By Ray Williams
April 18, 2020
The recent and ongoing virus pandemic has exposed a serious flaw in American democracy—virulent anti-intellectualism and a war against expert. This anti-expert, anti-intellectualism has a long history in America, which makes it different than other Western countries.
In Presidential press conferences, major news outlets’ shows, and articles both in mainstream media and social media, the conclusions and perspectives of scientific experts on issues related to COVID-10 are not only challenged by commentators that have no scientific expertise nor can they provide any evidence for their claims. Worse, often an argumentative equivalency is presented to viewers and readers to show that opinions (often uniformed) are equal to and as important as expert views back by scientific evidence.
What is Anti-Intellectualism?
The dictionary defines anti-intellectualism as a person opposed to or hostile toward intellectuals and the modern academic, artistic, social, religious, and other theories associated with them as impractical, politically motivated, and even contemptible human pursuits. An anti-intellectual is a person who believes that intellect and reason are less important than actions and emotions in solving practical problems and understanding reality.
Anti-intellectuals present themselves and are perceived as champions of common folk—populists against political and academic elitism—and tend to see educated people as a status class that dominates political discourse and higher education while being detached from the concerns of ordinary people.
Totalitarian governments manipulate and apply anti-intellectualism to repress political dissent. During the Spanish Civil War and the following dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the reactionary repression of the White Terror was notably anti-intellectual, with most of the 200,000 civilians killed being the Spanish intelligentsia, the politically active teachers and academics, artists and writers of the deposed Second Spanish Republic. In the communist state of Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge régime condemned all of the non-communist intelligentsia to death in the Killing Fields. And of course, history graphically chronicles the book burnings and persecution of intellectuals in Nazi Germany.
The Long History of Anti-Intellectualism in America
The science fiction film Idiocracy (2005) portrays the U.S. as a greatly dumbed-down society 500 years in the future, in which low cultural and Philistinism were unintentionally achieved by eroding language and education coupled with dysgenics, where people of lower intelligence reproduced faster than the people of higher intelligence. Similar concepts appeared in earlier works, notably the science fiction short story The Marching Morons(1951), by Cyril M. Kornbluth which also features a modern-day protagonist in a future dominated by low-intelligence persons. Moreover, the novel Brave New World (1931), by Aldous Huxley, discussed the ways a utopian society was deliberately dumbed down in order to maintain political stability and social order by eliminating complex concepts unnecessary for society to function.
More malevolent uses of dumbing down to preserve the social order are also portrayed in The Matrix,and many dystopian movies. And of course the classic Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, in which the antagonist, Chief Beatty, a man who has also broken the law by reading some books, rejects books categorically in favor of censorship (and implicitly the equal value of one’s uneducated opinion). He isn’t compelled to parrot these ideals to avoid punishment, but actually believes them: he thinks for himself, and would call himself a critical thinker.
Knowledge and facts in the form of books are weapons. Intellectualism is something to fear or distrust. The root of jealousy and fear that is the heart of anti-intellectualism. If someone can tell me I’m wrong, not only are they seen as better than me, but they do actual violence to me. Beatty seems to imply that being judged is an attack on one’s self-image. Banning books (ie.,disputing knowledge with one’s own opinion) levels the playing field, so that no one can think they’re better than me.
From its colonial beginnings, American society was a “decapitated” society—largely lacking the top-most social layers of European society. The highest elites and the titled aristocracies had little reason to risk their lives crossing the Atlantic, and then face the perils of pioneering. Most of the white population of colonial America arrived as indentured servants and the black population as slaves. Later waves of immigrants were disproportionately peasants and proletarians, even when they came from Western Europe. The rise of American society to pre-eminence, as an economic, political, and military power, was thus the triumph of the common man, and a slap across the face to the presumptions of the arrogant, whether an elite of blood or books.
In U.S. history, the advocacy and acceptability of anti-intellectualism varied because in the 19th century most people lived a rural life of manual labor and agricultural work therefore, an academic education in the Greco–Roman classics was perceived as of impractical value; the bookish man is unprofitable. Culturally, the ideal American was the self-made man whose knowledge derived from life-experience, not an intellectual man whose knowledge of the real world derived from books, formal education, and academic study.
