Science Skepticism is Polarized and Politicized in the U.S. and Germany

This article was authored during the rise of anti-vaccination protests in both Europe and the United States during the summer of 2021. It was co-authored with Annika Bremicker, a Masters student in journalism the Institut für Publizistik at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, as part of a degree in International Journalism.

On a Tuesday in late September, a 20-year gas station employee was shot and killed by a customer in Western Germany after refusing service for the customer refusing to wear a mask. The killer, who has been suspected of links to to both far-right politics and the anti-Covid measure Querdenker movement, is believed to have carried out the first anti-mask related killing in Germany — raising fears of a spike in violence against Covid health measures that have fueled similar killings in the United States.

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, a growing movement skeptical of mainstream science — including but not exclusive to vaccines, mask-wearing, and other measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic — has grown in prominence alongside rising radicalization. In these extreme political movements, distrust of mainstream science has increasingly become a cornerstone of populist ideology during the Covid-19 pandemic, with at times violent results.

As both German and American journalists, we investigated how skepticism of mainstream science has taken root in radical and populist movements, not only in the U.S. but Germany as well. By speaking to experts as well as activists on the ground, we sought to uncover the growing role of science skepticism in populist movements — with potential consequences for future science-based policy, from fighting climate change to combating future pandemics.

Politicizing a Virus

Science skeptic movements are nothing new, and have held at times prominent roles in modern politics. Yet in recent years, the rise of populist political movements has created new avenues for skepticism of mainstream science that, while predating the coronavirus pandemic, have reached new levels of visibility in against Covid-19 vaccines and health measures like masking.

Traditionally, Northern European countries like Germany have reported high levels of trust in scientists prior to the pandemic, especially in comparison with the United States. Yet that perspective has recently been challenged by the rise of anti-Covid measure protests during the pandemic. As recently as August, thousands of anti-lockdown protesters took to the streets of Berlin, triggering at times violent clashes with police and leading to hundreds of arrests.

During a subsequent demonstration the following weekend, over a hundred anti-lockdown protesters blocked the main highway near the Berlin Cathedral. The self-described Querdenkers, or “lateral thinkers”, gathered not only to commemorate the recent Querdenker demonstrator’s death, but also to decry the German government’s ongoing Coronavirus safety mandates. “Those who sleep in the Corona crisis will wake up in dictatorship,” sang out one of the protest organizers from atop a repurposed van.

While Berlin police officers watched warily from the sidelines. demonstrators handed out newspapers titled “Democratic Resistance,” which advertised itself as being “far from government and independent.” Amidst stories about the “test terror” and perceived government infringement on individual freedoms, “Democratic Resistance” also included graphs appealing to science while making arguments that relied on facts and figures, however skewed.

For Dominique Brossard, Professor of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on the intersection of science, media and policy, this isn’t unexpected. “Even those that we think are skeptics actually trust science,” she said, “But they don’t trust the science we think is valid. They just use the science that supports their beliefs.” 

“It’s not that they don’t trust the scientists – they do not trust the process that actually mandates a vaccine. And the process is political,” she said.

For the Querdenker movement, like many anti-lockdown protestors in the United States, the issue therefore isn’t in “science” writ large, but a larger distrust of experts of all stripes, from health experts like Dr. Antony Fauci in the United States to mainstream politicians in Germany. And while this distrust isn’t exclusive to right wing politics, it has outsized influence in right wing populism.

In his research, Dr. Heiko Giebler, a researcher of democracy and electoral behavior at the Berlin Social Science Center, found that there is on the surface little difference between populists and non-populists when it comes to trust in science. However, this changes when looking at right-wing as opposed to left-wing populist movements. “It seems to be this very specific kind of combination of being a populist and being right-wing that makes you more inclined to opposing science,” said Giebler.

In America, this is expressed by the pro-Trump majority of the Republican party, while in Germany it is most evident in the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). In fact, despite coming from a complex mix of electoral backgrounds, during the latest Germany federal elections the majority of Querdenker protesters in Germany stated their intention to vote for fringe parties, such as the AfD or the little-known Die Basis, or “Basic Party,” which does not hold federal representation.

Still, not all Querdenker demonstrators — or, for that matter, all anti-mask protesters in the U.S. — belong to right wing political parties. “The Afd is not the same thing as the Querdenker movement. The Querdenker movement is much broader in terms of groups or people that it’s actually attracting,” explained Giebler.

Instead, what is being witnessed in Germany and in many ways in America as well is a broader science-skeptic coalition, one in which not all members might share right-wing values yet nevertheless have formed alliances with powerful forces on the far right.

