Years ago, when I was teaching a course on nonverbal communication, I read a research report on a topic relevant to that class. It had just been published. So that day, instead of starting with the lecture I had planned, I told the students all about the new study.
It is a small thing, I know, but I was proud of myself. I thought the students would appreciate having access to the most up-to-date findings in the field.
Maybe some of them did. But one of the students was indignant, and she let me know it. The new findings contradicted what she had just read in the textbook I assigned for the course. She thought she should be able to rely on the textbook to tell her the truth about nonverbal communication.
At first, I was stunned. That’s not how science works. We do research to improve on our understanding of humans and of the world. We figure out what we got wrong previously, and why. Now I realize I need to be a better teacher of the process and philosophy of scientific knowledge, and I am grateful to her.
Misunderstanding of Scientific Knowledge
The matter of distrusting scientific information, and the people who have spent a lifetime in their field of work earning their status as experts, is no longer just an intellectual curiosity. We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S., infections are increasing at a frightening rate. The accumulated science of infectious diseases, as well as the latest research on this particular coronavirus, may offer some of the best possible guides for getting something like our old lives back.
Instead of listening to the people who know the most, though, some are instead mocking and even threatening them. One of the foremost experts on infectious diseases is Dr. Anthony Fauci. Long before COVID-19, he was developing lifesaving and life-enhancing treatments for other deadly diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Dan Patrick, though, Lt. Governor of the hard-hit state of Texas, has been slamming Dr. Fauci. He told Laura Ingraham of Fox News, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about… I don’t need his advice anymore.”
The kind of misunderstanding my student exemplified is part of the problem. Harvard professor Steven Pinker explained it to Nautilus this way: “Partly because people think of experts as oracles, as opposed to experimenters…, there’s a presumption that either the experts know what is the best policy from the get-go, or else they are incompetent and ought to be replaced.”
Political Tribes and Anti-Intellectualism
It was not by chance that Fox News was the place where Dr. Fauci was denigrated, and a Republican politician was the one doing the disparaging. At a time when unity of purpose in taking on the virus is of utmost importance, Americans have devolved into tribes.
As Eric Merkley, a public policy postdoc, has noted, skepticism about the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately fueled by Fox News and Republican leaders, and believed by Republican voters. But Merkley thinks there is an even more significant factor driving that skepticism: anti-intellectualism.
With a nod to the historian Richard Hofstadter, Merkley describes anti-intellectualism as the view of intellectuals as elitist snobs, who are not just pretentious and no more trustworthy than the guy next door, but possibly even immoral and dangerous.
Although conservatives and religious fundamentalists are especially likely to be anti-intellectuals, so are populists, and populists can be found among Independents and Democrats, as well as Republicans.
The scientifically minded want scientific consensus to be the basis for public policy. Anti-intellectuals don’t. Merkley explored those psychological dynamics in research published in Public Opinion Quarterly. In his experiment, half of the participants were told about the scientific consensus on issues such as climate change and nuclear power; the other half were not.
For the participants who were not anti-intellectuals, reading about the consensus was persuasive. They believed those consensus views even more than they had before. The anti-intellectuals rebelled. They didn’t just shrug off what they had read, they doubled down, rejecting those consensus views even more strongly than they had before.
Merkley wasn’t finished. He also wanted to see what would happen if he included some populist rhetoric. Half of the people in each condition read a screed against “Washington insiders” who “have fixed the system at the expense of hard-working Americans.” The other half read a news story that was not political. Although the quote was actually Donald Trump’s, only Republicans were told that. The Democratic participants were told that Bernie Sanders had said it, and for the Independents, it was attributed to the Independent Senator Angus King.
The populist rhetoric triggered the participants who were anti-intellectuals. They were even more likely to reject the scientific consensus than if they had not heard that populist incitement.
That’s what Dr. Fauci and our other public health experts are up against — not just partisanship and polarization, but anti-intellectualism, further inflamed by populism.
What Can Be Done?
Even though some Americans simply will not abide by the scientific consensus, many others can be persuaded, Merkley notes. He believes that public health messages need to be “reemphasized by a wide variety of sources, including religious and community leaders, politicians, celebrities, athletes and others.”
In our tribalized society, though, the risk is that the anti-intellectual side will craft its own message, and line up its whole array of leaders behind it — science be damned. Will they do so even if they become persuaded that their own lives are at stake? Maybe we’ll find out.