Climate change, substance abuse, mental health, school violence, economic development, and now vaccine hesitancy. The list of problems that researchers claim can be mitigated by “anti-racist” initiatives is nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, it’s all too good to be true. Many researchers are more committed to evangelizing wokeness than setting out to find truth – or as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez framed it – to be “morally correct” rather than “factually correct.” Peer review and academic publication are increasingly becoming political obedience rituals rather than a screen for methodological rigor, and scholarly journals are now replete with studies that endeavor to affirm ideological stances no matter how tenuous the evidence in support of their claims.
A recent example of woke policy-based evidence-making comes by way of an article in Social Science & Medicine called Twin pandemics, intertwined (intergroup) solutions: Support for mitigating racism benefits vaccine hesitancy. The researchers posit that support for Black Lives Matter is associated with less COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. They observe that this remains true even after accounting for factors such as individual-level age, sex, race, and state-level 2020 presidential election results. Consequently, they conclude that “BLM support, as well as protests and discourse, can be related to addressing both pandemics” (i.e., racism and COVID-19).
The researchers are careful to never explicitly claim that increasing public support for BLM would cause reduced vaccine hesitancy. However, they not-too-subtly wink at this scenario in their title and repeatedly within the text, for example claiming that “engagement with anti-racism practices can foster greater prosocial attitudes” and that prosocial attitudes (“intergroup concern, perspective-taking, understanding, and leveraging privilege/advantage [allyship”]) also correlate with vaccine uptake.
The evidence to support the idea that increased support for BLM could culminate in increased uptake of vaccines is weak. Correlation is not causation, and just because vaccine uptake correlates with “prosocial attitudes” and BLM support and the latter two with each other does not mean that BLM support causes vaccine uptake. As an analogous exercise in absurdity, imagine if researchers observed the likely scenario that charitable giving correlates with gun ownership and comparatively greater concern about local community and the latter two with each other. Few scholars would dare to suggest that gun ownership might be a mechanism to increase charitable giving, and none would be published in a scholarly journal.
If the evidence for their assertions is bad, the implications are downright alarming. Research on diversity training generally reveals it to be ineffective or even harmful. Indeed, the type of social conditioning required for Americans to embrace BLM views – including reverence for Marxism and repudiation of the nuclear family – demands extensive ideological conditioning and policing of government institutions and civil society.
Interpreting public health objectives as a mandate for social and political transformation is not only antithetical to our system of government, but almost certainly counterproductive to public health goals. Certainly, the assertion from public health experts that recommendations against large convenings could be ignored for George Floyd-inspired protests was a catastrophic political miscalculation that will feed skepticism of public health guidance for years to come.
If public health officials intend to be taken seriously across the political spectrum, they must accept that public health objectives – no matter how noble – do not justify orchestrated social or political transformation. Until then, the twin pandemics of politicized science and bureaucratic mission creep will continue to exert a toll on public health.
Ian Kingsbury is the Director of Research at Do No Harm.
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