Political polarization in the U.S. has long favored the use of anti-intellectualism by each political party (Republican and Democratic) to undermine the credibility of the other party with the middle class. In 1912, the New Jersey governor, Woodrow Wilson, described the battles of anti-intellectualism: “What I fear is a government of experts. God forbid that, in a democratic country, we should resign the task and give the government over to experts. What are we for if we are to be scientifically taken care of by a small number of gentlemen who are the only men who understand the job?”
In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life the historian Richard Hofstadter said that anti-intellectualism is a social-class response by the middle-class “mob” against the privileges of the political elites. As the middle class developed political power, they exercised their belief that the ideal candidate to office was the “self-made man”, not the well-educated man born to wealth. The self-made man, from the middle class could be trusted to act in the best interest of his fellow citizens. In Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences, Francis Hsu said that egalitarianism is stronger in the U.S. than in Europe.
Anti-Intellectualism and Education
Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, says in an article in the Washington Post,“Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture; a disjunction between Americans’ rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.” She goes on to say “Americans are in serious intellectual trouble — in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.”
According to a recent 2017 Pew Survey, 58% of American Republicans stated that they believe universities and colleges have a negative affect on the country – a 21% increase since just 2015. This concurrent growing mistrust of education goes hand in hand with mistrust of experts, as universities are assumed to be staffed with expert professors and are seen as the site where experts are created through education. But changes in education over the last generation have led many to question whether universities are positive, whether they actually create experts, and whether the experts at universities can be trusted.
As Pew noted, “this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP,” but in particular the poll found that positive views of colleges among Republicans under the age of 50 sunk by 21 percentage points from 2015 to 2017. While Republican views of colleges and universities remained largely the same throughout much of the Obama administration, 65 percent of self-identified conservatives now say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. Positive views of colleges dropped even among Republicans who hold a college or graduate degree, declining by 11 percentage points during the last two years.
John W. Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Texas, argues in comparison Asian countries have core cultural values that are more akin to a cult of intelligence and education than a cult of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. In Japan, for example, teachers are held in high esteem and normally viewed as among the most important members of a community. In contrast there is suspicion and even disdain for the work of teachers that occurs in the U.S. Teachers in Japan typically are paid significantly more than their peers in the U.S.
The profession of teaching is one that is seen as being of central value in Japanese society and those who choose that profession are well compensated in terms of salary, pension, and respect for their knowledge and their efforts on behalf of children. In addition, we do not see in Japan significant numbers of the types of religious schools that are designed to shield children from knowledge about basic tenets of science and accepted understandings of history–such as evolutionary theory or the religious views of the Founding Fathers, who were largely deists–which are essential to having a fundamental understanding of the world, Traphagan contends. This is because in general the Japanese value education, value the work of intellectuals, and see a well-educated public with a basic common knowledge in areas of scientific fact, math, history, and literature, as being an essential foundation to a successful democracy.
“There’s a pervasive suspicion of rights, privileges, knowledge and specialization,” says Catherine Liu, the author of American Idyll: Academic Anti-elitism as Cultural Critique and a film and media studies professor at University of California. The very mission of universities has changed, argues Liu. “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”
One of the largest changes in post-secondary education is the respect given to professors by universities themselves, and the hiring of adjuncts. Today, over 70% of university faculty are adjuncts or contingent faculty, with fewer tenure-track hirings across all disciplines. Professors are no longer given permanence or benefits by universities, and if the schools do not respect their own experts, why should the public at large?
Another major change in post-secondary education is a general move toward a more customer-oriented perspective on the purpose of college. While the purpose of a college education – to prepare oneself for the career world, while expanding one’s mind through learning – has not changed at its core, how that purpose is packaged and sold to students and their families has changed.
Universities care more about selling the college experience than supporting quality academic study and research. Both liberal and conservative professors and student groups volley for attention while universities struggle with brand.
Tom Nichols describes this phenomenon as the “customer is always right” syndrome: Students, believing they are purchasing a degree rather than paying for the privilege of learning from experts, no longer view professors as authorities. Students are more interested in grades and final results than on the process of learning or gaining knowledge.
The Impact of Anti-Intellectualism on the Quality of Education and General Public Knowledge:
- According to one survey, 52 % of Americans did not know that dinosaurs died before the appearance of humans, and 45 % were unaware that the world is older than 10,000 years.
- A quarter of Americans surveyed could not correctly answer that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, according to a report from the National Science Foundation.
