Gina McCarthy

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy meets with staff in Durango, CO in 2015.

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic became a public health crisis, with thousands dying from the little-understood disease. As scientists called for more funding to quell the HIV/AIDS outbreak, the Reagan administration remained silent, while the religious right cried that homosexuals were rightfully experiencing the wrath of God. By the time the government took action, passing legislation to fund research and treatment, tens of thousands were infected with the disease, and today more than 1.2 million require extensive medical care because of this governmental inaction.

Though not every issue is life or death, the AIDS crisis is a prime example of the dangers inherent when government and science fail to coordinate. Scientists knew they needed funding to solve the ever-worsening problem, and the public needed to be given a clear message on how the disease spreads based on the scientific consensus, but politics got in the way, and the same is happening today. Now, there is as much at stake as ever before, with issues like climate change, GMOs, evolution curricula, stem cell research, and vaccinations dividing public discourse, despite scientific consensus on each issue. As social media allows individuals to forego the expertise of researchers and traditional media in favor of rapid-fire tweets and posts, trust in science and expert testimony is decaying, especially among conservatives. Moving forward, the struggle between the experts and the people will likely only intensify, and the winner will have a sizable impact on public policies that affect millions of lives.

A Backward Looking World

Although it has become a prominent political tactic in recent decades, the distrust of experts has not always been a part of American life. Mark Lynas, author of High Tide: News from a Warming World and member of the Cornell Alliance for Science, told the HPR, “We have, in general, less trust in experts and in technologies than people did in earlier generations. There’s none of the techno-optimism or even optimism about the future that used to characterize the 1950s. People are kind of nostalgic and tend to look back at the past as better than the future.”

Citing the recent flux of dystopian movies as a sign of pessimism over the direction of humanity in the era of big technology and advanced science, Lynas said much of the U.S. population sees the future as getting worse, as evidenced by a 2012 Gallup poll which found that half of Americans expect members the next generation to have worse lives than their parents.

Economic and social inequality only exacerbate these fears of the future and make it easier to distrust elites who have failed to solve the working man’s problems after years of ineffective policies. Gordon Gauchat, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, has studied partisan trends in the public’s distrust of professional expertise, informing the HPR, “When you have the level of social and particularly wealth inequality that we’re seeing, I think it erodes public trust in multiple institutions, and it encourages people to seek out alternative ways of understanding the world.” He explained that conservative ideology is one common alternative lens that defies the traditional knowledge put forth by the university intelligentsia and mainstream media.

Anti-science opinions are by no means confined to right-wing thinkers, with issues like GMO-use dividing legislators across party lines. Nevertheless, Christian fundamentalism, which is more common among conservatives, contributes to disbelief in evolution, a lack of adequate sex education, and even climate change denial. Forty-two percent of conservatives take the Bible as the literal word of God, and thus, when caught between scriptural claims and scientific findings, many choose biblical truth over expert opinion. Considering that America is almost twice as religious as other highly developed countries, this strain of religiosity is a chief contributor to the anti-intellectualism prevalent especially among the American right today.

Government officials, elites in their own way, are not immune to this trend. In 2015, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, tried to disprove global warming by throwing a snowball on the Senate floor. In 2012, M.D. and member of the House Science Committee Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) gave a speech calling evolution and the big bang theory “lies straight from the pit of Hell.” That same year, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) said that women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape” because their bodies “shut that whole thing down.” These views are, of course, soundly refuted by the majority of climatologists, astrophysicists, and physicians—experts in their fields. Nevertheless, even these men, extreme examples of anti-expert and even anti-truth views, get public support.

Lynas argued that once scientific issues become party-polarized, public understanding can become “a victim of America’s culture wars,” noting that a person’s stance on climate change is now more predictive of partisan affiliation than his stance on gun control or abortion is. The complete inaccuracy of views like those above substantiate Lynas’s claim; as politicians appeal to their bases, the political tends to overshadow the factual. Despite society’s greater ability to understand the world in the modern age, the stressors that come along with progress seem to drive people back to more comfortable worldviews. Politicians who reflect these views can then prosper, despite the costs of missed progress that can result.

Old Problem, New Face

The prominent conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. once declared,I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.”

Though delivered decades ago, Buckley’s words echo more widely today than perhaps ever before. From President Trump’s election, to the subsequent appointment of his governmentally inexperienced cabinet, to the growing distrust of traditional media, anti-establishment rejection of conventional experts is evidently on the rise.

