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Wash U’s Former Provost Calls Trump’s COVID-19 Messaging ‘Psychically Devastating’ For Scientists

Holden Thorp doesn’t mince words in his latest piece for Science.

“As he was playing down the virus to the public,” the editor-in-chief writes about the president in a September editorial for the magazine, “Trump was not confused or inadequately briefed: He flat-out lied, repeatedly, about science to the American people. These lies demoralized the scientific community and cost countless lives in the United States.”

Thorp, a former provost at Washington University as well as its Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor, said he has found it necessary to speak out in recent months about what he terms “an extreme attack on science that’s acute and forceful and very much in the news.”

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American Association for the Advancement of Science
Holden Thorp is the editor-in-chief of Science as well as the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor at Washington University.

The thought of scientists working diligently on vaccines and other critical projects for the good of humanity at large, only to be greeted with the kind of messages the White House is sending, is part of what has prompted his strongly stated editorials in recent months.

“They come home at night and turn the news on, and their president is basically undermining everything they’re doing,” Thorp told St. Louis on the Air.

On Wednesday’s show, he joined host Sarah Fenske to explain more of his thinking on this matter and why Science is wading into politics these days.

Part of what prompted Thorp’s latest piece was recent news about Trump’s early February interview with veteran journalist Bob Woodward, in which Trump said he knew that the coronavirus was more dangerous than the flu and that it spread through the air.

Thorp has described that moment as perhaps “the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.”

“To hear the president’s own voice admitting that he has been lying about the severity of the virus, and not showing any gratitude or appreciation for the work that is being done, I think was just psychically devastating,” Thorp said. “And we felt like we just couldn’t let go in terms of our mission of speaking for science and scientists.”

When Fenske asked Thorp about Trump’s assertion that he was trying to keep people from panicking, Thorp called it “a great underestimation of the ability of the American people to process information and come together and do the right things.”

“Whenever America has faced crises in the past, and other countries, the great leaders that we celebrate in history are people who found a way to level with folks and give them hope at the same time,” Thorp said. “And there was an easy way [for Trump] to do that, because you could explain what a challenge this was gonna be but also say that our scientists were on top of this, and in fact our scientists have been on top of this.

“We are well on our way towards a vaccine, we’ve got a good handle on how the virus spreads and what the public health measures are that we can take, and there was a hopeful message that could have easily been tied to straight talk about the challenge that we are facing.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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