- The poll showed only 36% of Americans could name all three branches of the government. It also found over 60% of Americans don’t know which political party controls the House of Representatives and the US Senate.
- After leading the world for decades in 25-34 year olds with university degrees, the U.S. is now in 12th place. The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. at 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010.
- According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 68% of public school children in the U.S. do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. And the U.S. News & World reported that barely 50% of students are ready for college-level reading when they graduate.
- One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Program for International Student Assessment( PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38thout of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.
- The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public school students. A surprising 77% didn’t know that George Washington was the first President; couldn’t name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; and only 2.8% of the students actually passed the citizenship test. Along similar lines, the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix did the same survey and only 3.5% of students passed the civics test.
- 74% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53% in the House of Representatives deny the validity of climate changes despite the findings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other significant scientific organization in the world.
- According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third considers it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important.”
- According to the National Endowment for the Arts report in 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later only 67% did. And more than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book–fiction or nonfiction–over the course of a year. The proportion of 17 year olds who read nothing (unless required by school ) has doubled between 1984-2004.
- When Newsweek asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the Vice President. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.
In American schools, the culture exalts the athlete and good-looking cheerleader. Well educated and intellectual students are commonly referred to in public schools and the media as “nerds,” “dweebs,” “dorks,” and “geeks,” and are relentlessly harassed and even assaulted by the more popular “jocks” for openly displaying any intellect. These anti-intellectual attitudes are not reflected in students in most European or Asian countries, whose educational levels have now equaled and and will surpass that of the U.S. And most TV shows or movies such as The Big Bang Theory depict intellectuals as being geeks if not effeminate.
Americans’ Attitudes Toward Experts
Suspicion of experts is “a long-lasting American tradition,” says Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “And I think there’s also a long-lasting American tradition to ride that politically.”
In the 1952 presidential race, Dwight Eisenhower accused his opponent Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, of using “aristocratic explanations in Harvard words.” President Lyndon Johnson said “self-styled intellectuals … are more concerned with the trivia and the superficial than they are with the things that have really built America.” Spiro Agnew, vice president during the Nixon administration, called the press “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
“But I think that the backlash against experts that we see today is different,” says Matt Motta, at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “what I think we see going on now, is an attack on experts as individuals, as people – demonizing those experts who disagree with our ideological viewpoints, and denigrating their professionalism,” Dr. Motta says.
Still, America’s general distrust of elites, many historians say, is nevertheless part of a tradition of independence and individualism that many believe has made the country “exceptional.” It proudly pronounces that “history is bunk” mindset, a spirit of self-reliance.
Political polarization has transformed a general distrust of experts into various kinds of conspiracy theories. Opponents of both climate change and GMOs often point to funding sources, whether from industry sources or the government, and question the integrity and professionalism of researchers, suggesting they provide the findings they’re essentially paid to report.
Mark Bauerlein, in his book, The Dumbest Generation, reveals how a whole generation of youth is being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance and their addiction to digital “crap” that is composed on social media.
Anti-intellectualism is hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals and intellectualism commonly expressed as deprecation of education and philosophy, and the dismissal of art, literature and science as impractical and even contemptible human pursuits. Anti-intellectuals present themselves and are perceived as champions of common folk—populists against political and academic elitism—and tend to see educated people as a status class and feel that intellectuals dominate political discourse and control higher education. Totalitarian governments manipulate and apply anti-intellectualism to repress political dissent.
Susan Jacoby argues that it is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an “elitist,” one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, she says, “our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just ‘folks,’ a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980.”
Jacoby argues it is “not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge.” Jacoby calls this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is “particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.”
There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life,describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science has been infused into America’s political and social fabric.
Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”
Tom Nichols is professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, argues “In the far less grand homes of ordinary American families, knowledge of every kind is also under attack. Parents argue with their child’s doctor over the safety of vaccines. Famous athletes speculate that the world might actually be flat. College administrators ponder dropping algebra from the curriculum because students keep failing it. This is all immensely dangerous, not only to the well-being of individual citizens, but to the survival of the United States as a republic.”
Nicols goes on to say “A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field. They have come to this conclusion after being coddled in classrooms from kindergarten through college, continually assured by infotainment personalities in increasingly segmented media that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right, and mesmerized by an internet that tells them exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous the question.”
