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Partisans won't see today's scientific breakthroughs the same way

For those who value and celebrate science, today is a historic day. Many Republicans may not see it that way.
Image: Covid Vaccine
Healthcare worker Caryn Blair administers a Covid-19 vaccine to Nicolas Gonzalez Marcelino at Florida Memorial University Vaccination Site in Miami Gardens, Fla. on April 14, 2021.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

For those who value and celebrate science, today is a historic day. About 180 million miles away, for example, NASA is directing a helicopter on Mars, making the first powered flight on another planet.

As NBC News reported, "The 4-pound solar-powered helicopter ascended above the Martian surface, hovered and then touched back down, mission control said. The feat was documented by a photo received from the helicopter's onboard navigation camera, showing a shadow cast by Ingenuity above the Mars surface. A color video showing the flight came moments after."

On the same day, the Biden administration announced that every adult American who wants a vaccine is now eligible to get one. The fact that COVID-19 vaccines exist at all is truly extraordinary -- an achievement on par with the greatest scientific breakthroughs ever achieved -- and the fact that the United States has reached this point is something the country can be proud of.

At least, that is, in theory.

About a month ago, the Pew Research Center published an interesting report, noting that as recently as a couple of years ago, 70% of Republicans said that science has a positive effect on society. This year, that number dropped to 57%.

It's against this backdrop that the New York Times reported over the weekend on the degree to which vaccination rates appear to have been influenced by politics.

The disparity in vaccination rates has so far mainly broken down along political lines. The New York Times examined survey and vaccine administration data for nearly every U.S. county and found that both willingness to receive a vaccine and actual vaccination rates to date were lower, on average, in counties where a majority of residents voted to re-elect former President Donald J. Trump in 2020. The phenomenon has left some places with a shortage of supply and others with a glut.

The article noted one county health official in Wyoming who had to ask the state to "stop sending first doses of the vaccine because the freezer was already stuffed to capacity with unwanted vials," while a clinic in Iowa had to turn away volunteers who'd signed up to give shots -- because local residents didn't want them.

This is bolstered by national polling: a Monmouth poll last week found 5% of Democrats planned to avoid the vaccine, while 43% of Republicans said they don't intend to ever get the shot. A national Quinnipiac poll showed nearly identical results: no group was more eager to avoid vaccinations than self-identified Republicans.

On the surface, this may seem counterintuitive. After all, Trump endorsed COVID vaccines. His motives were decidedly Trumpian, but the former president nevertheless directed his followers to get vaccinated. It's tempting to assume they'd both believe him and act on his instructions.

But it's not quite that simple. Trump may have eventually endorsed the vaccines, but he also spent a year downplaying the significance of COVID-19, telling his followers not to fear the virus, dismissing the importance of mitigation efforts (including mask wearing), and urging rank-and-file conservative Republicans not to trust the relevant federal agencies, scientists, or subject-matter experts.

The nation is now dealing with the consequences, which may linger: the more some refuse to get vaccinated, the harder it will be to achieve broad immunity against the virus.