Tracking the anti-science wave: Commentary on the roots of distrust

Distrust in science is widespread in the United States. Perhaps the solution is to have scientists more openly involved in politics. 

K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP
UNLV professor Libby Hausrath works with Ph.D. student Anthony Feldman in her lab on campus in Las Vegas on Friday, July 24, 2020. Hausrath is one of 10 scientists selected by NASA to study soil and rock samples from Mars.

In 1890, as the Russian Flu raged, a conspiracy emerged, linking the disease to the suspicious new electric light technology. If there is a vacuum in scientific or political authorities’ accounts, conspiracies fill the void. This happens with increasing frequency whenever there is a gap in trust in the process of scientific endeavor.

“People have an epistemic need to know the truth and they also have an existential need to feel safe,” Karen Douglas, a professor of psychology at the University of Kent who studies conspiracy theories, told Forbes in May. 

The current outbreak of COVID-19 has elevated, among other bad suppositions, the notion that the 5G technology emanates the disease. Such conspiracy theories have contributed to some Americans’ reluctance to buy into public health measures. Skeptics and those on the fence hesitate to accept social distancing measures and mask mandates, or outright spurn them. 

This “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling” has hampered the United States’ ability to control the outbreak,  Anthony Fauci, the long-serving director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in June.

Indeed, the U.S. continues to break records for new cases of COVID-19, even as many other nations have seen declines.

Science and anti-science

Dr. Fauci’s comment highlighted the connection between science, public health, and power structures, drawing on the increasingly apparent fact that anti-science sentiment has become increasingly visible in the United States in recent years. 

This anti-science feeling has historical parallels in the U.S., and carries certain consequences. 

The 1960s saw a wave of anti-science sentiment. In his 1970 text “Modern Physics and Antiphysics,” Adolph Baker traces the backlash of the anti-science movements of the sixties to the funding model of most scientific research which relied upon the apparatus of the state (in other words, military research). 

In the minds of the protesters, according to Baker, military tech and science were interchangeable. This, similar to how the modern anti-vaccination movement objects to the public-private partnerships of the medical establishment, created a general skepticism of science. Anti-war protestors, in this account, viewed the lack of critical engagement by scientists on political matters to be synonymous with complicity in pro-war activities.

Following the 1960s protest period, it was conservatives and churchgoers who lost faith in scientific endeavors. Between 1974 and 2010, as Gordon Gauchat, at the time affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains in a 2012 research paper, conservatives became “increasingly distrustful of science,” while public faith in science across America generally was stable. 

During the Obama and Bush administrations, a major concern of institutions like the National Academies of Science became preserving the “cultural authority” of science. The early 2000s was seen as a period in American life in which scientific inquiry was very polarized. Indeed, Professor Gauchat’s study “[calls] into question whether the cultural authority of science can provide the political consensus it once did in the 1960s.”

American conservatives came to see science as a politically-loaded endeavor. They were skeptical of climate science, and some fundamentalist quarters rejected scientific theories like evolution by mutation and natural selection. This was not a clean break with science but a gradual separation, and it is not necessarily explained by a lack of education as is sometimes suggested. In Professor Gauchet’s view, scientific literacy is not as much of a problem as is the unwillingness to accept scientific authority on cultural and political matters.

A matter of trust

The relationship between science and the powers that be influences the way we view science in general, which in turn impacts our likelihood of accepting public health policies. Moreover, those who distrust public institutions tend to distrust science. High polarization and low institutional trust equals low trust in expert opinions. 

Scientists in the U.S. are at the mercy of public views about U.S. institutions when they do not actively engage in the policy sphere. Science is not necessarily a value neutral venture, as scientists like Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky and the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould have pointed out. The political implications of science can alienate people who begin to view their ideology as at odds with scientific enterprise. In times of crisis conspiracy theories can claim the gaps in authority in the public consciousness. 

Contrary to the U.S., New Zealand has received praise for its response to the coronavirus outbreak. The first confirmed case in the country was documented on February 28th. Since mid-April, the country has averaged less than ten new cases a day, and has, as of this writing, a total of 1,204 confirmed cases. The country publicly estimates a total of 1,560 confirmed and probable cases.

One factor that may have played a role in the success of the country’s attempt to eliminate the virus is the buy-in to cultural authority on the matter. In recent years, New Zealanders’ trust in government has been on the rise, even during the pandemic

If we had more scientific input on science-heavy policy matters, perhaps the United States would have had a better response to the virus. 

A 2015 survey of 3,748 American-based scientists by Pew Research Center revealed that the majority, 87%, agreed with the statement that, “Scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.” Science communicators like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have made the case that scientists should engage in politics more. 

“If we go forward allowing people in charge to cherry-pick science, that is not an informed democracy,” Dr. Tyson told one interviewer. “We should fear the future of our nation in all the ways that science matters to that future... if that is how people are making decisions.” 

Perhaps the way forward is to have scientists more actively and openly involved in policy debates. That may make it harder for officials to cherry-pick, and more difficult for the public to accept junk theories.

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