This theme that anybody’s opinion is as good as anybody else’s opinion is, I think, very deep in American society.
The Influence of the Internet and Social Media
The internet has completely changed the way that individuals seek out and find information to solve even the simplest of problems. A generation ago, people relied on encyclopedias, people with experience, and experts to obtain information. The walking, talking specialized encyclopedias of the past – respected experts – were revered in part because they knew large amounts of obscure information and carried that knowledge in their minds all the time.
Today, with smartphones in our pockets and Google in our browsers, anyone can have the answer to any question with them at all times. This makes many feel that they are experts themselves, or that experts have no special talent or knowledge, and thus deserve less trust. Wikipedia means that anyone can be an expert for a moment.
Yet smartphones make us jacks of all trades, masters of none. With the wide variety of questionable sources on the internet, you cannot truly know if the information found on the web is credible unless it comes from, unsurprisingly, an expert source. But experts also have such a depth of knowledge about a subject that they bring exceptional insight; simply having access to all answers means that you understand the best solution to the question.
Just as a doctor knows to look for related symptoms when preparing to diagnosis an illness or a car mechanic remembers to check your windshield wipers because he knows you never remember to replace them, experts have growing and synthesizing knowledge that allows them special insight. This kind of insight takes time to develop; most internet users are looking for a specific answer right now. The ability to reach for an answer at our fingertips has made us skip nuance for ease of access. Infotainment that is easy to digest and provides the answer you want to hear is easier than digesting the nuance of experts.
However, by choosing to ignore these institutions and to instead focus on other institutions, such as mass media, social media, and internet resources, individuals can pad their mistrust of expertise in an effect called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the practice of interpreting new data based on your currently held beliefs by seeking out data that supports those beliefs. Individuals experience a sense of safety and reassurance learning that their beliefs are correct and held by others; confirmation bias allows us to extend that good feeling by seeking out supporting views.
One of the most powerful trends of the last decade that has degraded the trust of experts is the reliance of the general public on social media for news and entertainment, and the rise of enjoyable news programming. Infotainment – material broadcast through media that is meant to simultaneously entertain and inform – is increasingly popular in many Western societies, but its ubiquity does not improve our trust of experts. Unless infotainment is produced by experts, there is no guarantee of its factual accuracy nor of its balance between fact and opinion.
With so many options for news, from television to print to online sources, the consumer can choose which outlet and source to get his news from, leading to unprecedented competition on social media between experts and frauds alike. Consumers, looking for an enjoyable and easy-to-understand news source, look for the most entertaining and bias-affirming option available. The result, combined with the 24-hour news cycle, is the widening spectrum of infotainment, with consumers no longer dependent on reliable and reputable reporting for news.
Why listen to the expert when an exciting 30-second clip on YouTube and a blog post can somewhat explain the same phenomenon?
Tom Nichols argues that combining informative news and entertaining social media is dangerous and that the “fusing of entertainment, news, punditry, and citizen participation is a chaotic mess that does not inform people so much as it creates the illusion of being informed.” Because we can choose our infotainment, we self-select which news we consume and which experts we choose to trust or distrust.
First, the “democratization of information” that is the direct result of the internet — perhaps the most liberating and revolutionary invention of mankind — has a darker side. Anybody with access to Google and five minutes to kill believes that he can become an expert in anything. Consequently, people believe that their opinions are just as good as anybody else’s, including those of experts.
In Anti-intellectualism in American Media, Dane Clausen identified the contemporary anti-intellectualist bent of manufactured consent that is inherent to commoditized information: “The effects of mass media on attitudes toward intellect are certainly multiple and ambiguous. On the one hand, mass communications greatly expand the sheer volume of information available for public consumption. On the other hand, much of this information comes pre-interpreted for easy digestion and laden with hidden assumption, saving consumers the work of having to interpret it for themselves. Commoditized information naturally tends to reflect the assumptions and interests of those who produce it, and its producers are not driven entirely by a passion to promote critical reflection.”
