By Tom Nichols
Do Americans hate science? They certainly seem to hate it more than they used to, as they rage against experts in every field. This is more than a traditional American distaste for eggheads and intellectuals. Americans, increasingly, are acting (and voting) on myths and misinformation about science, and placing themselves at significant risk. In Texas, for example, “personal-belief exemptions” among parents refusing to vaccinate their children increased from 2,314 in the 2003-2004 school year to 44,716 in 2015-2016. Although these parents were, they say, galvanized by the election of Donald Trump—America’s most prominent vaccine skeptic—this reflexive dismissal of science long predates the 2016 election, even if it has intensified in the last few years.
Of course, Americans don’t really hate science: they rely on it every day in ways they don’t even notice. From tens of thousands of safe and effective over-the-counter drugs to the directions on a car’s GPS system, Americans trust the work of experts on a daily basis. Rather, it is more accurate to say that the American public distrusts scientists, rather than science itself. Scientists, however, should be consoled by the fact that they are disdained not for their work, but for being part of an undifferentiated mass of “experts” whom a fair number of Americans now view as, at best, a suspect political class, and, at worst, as an enemy.
In one sense, this attack on the defenders of established knowledge was inevitable. It is not only fueled by an obvious culprit—the internet—but also by the unintended side effects of otherwise positive social changes. Universal education and increased social mobility, among other changes, have thrown America’s experts and citizens into direct contact after nearly two centuries in which they lived segregated lives and rarely interacted with each other. And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else. To understand this, and to think about solutions, requires a deeper look at causes. Both the professional community and the public it serves bear some responsibility for our parlous condition.
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