Physicist Richard P. Feynman once said “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.”
Feynman’s statement captures how science depends upon constant questioning and challenging of assumptions. Yet, what is healthy debate to some is criminal dissent to others. Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine is calling for federal hate-crime protections to be extended to cover criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other scientists.
The frequent MSNBC and CNN guest wants Congress to expand hate crimes to “scientists currently targeted by far-right extremism in the United States.”
In a July 28 paper in Plos Biology titled “Mounting Antiscience Aggression in the United States,” Hotez encourages Congress to focus on the “band of ultraconservative members of the US Congress and other public officials with far-right leanings are waging organized and seemingly well-coordinated attacks against prominent US biological scientists.”
Hotez insists that it is not enough to support such science but to criminalize attacks on their research. This suggestion is just one of a number of ideas briefly put forward to support scientists but it is the most chilling. Referring Nazi and fascist movements in history, Hotez argues that good science requires cracking down on the right. He concludes:
“As Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once pointed out, neutrality or silence favors the oppressor. We must take steps to protect our scientists and take swift and positive action to counter the growing wave of far-right antiscience aggression. Not taking action is a tacit endorsement, and a guarantee that the integrity and productivity of science in the United States will be eroded or lose ground.”
The federal hate crime laws focus on basis of a person’s characteristics of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. We have seen calls for adding professions like police officers, which I also opposed. As with police officers, the inclusion of such professions would have a direct and inimical impact on free speech in our society. Indeed, it would create a slippery slope as other professions demand inclusion from reporters to ministers to physicians. Hate crimes would quickly apply to a wide array of people due to their occupations.
What is most striking about the article of Hotez is its lack of analytical balance. He rages against the right without even acknowledging how social media companies have already enforced a massive censorship program that bars even reporting the results of public clinical trials or repeating CDC positions on vaccinations. For a year, Big Tech has been censoring those who wanted to discuss the origins of pandemic and those who suggested the lab theory were attacked as right-wing conspiracy theorists. It was not until Biden admitted that the virus may have originated in the Wuhan lab that social media suddenly changed its position. Facebook only recently announced that people on its platform will be able to discuss the origins of Covid-19 after censoring any such discussion.
Many of us have criticized the hateful rhetoric on both sides of our politics. However, there remain important debates over not just the underlying science relation to Covid-19 but the implications for such science for public policies. Criminalizing aspects of that debate would ratchet up the threats against those with dissenting views, including some scientists. That would harm not just free speech but science in the long run.