Alliances of Antagonism

On the Wiedendammer Bridge in Central Berlin, Virginia Soontag-O’Brien gathered with a collection of elderly German women representing the Omas, or Grandmothers, Against the Far Right. A movement founded in Austria in response to conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s 2017 electoral alliance with the far-right Austrian People’s Party, the movement has since grown across German-speaking Europe, with branches in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany organizing against far-right parties.

As the women handed out ribbons as part of an action to advocate for increased measures against climate change, Soontag-O’Brien took the time to speak about links between the far-right and Querdenker movement. “Not all Querdenker are right wingers – some are on the left, especially in the south of Germany,” she said.

“When there is a demonstration, there are 100 different causes marching down the street,” she continued, including the far-right but also proponents of alternative medicine and libertarian-minded government skeptics.

Or, as Jonas Kaiser, a professor of Journalism and Media at Suffolk University who researches the media and radicalization, said, “You had a lot of people who were once on the political left marching side by side with Nazis, and in many cases have been instigated by the far-right. “

According to Kaiser, the Querdenker movement represents what is known as an “Alliance of Antagonism” — a “shared community against a common enemy.” Kaiser first witnessed alliances such as these when researching climate change denialism in Germany, in which climate skeptics otherwise unaffiliated with the far-right often linked to far-right websites to support their case. During the Coronavirus pandemic, this alliance between the far right and other science skeptic movements has only grown more visible.

When looking at how these alliances form, “you have to take into account anti-intellectualism and the role anti-intellectualism plays for not only the right but generally speaking for political movements, especially extreme movements,” Kaiser continued. As distrust of experts, scientists, and academia becomes increasingly a core ideology of populist movements, it has the capability of bringing in others skeptical of mainstream science into the fold. And while anti-intellectualism can be instigated from the top-down, as is the case with right-wing politics in the United States, it can also be a bottom-up movement, born from hundreds of blogs, youtube videos, and communities on social networks like Facebook or Telegram.

The question remains, however, if these alliances will prove to benefit far-right populists politically, or remain united only in their shared antipathy towards mainstream scientists and politicians.

Trusting the Science

During the most recent German elections, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — the only party with a specific science skeptic platform, including questioning climate change and coronavirus health measures — achieved 10% of the popular vote, a similar result to the last German election. While the results indicate an enduring base of support for the far-right, science-skeptic party, they also suggest that the AfD has thus far failed to succeed in bringing the eclectic groups that make up the Querdenker movement into their own political platform, at least for this election.

Rainer Bromme, professor of Educational Psychology at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, maintains that trust in science remains strong in Germany, despite recent protests. “Only a very small percentage between 7% and, in some years, up to 10% would claim that they don’t trust science,” Bromme said. “So at least when it comes to Germans, the main message should be to talk about trust in science, not distrust,” with more Germans in fact trusting scientists after the start of the pandemic. 

Yet the inability of Germany’s science skeptics and right-wing populists to dictate policy on coronavirus, as opposed to the comparable strength of vaccine and masking skeptics in the United States, may in the end not be because of a significantly higher proportion trusting science, or even the political strength or lack thereof of the Querdenker movement: in the end, it may just be a question of political systems, says Jared Sonickssen, research associate at the Institute for Political Science at the Technical University of Darmstadt. “The electoral system in the U.S. is predisposed to magnify differences,” he said.

Simply put, partisanship, polarization, and playing to the base are encouraged in the two-party system of the United States, giving outsized influence to groups that would otherwise compete as minor parties. “Unlike in Germany, the Netherlands or the Nordic countries, as a splinter party you would compete and you would get maybe 10-15% of the seats. That’s not possible in the U.S. system,” he said.

In the end, the kind of science skepticism in the Querdenker movement or far-right parties like the AfD is likely to stay, and will continue to question the merits not only of masks and social distancing but also climate change, vaccines, and science experts.

Yet even the same week as Querdenker protestors took to the streets of Berlin, another protest waset just a few streets away. This week in August, dozens of young people gathered together on a hot summer afternoon in front of the Reichstag, the seat of the German government,  to demand action against climate change by the German government. Among them was Carla Reemtsma, an organizer for the weekly Berlin protests.

“People rapidly began to respect the pandemic,” Reemtsma said. “Covid19 affected the way people look at science. There is a development in the communication of science,” with science being more effectively explained to Germans throughout the crisis. The result could in fact be in a greater respect for scientific consensus amongst the population, rather than a decline.

Not far away, Mia, Linus, Amelia and Ian – a group of high school aged students attending their first Fridays for the Future – had a blunter message to give to the Querdenker movement: “Stop being dumb.”

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