2016 has so far been a year of political disarray in at least two major Western democracies. In June, a narrow majority of voters in Britain decided to exit the European Union, in a move colloquially known as “Brexit”. This polarized and divisive referendum was influenced by a campaign based on dubious claims and was perhaps best characterized by Leave campaigner Michael Gove’s declaration that Britain had “had enough of experts.” Americans hold their breath as Donald Trump maintains the spotlight and the Republican presidential nomination, although nearly 85 percent of his claims are misleading, according to the Washington Post. On both sides of the Atlantic, political arenas have been transformed into hotbeds of misinformation. Not only is the public choosing to disregard the words of experts, but they are also choosing not to penalize those who lie.
Brexit and the rise of Trump are both products of a strain of anti-intellectual thought currently factoring prominently in Western politics. In the media, journalists point to anti-intellectualism, or the dismissal of intellectuals and intellectual pursuits, as a reason for current events. Science, the humanities, the arts, and expert knowledge are no longer valued in the voting booth, which has a number of serious consequences. Though it can certainly be reversed, anti-intellectualism is devaluing critical thought and contributing to a political disconnect from facts and logic.
Experts Under Fire
Leading up to the Brexit referendum, anti-intellectual sentiment manifested itself through low levels of public trust in expert opinion. Mike Galsworthy, program director of Scientists for EU, revealed in an interview with the HPR that during the referendum in the United Kingdom, “over 100 vice chancellors in U.K. universities were petitioning to remain, and not a single one in the whole country was for leaving … you’ve got a whole community in the knowledge economy that feels like it’s been pulled out of the team of the EU.” Although campaigns like his, as well as the official Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, stressed the scientific, cultural and economic benefits of retaining membership in the union, many voters dismissed their reasoning.
Prior to the British referendum, a YouGov poll found that “Remain” supporters generally trusted academics, experts, charities and business leaders, while “Leave” supporters generally distrusted these groups. “[Leave supporters] were very cynical about what you can call authority or elites,” Galsworthy noted. Michael Gove’s anti-expert claim, therefore, was not just rhetoric. Many Brits really had begun to dismiss facts provided by experts in favor of their own “common sense.”
Similarly, American confidence in major institutions, particularly banks, news media, public schools, religion, and Congress, has been decreasing for years. This popular anti-establishment and anti-expert ethos is manifested by Trump, whose primary consultant on foreign policy is himself—he claims to have “a good instinct for this stuff.” Although he may have faith in his own judgment, foreign policy experts have deemed these same instincts “dangerous.” More generally, he makes frequent self-contradictions, does not “have the time” to read, and “love[s) the poorly educated.” These statements belie not only his lack of expertise on important political topics, but also a worrying hubris that often accompanies disregard for expert opinion.
This type of cynicism may be justified. David H. Freedman, an Atlantic contributor and the author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them, expressed to the HPR that, “when a scientist does a study and publishes it, chances are, very roughly speaking, about two-to-one that the findings will either be flat out wrong or will be greatly exaggerated.” However, Freedman conceded that this applies mostly to individual studies; overall, the scientific community “tend[s] to do much better than the rest of the world” at pinpointing the truth.
The Stratification of Knowledge
One reason for such broad-based distrust of expert opinion is that modern class structures have changed. No longer does an idle aristocracy dominate the upper social strata. Rather, our current emphasis on advancing a “meritocracy” favors a new elite: those with practical qualifications. In an interview with the HPR, Catherine Liu, a professor at UC Irvine and author of The American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique, pointed out that this is the “nature of capitalism: the development of a professional managerial technocratic class that purports to be neutral and knowledgeable on how to rule.”
