by GM Golden Rice? Greenpeace and its allies in the affluent West are preventing the developing world from realizing the huge potential of biotechnology—except when the ideological opposition, as in the case of vaccines, is too obviously absurd.
Fear-mongering about GMOs and its associated technologies is a longstanding tactic of politicians in the wealthy developed world, particularly in Europe. The precautionary principle is routinely invoked to block GE crops and many synthetic chemicals, but then simply ignored in relation to other technologies. The most popular, and dangerous, pesticide in use on the continent, for instance, is organic copper sulfate—a suspected human carcinogen known to smother beneficial insects.
But biomedically derived vaccines are getting a political pass. As COVID raged across Europe, politicians found themselves in the same bind faced by liberal Greens worldwide. If they’d stuck to their principles, they would have openly opposed the new vaccines while applying the same unscientific regulatory approach used to block approval of GE crops. Instead, like the Greens and the environmentalist NGOs, they chose spin and hypocrisy, furiously obfuscating their existing anti-GE stance to fast-track vaccine approvals while reassuring the public that they were safe.
Exaggerated safety concerns, suspicion of new technology, and distrust of profit-making corporations have been features of leftist opposition to modern genetic and genomic technology for decades. Consequently, biotechnophobia has certainly played a part in the public’s sometimes ambivalent attitudes towards the new bioengineered COVID vaccines.
There is deadly precedent here. In the late 1990s, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic raged through sub-Saharan Africa, then-President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, openly rejected the evidence-based battle against the disease. Influenced by “AIDS denialists,” Mbeki believed that the disease “was brought about by the collapse of the immune system … not because of a virus.” So he turned his back on modern pharmaceutical drugs, opting instead for “natural” alternatives. As a result, more than a third-of-a-million people are thought to have died. Those lethal beliefs and motivations match those of today’s anti-vaxxers—different disease, same life-threatening message.
The mass take-up of COVID vaccines in many parts of the world demonstrates ongoing trust in science and public health bodies—after all, vaccines do work and biotechnology is the reason. As a result, opposition to GE techniques will undoubtedly soften, if only incrementally. Nevertheless, the politicization of science has strengthened the core of anti-vax sentiment. The result is untold thousands of unnecessary deaths, and many more to come in what has been described as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
The finger of blame for this is most often pointed at the Right and its crackpot extremes—an accusation for which there is ample justification. But the progressive Left must shoulder its share of responsibility for enabling the anti-scientific hostility to biotechnology that sustains the anti-vaccination movement. The coronavirus pandemic has caused massive backtracking and spin-doctoring among progressive parties over bioengineered vaccines. It remains to be seen whether or not this expediency will produce a rethink about biotechnology and its benefits once the COVID crisis recedes.
In the words of exasperated leftist Alan Sokal, “rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality”—the very hallmarks of science—are the best means to achieve the progressive goals of greater social justice and equality. They will also provide us with the tools we need to finally slay the beast of COVID-19.
Jon Entine is the founding executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, and winner of 19 major journalism awards. He has written extensively in the popular and academic press on agricultural and population genetics. You can follow him on Twitter @JonEntine.
Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a New Zealand-based freelance writer with a particular interest in the social and political implications of biological science. You can find him at his website: patrickmichaelwhittle.com or follow him on Twitter @WhittlePM.
Correction: an earlier version of this article cited Fashionable Nonsense as being published in 1987, not 1997. Additionally, the text has been amended to clarify that organic copper sulfate is a suspected human carcinogen. Quillette regrets the errors.
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