The editorial perspective of the corporate mass-media misrepresented intellectualism as a profession that is separate and apart from the jobs and occupations of regular folk. In presenting academically successful students as social failures, an undesirable social status for the average young man and young woman, corporate media established to the U.S. mainstream their opinion that the intellectualism of book-learning is a form of mental deviancy, thus, most people would shun intellectuals as friends, lest they risk social ridicule and ostracism. Hence, the popular acceptance of anti-intellectualism lead to populist rejection of the intelligentsia for resolving the problems of society. Moreover, in the book Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture, Aaron Lecklider indicated that the contemporary ideological dismissal of the intelligentsia derived from the corporate media’s reactionary misrepresentations of intellectual men and women as lacking the common-sense of regular folk.
The mostly scientifically illiterate public seems to lack the necessary skills to distinguish between contending claims to knowledge or differentiate between fact and opinion. We now live in a scary and confusing “post-truth” era of disinformation, “fake news,” “counterknowledge,” “weaponized lies,” conspiracy theories, magical thinking, and irrationalism.
Bogus and irrational ideas are thriving and seem to be widely received and accepted. However, tolerating irrationalism and scientific illiteracy poses many dangers. It is dangerous to individual well-being. Numerous people have died because of their trust in sham alternative medical cures, and many others have lost their life savings by believing in psychics and miracle workers. More than that, acquiescence to irrationalism threatens the well-being of our society. As philosophers Theodor Schick and Lewis Vaughn have put it: “A democratic society depends on the ability of its members to make rational choices. But rational choices must be based on rational beliefs. If we can’t tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable claims, we become susceptible to the claims of charlatans, scoundrels, and mountebanks.”
The effects of all this on today’s media and politics are startling. Disreputable journalism has become widespread, and few in the profession consider speaking truth to power or even objectivity in reporting as part of their responsibilities. In this intellectual climate, pretentious and utterly unqualified politicians are flagrantly flaunting opinions on issues ranging from vaccines, human reproduction, stem cell research, the origins of the Earth, and human evolution, to the state of the biosphere, that are contrary to overwhelming historical and scientific evidence.
Large numbers of people are willing to listen to and believe conspiracies, lies and false information rather than rely on experts who have scientific evidence to back up their claims. For example, “Bill Gates created the coronavirus;” “the virus is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu;” “Coronavirus is a ‘fake news’ hoax manufactured by the news or the Democratic Party;” “You can use hand dryers, vitamin C, or lemon juice to kill the virus;” “the government will shut down all grocery stores so that no one can buy food.” All of these claims are examples of conspiracies associated with coronavirus that have been perpetrated by social media and in some cases the mainstream media and political leaders.
Social media are a dangerous venue for information-gathering, especially in a pandemic. It’s not that these venues can’t be used to provide useful information, particularly if the people in one’s social network are transmitting news from credible sources. But in an era of post-truth, where almost half the voting-age population doesn’t vote, and less than half closely follow the news, reliance on social media as a source of information about the world is fraught with perils. And in a political culture as profoundly anti-intellectual as that of the U.S., it is easy for misinformation to masquerade as “common sense.”
Misinformation filters down to millions of Americans who don’t typically follow the news, but who are exposed to bad information through similarly ill-informed family and friends posting memes and other noise on social media. And many don’t even consider themselves Trump supporters have also fallen victim to right-wing misinformation, because of their reliance on social media.
Reality TV and pop culture presented in magazines and online sites claim to provide important information about the importance of The Housewives of [you name the city] that can somehow enrich our lives. The artificial events of their lives become the mainstay of populist media to distract people from the real issues and concerns facing us.
In his article in The Guardian, Michiko Kakutani argues “from post-modernism to filter bubbles, ‘truth decay’ has been spreading for decades. How can we stop alternative facts from bringing down democracy?” he asks. He says “Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power.”
Kakutani contends it’s not just fake news either: it’s also fake science (manufactured by climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, who oppose vaccination), fake history (promoted by Holocaust revisionists and white supremacists), fake Americans on Facebook (created by Russian trolls), and fake followers and “likes” on social media (generated by bots). Donald Trump, the 45th president of the US, lies so prolifically and with such velocity that the Washington Post calculated he’d made thousands of false or misleading claims during his three years in office. He routinely assails the press, the justice system, the intelligence agencies, the electoral system and the civil servants who make the US government tick.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s well-known observation that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” is more timely than ever: Polarization has grown so extreme that voters have a hard time even agreeing on the same facts. This has been exponentially accelerated by social media, which connects users with like-minded members and supplies them with customized news feeds that reinforce their preconceptions, allowing them to live in evernarrower silos.
