What Dr. Fauci Can Learn from Climate Scientists About Responding to Personal Attacks Over Covid-19

Climate experts have watched with an uneasy sense of deja vu as national and local public health leaders have been harassed, insulted and threatened.

Jul 14, 2020
President Donald Trump is flanked by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases while speaking about coronavirus vaccine development on May 15, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is flanked by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases while speaking about coronavirus vaccine development on May 15, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A top government scientist calls for action to quell a growing public health crisis, but authorities try to silence him and undermine his credibility.

That could be a summary of the last few days in the life of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's most prominent infectious disease expert, who has been attacked by the Trump White House over his pleas for a more aggressive response to Covid-19.

But it is also a plot line that played out 15 years ago in President George W. Bush's administration, when the government's most renowned climate scientist and advocate for action, James Hansen, then of NASA, found himself at loggerheads with his superiors.

Hansen is just one of many climate scientists now watching the attacks on Fauci and other infectious disease experts with an uneasy sense of deja vu. For decades, political pressure and personal harassment has been part of the job for the most vocal climate scientists. In Hansen's case, this took the form of Bush administration appointees seeking to restrict his lectures, papers, and media interviews, as a NASA inspector general's investigation later documented. But many climate scientists have experienced far worse, including hacking and online release of their emails, dead rats left on their doorsteps, and harassing lawsuits aimed at undermining their reputations.

Now public health leaders from Fauci down to state and local officials have been targeted with harassment, insults and death threats.  InsideClimate News asked climate scientists what guidance they could offer the Covid-19 science community as they navigate this minefield.

Some offered practical advice: Don't engage with trolls; find strength in numbers. But their most resounding message was: Make sure the public continues to hear about the science. For those who study the perils that humanity faces as the planet warms, the Covid crisis looks increasingly like a pivotal moment for the future of trust in science.

'Only if We Let Them Will They Win'

Fauci, 79, a physician who has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since the Reagan administration, has been a target for right-wing vitriol since the early days of the pandemic. But in the last week, the efforts to cast doubt have come from within the Trump administration itself, as White House officials circulated lists of his purported mistakes (edited to exclude his caveats).  The White House canceled the TV appearances on Fauci's schedule for this past weekend. And on Sean Hannity's show on Fox, Trump last week called Fauci "a nice man" who has "made a lot of mistakes." 

Hansen, who is now director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University's Earth Institute, doesn't think that the Trump White House will succeed in silencing a veteran with decades of experience like Fauci. But he worries that less prominent scientists will be intimidated, and as with climate change, crucial warnings will be ignored.

"Dr. Fauci and I wear armor, gained from prior public exposure," Hansen said. "That armor practically prevents retaliation, because of the bad publicity it would bring.

"The greater concern is the effect of political threats on those scientists who do not have such armor—surely it is harder for them to speak up,"  Hansen said. "That's too bad, because scientists, guided by the objectivity of the scientific method, should be a source of trusted information.  Instead we have politicians telling the public that any opinion counts as much as scientific evidence."

Climate expert and activist James Hansen attends a press conference at the COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference on Nov. 6, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Climate expert and activist James Hansen attends a press conference at the COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference on Nov. 6, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Indeed, in May, a top vaccine official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sought whistleblower protection after he was demoted for raising health concerns over hydroxychloroquine, a drug Trump was then promoting as a possible cure without scientific evidence.

Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which, with Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, has a project tracking silencing of government scientists, says the HHS case is not unique.

"Unfortunately, there are many more stories that should be told, but the scientists who have experienced them are worried about job security or increasing the negative attention upon them," she said. "I think if there is a change in administration, there will be more people who are comfortable coming forward."

She added, "I think there's an economic incentive, and also, unfortunately, just a normal human emotion sometimes to want to shoot the messenger if the news is bad."

The targets of attacks have included outspoken scientists who are outside of government. Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, who studies the evolution of scientific knowledge as well as of species, has described the spread of misinformation and disinformation as a "second front" in the battle of Covid-19. 

In a Twitter thread in March, Bergstrom described the price he has paid for speaking out: "Attacks on my motives, my character, my intelligence. Calls for me to be reprimanded or fired by my university for my efforts (for what, I still don't understand)," he wrote. "Ill wishes regarding my health. You name it."

Bergstrom (who declined to be interviewed for this story) has said that many scientists have been taken aback by the caustic atmosphere. But it is not surprising to climate scientists.

"Scientists should recognize when they contradict prominent policymakers, they're getting into the policy battle and they're going to get whacked," said Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University. 

Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, has fielded criticisms of her personal appearance, her qualifications and her character. Although the attacks get personal, she said, it's important not to take them personally. 

"I think it is important to recognise why we are being attacked and the purpose of the attacks," she wrote in an email. "These people do not know you and they have no desire to do so. They are attacking you as a symbol of something they fear and therefore, by association, hate.

"The purpose of the attack is not to engage in any type of fact-based or good-faith dialogue," she said. "It is to discourage you, to discredit you, to make you less effective, and ultimately to shut you up."

Hayhoe said she has a policy of never reading the comment section of any online article and strongly advocates blocking trolls on social media. Since doing science—not responding to attacks—is the primary focus for most scientists, she urges scientists to be choosy about when they engage. "We need to spend our time wisely, focusing on those who are open to listening to what we have to say and not letting the trolls discourage us, beat us down, or silence us," she said. "Only if we let them, will they win."

'A Living Document'

One dilemma for scientists is if they simply ignore attacks, it could allow damaging false information to spread. (Fauci's recent conflict with the White House stemmed from his remark that people should not take comfort in dropping coronavirus death rates. President Donald Trump and his close aides were delivering precisely that message. But Fauci called it a "false narrative" to suggest that trend meant the virus was under control.)

Michael Oppenheimer, director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, said that climate scientists confronting that issue learned the importance of working together on consensus statements about the science. What are the policy-relevant points that most scientists agree on? What are the persistent myths that get in the way of good policy and why do scientists know they are false? 

"One way or another, we have a responsibility as a community to respond to lies that are being put out in public—as well as genuine misunderstandings," Oppenheimer said. "That's why I would strongly recommend that on Covid, the scientific community get its act together and be able as a group to propagate knowledge."

Oppenheimer suggested producing "a living document" that reflects the scientific consensus on Covid and knocks down myths. "It's tricky because this is a very fast-changing area, but climate change science was always a fast-changing field in relative terms." 

He said that doing this would also aid the public in understanding uncertainty, and how the best scientific advice might change over time as knowledge improves. 

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said infectious disease specialists don't need to reinvent the wheel. They can turn to organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund for advice.

"Recognize that other scientists have been through this before and there is a lot of help and support out there for scientists who find themselves under politically and ideologically-motivated attack," Mann said.

Foes of climate action repeatedly have targeted Mann, the author of influential research showing that the past few decades have been warmer than any comparable period in the past 1,000 years—a study known for its iconic "hockey stick" graph. 

Although Mann's work was affirmed by the National Academies of Science, he has faced repeated attacks aimed at undermining his credibility, and he currently has a defamation lawsuit underway against the conservative National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. However, his advice to colleagues in infectious disease is to focus on the science, not the fight.

"Just do your best to get your positive message out while rebutting the most egregious lies and distortions when it appears they're gaining any mainstream currency," Mann said. "Recognize you are part of a proactive, larger community of good-willed scientists and science communicators who are more than happy to help."

A Silver Lining or a No Win Situation?

Despite the attacks on the scientists, polling shows large bipartisan majorities of the public trust the public health experts over the Trump White House when it comes to Covid-19. More than two-thirds of those who responded to a Yahoo News/Yougov poll said they trusted Fauci, compared to one-quarter of respondents who said the same for Trump. That is heartening to some climate scientists.

"The one silver lining is that the science will be proven to be more or less correct," Oppenheimer said. "We may regain the level of respect for science that people had for so long, but which has slipped, just as it has slipped for all institutions over the past 20 or 30 years."

Hansen agreed. "Perhaps the Covid experience will help the public regain some trust in science," he said.

But some observers see signs that trust in science is continuing to erode. Mark Bowen, an author and scientist who recounted Hansen's story in the 2008 book, "Censoring Science," said that the Bush administration was cautious in its efforts to sideline Hansen.

"They felt some constraints. It was hidden, and a lot of double-speak went on," Bowen recalls. In contrast, the White House attacks on Fauci are direct. "Now, it's out-in-front, bare-knuckled boxing."

Dessler said he still believes scientists should speak out, even though he says they are in a "no-win" situation.

"I may sound overly dramatic," he said, "But I think as long as Facebook exists and Twitter exists and social media exists, it's hopeless.

"If a scientist doesn't say anything, then you run the risk of misinformation guiding policy," Dessler said. "But a scientist who says something is getting into the political debate. And then you run the risk of the scientist being looked at as just another advocate."

He added: "There's no option that scientists have, where science comes out more trusted,  more reliable and able to guide society better."

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