Outgoing National Institutes of Health director says disinformation, misinformation are fueling distrust in science and ‘Truth is losing’

Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIH photo)

By Rachel Roubein
The Washington Post

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has a stern message for the American public: The country has an epidemic of misinformation and disinformation, and it’s fueling a dangerous distrust in science.

“Conspiracies are winning here. Truth is losing. That’s a really serious indictment of the way in which our society seems to be traveling,” said Collins, who will soon step down as NIH director after serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Collins defended his colleague, Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, against the biggest onslaught of angry messages and threats he’s received throughout the entire pandemic.

Those attacks stemmed in part from a viral and false claim that Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had funded a medical experiment that involved trapping beagles’ heads in mesh cages filled with diseased sand flies. Fauci received so many messages — 3,600 phone calls in 36 hours — that his assistant quit answering the phone, the Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb and Beth Reinhard report.

The claim was amplified by a little-known animal rights group called the White Coat Waste Project, which leveraged existing hostility among conservatives toward Fauci to further its cause, the Post’s investigation found. The outrage was supercharged by a bipartisan letter signed by 24 members of Congress that questioned the agency’s funding of medical research on dogs.

The claim originated with an error by scientists. NIAID was initially listed as a funder on the study in a paper in a scientific journal in late July. Even after the researchers and the medical journal corrected the error, White Coat Waste continued to promote and fundraise off the false claim. The group said it does not believe NIAID’s denial or the corrections.
White Coat Waste’s message was amplified by a right-wing echo chamber eager to thrash Fauci over everything from vaccine directives to NIH funding of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and created the biggest firestorm yet for Fauci.

The episode serves as a prime example of how fast a false claim can spread online — and how it can stymie the highest levels of government. The surge of threats and harassment in recent weeks has forced Fauci’s staff to spend significant time debunking misinformation and grappling with security concerns.

The rapid-fire spread of misinformation has altered public opinion of the pandemic and coronavirus vaccines. Some 6 in 10 Americans say they either believe the government is exaggerating the number of deaths from the virus or aren’t sure. Nearly 1 in 4 Americans believe covid-19 shots contain microchips or don’t know if the claim is true, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

“Truth is supposed to be truth,” Collins said, “and the fact that your truth would be so heavily modified by your social circle or where you get your news tells you we’re in real trouble.” He said he worries about a society where “somebody’s Facebook post carries as much weight as a statement from the director of the CDC about what is the truth of a public health crisis.”

Collins sees two ways of attempting to curb the spread of misinformation, though admits he’s unsure how successful either has been. The first: Identify those who are purposefully spreading false information online and bring them to justice. The second: Find a better way to counter false claims with real information. He didn’t specify what exactly either one would entail.
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