According to a Pew Research study,there is a wide divide along party lines in terms of how they view the experts and scientific evidence. See the figures below
Higher levels of familiarity with the work of scientists are associated with more positive and more trusting views of scientists regarding their competence, credibility and commitment to the public, the survey shows.
Overall, 86% of Americans say they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest. This includes 35% who have “a great deal” of confidence, up from 21% in 2016.
But a partisan divide persists. More Democrats (43%) than Republicans (27%) have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists – a difference of 16 percentage points. The gap between the two parties on this issue (including independents who identify with each party, respectively) was 11 percentage points in 2016 and has remained at least that large since.
There are also clear political divisions over the role of scientific experts in policy matters, with Democrats more likely to want experts involved and to trust their judgment. Most Democrats (73%) believe scientists should take an active role in scientific policy debates. By contrast, a majority of Republicans (56%) say scientists should focus on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of such policy debates. The two political groups also differ over whether scientific experts are generally better at making decisions about scientific policy issues than other people: 54% of Democrats say they are, while 66% of Republicans think scientists’ decisions are no different from or worse than other people’s. Finally, Democrats and Republicans have different degrees of faith in scientists’ ability to be unbiased; 62% of Democrats say scientists’ judgments are based solely on facts, while 55% of Republicans say scientists’ judgments are just as likely to be biased as other people’s.
The survey of 4,464 adults was conducted in January 2019 using Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults.
The survey probed for people’s trust in scientists, along with potential sources of mistrust. To capture trust, the survey asked respondents how often they can count on scientists to perform their jobs with competence, to show care or concern for the public and to present their findings or recommendations in a fair and accurate way. The survey also asked for views about scientific integrity, including the extent to which misconduct is a problem, the degree to which scientists are open about potential conflicts of interest, and whether they accept accountability for mistakes.
Among other important findings: Despite generally positive views about scientists across all six specialties, most Americans are skeptical about key areas of scientific integrity. No more than two-in-ten Americans believe scientists across these groups are transparent about potential conflicts of interest with industry all or most of the time. This trend has lethal consequences. Every single year, public health experts beg and plead for people to receive influenza vaccinations, but most Americans ignore them. Despite the fact that the seasonal flu vaccine is imperfect (due to the unpredictable nature of the virus), thousands of Americans have died unnecessarily because they choose to reject their doctor’s advice.
Miami University anthropology professor H. Sidky has argued that 21st-century anti-scientific and pseudoscientific approaches to knowledge, particularly in the United States, are rooted in a postmodernist “decades-long academic assault on science:” “Many of those indoctrinated in postmodern anti-science went on to become conservative political and religious leaders, policymakers, journalists, journal editors, judges, lawyers, and members of city councils and school boards. Sadly, they forgot the lofty ideals of their teachers, except that science is bogus.”
In the rural U.S., anti-intellectualism is an essential feature of the religious culture of Christian fundamentalism. Some Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church have directly published their collective support for political action to counter climate change, whereas Southern Baptists and Evangelicals have denounced belief in both evolution and climate change as a sin, and have dismissed scientists as intellectuals attempting to create “Neo-nature paganism”. People of fundamentalist religious belief tend to report not seeing evidence of global warming.
- Sidkey, in his article “The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21stCentury America,” in the Skeptical Inquirer argues the following:
- “Irrationalist philosophers in the United States, such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, also contributed to the postmodern anti-science program. In his highly acclaimed book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the solution to questions are relative to a paradigm rather than empirical evidence. If true, this would mean that our knowledge of the world and universe today has not increased beyond the state of knowledge four hundred years ago, a view that verges on the ludicrous and is a misrepresentation of the history of science.”
- “The postmodern assault on science and its relativism has left us vulnerable to the absurdities of the defenders of supernaturalism, the deception of quacks, and the fanaticism of religious fascists and would-be dictators. History teaches that whenever and wherever irrationalism and relativism have acquired political force, human suffering, violence, oppression, and loss of life have inevitably followed. The example of Nazi Germany will suffice here. Welcome to the postmodern world.”
As Albert Einstein put it, science is one of the most precious things we have. It is valuable not because it guarantees absolute truths free of bias, error, and deception but because it is a unique self-correcting method for reducing bias, mistakes, and fraud to advance our understanding of the social and natural worlds and the universe. Among all the ways of knowing ever devised, only science strives to combat our confirmation biases by demanding that practitioners question their premises and to systematically expose their conclusions to the inspection of unsympathetic nonbelievers.
