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New book by Dr. Peter Hotez takes on the anti-science movement

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One renowned vaccine scientist became a voice of reason during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Peter Hotez is professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. His new book is called The Deadly Rise of Anti-science: A Scientist's Warning.

On this episode of Weekend Insight, TPR’s Jerry Clayton talks to Hotez about some of the experiences that led to the writing of his newest book.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

Clayton: During the pandemic, you were attacked by anti-vaxxers, but this is not something new. Tell me about what happened after you wrote the book, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism back in 2019.

Hotez: Yeah, that was my first effort to go up against a rising anti-vaccine lobby here in the United States, which unfortunately is particularly strong in Texas. And it was around false claims that vaccines cause autism. The original assertion was that the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine did it.

That was in a paper that was published in The Lancet, an important medical journal, but it was shown to be false and retracted. And from then on, anti-vaccine groups started monetizing the internet, selling phony autism cures or nutritional supplements that nobody needed or anti-vaccine books on Amazon. So it became its own industry and not even a cottage industry, a multibillion dollar industry in time.

And even though the scientific community refuted the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, then they said it was the thimerosal preservative that was in vaccine. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had written an article in Rolling Stone to that effect. That was also shown not to be true. And then it was spacing vaccines too close together.

Or they made up stories about HPV vaccines for cervical cancer and other cancers. So it became kind of this game of whack a mole or moving the goalposts. And that's why I wrote the book to kind of really tamp down the false assertions about vaccines.

Clayton: You famously declined to debate Robert F Kennedy Jr. on Joe Rogan's show. Was that an easy decision for you?

Hotez: Yeah, that was never in the cards. I've known Bobby Kennedy for a number of years and I've had a number of conversations with him over the years. They didn't get anywhere. He's just too dug in, doesn't want to listen to the science. So I knew it wouldn't be productive, but I also thought it could harm the field because it would give people the wrong message about how science works.

I mean, science is not something that's achieved through public debate. Science is achieved through writing scientific papers by serious scientists that submit articles for peer review, and then they get modified or rejected and grants that get modified, rejected, or you present in front of scientific conferences in front of your peers for critical feedback. And it's a very successful approach.

You don't debate science like you'd debate enlightenment, philosophy or politics.

Clayton: This most recent rise in anti-science, is it psychological, do you think, or is it just politics?

Hotez: It's hard to untangle those two, but it's clear that the people who lost their lives, those 40,000 Texans and 200,000 Americans overall were victims.

In my view, they were victims of a predatory, anti-science, anti-vaccine movement that started — and this is what I talk about in the book — at the CPAC Conference of Conservatives that was held in Dallas in the summer of 2021, where the rhetoric was first, they're going to vaccinate you, then they're going to take away your guns and your Bibles. And as ridiculous as that sounds to us, people in our state of Texas accepted it.

And then the pile on came from leaders of the United States Congress, from the House Freedom Caucus. People like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia called people like me who want to vaccinate medical brownshirts, comparing vaccines to the Holocaust and then were amplified every night on Fox News. Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, every night during that horrible Delta wave when so many people in Texas and the United States refused to get vaccinated and died from Covid.

Those nighttime Fox News anchors with 3 million viewers each filled their broadcast with anti-vaccine content and ultimately people paid for it with their lives. And then how do we reverse that trend, I think, is one of the really great, great challenges.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.