How Americans Came to Distrust Science

Andrew Jewett:

Science is under fire as never before in the United States. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump and his Republican allies dismiss the findings of health experts as casually as those of climate scientists. Indeed, conservatives sometimes portray scientists as agents of a liberal conspiracy against American institutions and values. Since the 1990s GOP leaders have worked to limit the influence of scientists in areas ranging from global warming to contraception to high school biology curricula.

Before the 1920s, many Americans viewed science as a kind of “people’s knowledge,” a practical, commonsense mode of reasoning that stood against all forms of elite authority.

But it is not just conservatives who question scientific authority in the United States. Alarm at many applications of biological research, for example, crosses party lines. This impulse usually targets genetic engineering and biotechnology, but it also fosters skepticism toward vaccination and other medical practices. Across the political spectrum, citizens tend to pick and choose among scientific theories and applications based on preexisting commitments. They are frequently suspicious of basic research procedures as well; many believe that peer review and other internal policing mechanisms fail to remove powerful biases. Conservatives often charge that peer review enforces liberal groupthink, while some progressives say it leaves conventional social norms unexamined.