The hallmark of science is the question “What is the evidence?” The hallmark of the alternative perspectives touted by our “home-grown ayatollahs” and obscurantist gurus is “I wish to believe”. Science remains our only path toward “thinking straight about the world,” which is something urgently needed at this critical historical juncture as irrationalism and fanaticism are “bubbling up around us” .
What Americans rarely acknowledge is that many of their social problems are rooted in the rejection of critical thinking or, conversely, the glorification of the emotional and irrational. What else could explain the hyper-patriotism that has many accepting an outlandish notion that America is far superior to the rest of the world? Love of one’s country is fine, but many Americans seem to honestly believe that their country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom, that the quality of life far surpasses everywhere else in the world.
The Rise of the Narcissism, Self-Esteem, the Amateur and Relativism
Relativism, of course, synced perfectly with the narcissism and subjectivity that had been on the rise, from Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade” 1970s, on through the selfie age of self-esteem. No surprise then that the “Rashomon effect” – the point of view that everything depends on your point of view – has permeated our culture, from popular novels such as Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies to television series like The Affair, which hinge on the idea of competing realities.
In his 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen warned that the internet not only had democratized information beyond people’s wildest imaginings but also was replacing genuine knowledge with “the wisdom of the crowd”, dangerously blurring the lines between fact and opinion, informed argument and blustering speculation.
Climate deniers, anti-vaxxers and other groups who don’t have science on their side bandy about phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a college class on deconstruction – phrases such as “many sides,” “different perspectives”, “uncertainties”, “multiple ways of knowing.”As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway demonstrated in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, right wing think tanks, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate interests that are intent on discrediting science have employed a strategy first used by the tobacco industry to try to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking. “Doubt is our product,” read an infamous memo written by a tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”
The strategy, essentially, was this: Dig up a handful of so-called professionals to refute established science or argue that more research is needed; turn these false arguments into talking points and repeat them over and over; and assail the reputations of the genuine scientists on the other side. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a tactic that’s been used by Trump and his Republican allies to defend policies (on matters ranging from gun control to building a border wall) that run counter to both expert evaluation and national polls.
What Oreskes and Conway call the “tobacco strategy” was helped, they argued, by elements in the mainstream media that tended “to give minority views more credence than they deserve”. This false equivalence was the result of journalists confusing balance with truth telling, wilful neutrality with accuracy; caving in to pressure from right wing interest groups to present “both sides”; and the format of television news shows that feature debates between opposing viewpoints – even when one side represents an overwhelming consensus and the other is an almost complete outlier in the scientific community.
Many misogynist and white supremacist memes, in addition to a lot of fake news, originate or gain initial momentum on sites such as 4chan and Reddit – before accumulating enough buzz to make the leap to Facebook and Twitter, where they can attract more mainstream attention. Renee DiResta, who studies conspiracy theories on the web, argues that Reddit can be a useful testing ground for bad actors – including foreign governments such as Russia’s – to try out memes or fake stories to see how much traction they get. DiRest a warned in the spring of 2016 that the algorithms of social networks – which give people news that is popular and trending, rather than accurate or important – are helping to promote conspiracy theories.
There is an asymmetry of passion on social media: most people won’t devote hours reinforcing the obvious. Extremists are committed to “wake up the sheeple.” This sort of fringe content can both affect how people think and seep into public policy debates on matters such as vaccines, zoning laws and water fluoridation. Part of the problem is an “asymmetry of passion” on social media: while most people won’t devote hours to writing posts that reinforce the obvious, DiResta says, “passionate truthers and extremists produce copious amounts of content in their commitment to ‘wake up the sheeple’”.
Recommendation engines, she adds, help connect conspiracy theorists with one another to the point that “we are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts”. At this point, she concludes, “the internet doesn’t just reflect reality any more; it shapes it”.
There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend on to subvert resistance. Without commonly agreed-on facts – not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world – there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.
Anti-intellectualism and the war on experts is not just about declining educational standards and negative attitudes towards educated experts. It’s about how democracy cannot flourish and survive without an educated citizenry, and respect for knowledge, the facts and the truth.
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