However, being under the helm of the experts does not seem to be improving outcomes for lower- and middle-income households. A 2014 study done by the Pew Research Center showed that 43 percent of U.S. aggregate income went to middle-income households, down from 62 percent in 1970, whereas lower-income households obtained 9 percent, down from 10 percent. Furthermore, largely due to the housing market crisis and the 2008 Great Recession—perceived as being caused by the same professional elite that were cushioned from the blow—the median wealth of middle-income households fell by 28 percent from 2001 to 2013. The international growth of the “gig economy” means that job security is declining for many, particularly in the U.K., where the number of zero-hour contracts is rising. When the average person is repeatedly told that the professionals and experts know best about how to improve life, yet he or she feels that quality of life is declining, it becomes easier to distrust and resent “intellectuals.”
Furthermore, Liu posited that current anti-intellectualism is “a reaction against an increasingly organized educational institution that was once supposed to democratize knowledge, but is now becoming more like a cartel.” Those who possess the power of reason and the ability to justify oneself are validated in their worthiness. Because many educational institutions operate on the basis of exclusion, whether by test scores or family income, those who are left outside the ivy-covered walls of higher education feel a burgeoning resentment.
Given that income is positively correlated with educational attainment—the median weekly earnings for those with a professional degree in the United States being $1,730 in 2015, compared with $493 for those without a high school diploma—the less-educated find themselves shut off from employment prospects and a better quality of life. In this way, educational institutions are not only places that cultivate intellectual life; they also function as symbols of status and economic security. The many who are denied access to this improved quality of life “are going to resent the situation enormously,” according to Liu.
Yet even within these educational institutions, the intellectualism has been devalued by economic concerns. The old-fashioned idea of intellectualism involves “the life of the mind,” or the contemplation of ideas and critical thinking to expand one’s knowledge. But as “practical” degrees in technology or business are increasingly necessary for stable careers and incomes, courses that focus more purely on intellectual exploration are falling to the wayside, as they lack as much potential for monetization. Instead, business degrees are now the most popular higher education qualifications awarded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Liu believes that intellectual curiosity requires exploration without concern for its ends. Therefore, the focus of universities on the end goal of job preparation is likely “the most anti-intellectual position of all.”
Although anti-intellectualism is reshaping global politics now, it may not be a long-lasting phenomenon. Galsworthy hopes that the anti-intellectual tone in the United Kingdom is just a feature of the referendum debate itself. “Even though it’s left a cloud, I hope that certainly the politicians don’t believe in rejecting academics and think tanks and international bodies. I think that will go away.” However, anti-intellectualism has undoubtedly impacted Britain’s global reputation. Scientists for EU set up an online monitoring form, collating almost 400 reports from scientists about their post-Brexit experiences. “[Scientists] saw the rising xenophobia and the anti-intellectual and the anti-expert tone, [which have] clearly put a lot of people off. [They report] that this makes the United Kingdom, as a culture, a much less welcoming place than it seemed before.”
And what about anti-intellectualism’s staying power in the United States? Arguably, historian Richard Hofstadter began the American discourse about anti-intellectualism with his 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Over 50 years ago, Hofstadter depicted anti-intellectualism as a mindset deeply ingrained into American culture, making arguments that are still applicable to today’s social landscape. Although the public discussion about anti-intellectualism seems to have flourished recently, it may not be a short term phenomenon in the United States.
Salvaging Respect for Intellect
Liu remains optimistic that anti-intellectualism can be resolved. Part of the responsibility lies with the people who are perceived as intellectuals: academics, scientists, and experts. If these people strove to be more “critical of the way that [educational institutions] are built” to favor the well off, they could build more solidarity with people who are excluded. Similarly, Galsworthy believes that after Brexit, British scientists need to be better “communicators about the health and innovation benefits that science brings, [and] science’s place in our economy.” This would better integrate science into the national culture and increase support for science from the U.K. community.
Liu asserts that intellectual life “is the right of all human beings… As long as you try to monopolize and hide this value from other people, ordinary people resent it. Of course they will. Some get to be free, and others don’t, just because [the first group] tested well? [Most] of us live with economic anxiety, and some of us live with intellectual freedom?”
Image Source: Flickr/David B Young