While anti-intellectualism has always characterized the U.S. political scene, it is being compounded by the rise of social media and the current presidential administration’s insistence that contradictory or unflattering facts are simply untrue, whether they be inauguration crowd sizes, popular vote counts, crime rates, or poll results. The mere distrust of experts born of anti-intellectualism is morphing into a complete denial of inconvenient truths.

Together, social media and the Trump administration are discrediting and delegitimizing traditional news media, and worryingly, less than one third of Americans profess trust in the media, down from 72 percent in 1976. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, Republican confidence in the media, an institution designed to inform the public, fell by more than half. At the same time, over 60 percent of adults now get some of their news from social media, and a large portion of these adults never consult traditional media sources.

Given the flaws inherent in a social media-based method of self-informing (such as algorithmic biases that create ideological echo chambers), this trend is worrisome for the health of democracy in the digital age. Despite recent attempts by platforms like Facebook to combat this problem, social media often fails to present fair, balanced, or even accurate information, and often augments the audiences of extremely biased or unreliable sources.

Gauchat posited that social media is a catalyst for other underlying problems such as political polarization with fast-paced posting and tweeting essentially removing the gatekeepers represented by traditional media sources. As a result, he told the HPR, “There’s more potential for people to sort based on what their politics or ideology already is. So what it’s doing is creating more of a kind of hermetically sealed social vault where you can only access information that confirms your ideological bias on either side.”

The brevity and rapidity of media consumption may itself be a huge problem for democracy, creating an uninformed public certain they have all the answers. President Trump’s preferred method of communication, the tweet, is a great example. If any policy worth putting into action could be summed up into 140 characters, the country would not need three branches of government or over 21 million government employees; still, punchy tweets can woo followers into a false sense of knowledge. Similarly, meme-filled political Facebook pages are proliferating, and participation in sites like Facebook often leads to an inflated sense of political awareness.

This isn’t a new problem: between 1968 and 1988, the average news sound bite of presidential candidates fell from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds, and by 2000, it had reached 7.8 seconds. For decades, news has been getting shorter to accommodate shrinking attention spans, and this change means the public is getting less information for the same amount of stimulus—more entertainment than substance.

Social media, an open communication pathway that anyone can access, often worsens the public’s distrust of expert opinion by elevating the voices of non-experts and allowing the catchiest articles, not necessarily the most accurate ones, to reach widespread readerships. Political scientist Philip Converse found that only 10 percent of people have a coherent belief system that incorporates different views into a single political philosophy. By contrast, the rest of the population largely votes based on self-interest, emotion, or impulse. When people get their information from memes and spliced-together sound bites as opposed to fact-checked media, issues tend to be inflated and misrepresented based on ideology. Thus, social media can enhance polarization while undermining people’s trust in factual data.                                                                               

Time for a Change

These trends may seem disheartening, but there is still hope. Both Gauchat and Lynas contend that changing the U.S. science curriculum might make some difference. Though Gauchat’s research found that educated conservatives were the most likely to distrust the sciences, he thinks that teaching high school and college students about the bases for scientific credibility, including the norms of collective scientific enterprise, such as the scientific method, can take away from the predisposition to disbelieve.

Similarly, Lynas concluded, “Science has to be taught not as a dogma but as a system of critical thinking. Kids need to be educated to use their logic and their reason and their critical faculties and to seek evidence in support of and against what different people are saying.” He continued to argue that rather than making science appear almost like religious doctrine itself, as a set of facts students must take for granted, it must instead be taught as a method of looking at the world, almost a form of organized skepticism.

Analyzing the underlying factors that drive people toward “alternative facts” will also have a significant impact on how science can regain its credibility within these spheres. In some cases, that means focusing on fixing inequality and economic dissatisfaction—a tall order, yet one that will enhance many aspects of American life. Though news outlets can make beginning steps by widening their cross-class appeal, the fact remains that until the economic situation changes, the epistemic one can’t fully improve.

Most importantly, as technology and science bring the world into the future, the treatment of knowledge and expertise would benefit from a return to the culture of the past, when experts were valued more and their expertise was discounted less. Until factual claims are no longer manipulated to gain the support of vulnerable populations, science will continue to fall victim to America’s culture wars, at the expense of the progress that could otherwise be achieved in realms like environmental protection and public health. The time to stop the spread of AIDS has come and gone, but new battles are at the forefront of American politics, and this time, it’s not too late to address them.

Image Source: Flickr/usepagov

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