How Americans Came to Distrust Science

tags: history of science, Science, cultural history, Vaccination, COVID-19

Andrew Jewett is the author of Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, NYU, Vanderbilt, and Boston College and held fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the Cornell Society for the Humanities, the National Academy of Education, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Science is under fire as never before in the United States. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump and his Republican allies dismiss the findings of health experts as casually as those of climate scientists. Indeed, conservatives sometimes portray scientists as agents of a liberal conspiracy against American institutions and values. Since the 1990s GOP leaders have worked to limit the influence of scientists in areas ranging from global warming to contraception to high school biology curricula.

But it is not just conservatives who question scientific authority in the United States. Alarm at many applications of biological research, for example, crosses party lines. This impulse usually targets genetic engineering and biotechnology, but it also fosters skepticism toward vaccination and other medical practices. Across the political spectrum, citizens tend to pick and choose among scientific theories and applications based on preexisting commitments. They are frequently suspicious of basic research procedures as well; many believe that peer review and other internal policing mechanisms fail to remove powerful biases. Conservatives often charge that peer review enforces liberal groupthink, while some progressives say it leaves conventional social norms unexamined.

Even as individuals, scientists face growing skepticism. Concern about scientific misconduct is widespread, and most Americans doubt that the perpetrators face serious repercussions. Significant numbers trust the experts who apply knowledge more than those who produce it. And such suspicions are especially strong among Black and Latinx Americans—largely Democratic constituencies—as well as among Republicans. Viewing these patterns, many scientists fear that they now live in a “post-truth” world where much of the citizenry has turned against them. The March for Science movement launched in 2017 represents an unprecedented mobilization of rank-and-file researchers against perceived cultural and political threats to the scientific enterprise as a whole.

As the 2020s dawn, it is crucial to understand the sources and contours of this skepticism toward science and scientists. We stand on the brink of revolutions in fields from biotechnology to robotics to computing, even as global warming accelerates. As a result, arguments over science underlie some of our most divisive and consequential policy debates. From climate change to fracking, abortion to genetically modified foods—and much else besides—contemporary political battles generate disputes over the legitimacy of scientific theories, methodologies, institutions, concepts, and even facts. In this context, scholars, citizens, and policymakers must think carefully about science and its cultural and political ramifications. The prevailing views on these matters will significantly determine our future—and perhaps even our survival as a species. And to understand why science is so widely distrusted in the United States, it is essential to understand how that attitude has arisen.

One might start with the political influence of theologically conservative Christians in recent decades. Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, a fraught but durable coalition of free-market advocates and Christian conservatives has anchored the Republican Party. The Christian Right has targeted myriad scientific theories and innovations as part of its “culture war” against modern liberalism. Today its power is such that Republican leaders routinely speak out against “secularism,” in such varied guises as abortion rights, strict church-state separation, and Darwinism in the schools. Theological conservatives also tend to reject climate science, viewing environmentalism as a dangerous, socialistic religion.

Yet the rise of the Christian Right cannot fully explain phenomena such as the breadth of antivaccination sentiment and concerns about genetic engineering. A second narrative, common among working scientists and scholarly interpreters, holds that a broad-gauged revolt against science took place in the wake of the 1960s. That period brought not only the conservative backlash but also a host of countercultural impulses, including New Age spirituality and belief in UFOs, astrology, and the paranormal. The era’s political movements also fueled opposition, as a new generation of critics identified science as an ideological tool of the establishment. Plummeting levels of trust in institutions, especially after Watergate, implicated science as well. At the level of research funding, meanwhile, the 1970s brought tighter budgets, new layers of bureaucratic procedure, and intense pressure to generate immediate, practical outcomes.

Read entire article at Boston Review

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