The Rise of Anti-Intellectualism
Emerging research explores growing mistrust of expertise.
Populism coupled with increasing assaults on scientific integrity have dramatically shifted the political landscape during the last decade and contributed to geopolitical instability. The policy ramifications are yet to be understood, but anti-intellectualism has threatened public health, stymied environmental progress, influenced funding priorities and sculpted the rhetoric of many candidates in local, state and national politics.
Widespread mistrust of expert recommendations such as the rejection of effective vaccines are often described as the result of divisive conflicts between Democrats and Republicans or partisan tribalism. However, emerging research on anti-intellectualism suggests anti-elite beliefs have taken root for more nuanced and complicated reasons.
Because my research explores decision making in Congress, I am extremely interested in how our perceptions related to evidence shape attitudes and influence policies. There’s a lot to unpack between topics like motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and more, so I’ll begin with the rise of anti-intellectualism and return to related themes and challenges over time.
Eric Merkley (2020) aptly described the generalized mistrust of experts as driving a divide between public attitudes and expert consensus, most notably among people highly engaged in political discourse. But even though we can see the ways anti-intellectualism has become a strong force in American political life, we are still struggling to understand exactly what it is, who it most appeals to and its implications for political behavior.
Political scientist Katherine Cramer detailed how support or opposition for policies, as well as how people understand politics more generally, are tremendously influenced by both social and place-based identities. Her 2016 book, The Politics of Resentment, described that rural conservatives support the Republican party because it has effectively tapped into existing resentments toward specific groups and individuals in government, liberals, and certain minorities. Cramer explains that many rural Americans who have struggled economically do not see government programs as serving their own communities. On top of that, the ways that they are popularly depicted as ignorant or unsophisticated by the left reinforces building resentments toward the people they perceive as “elites” that don’t appear to share their values.
Recent years have led many science advocates to adopt the phrase “Facts matter.” Yet facts alone are not enough to reach good decisions. As Daniel Sarewitz observed (2004), facts can be arranged in all sorts of different ways to support completely different versions of a situation. Endlessly collecting facts can perpetually change our perception of reality in ways influenced by the social, institutional, or political context where the people collecting them exist. Further, there even appears to be a point at which adding more data can be harmful (Gigerenzer and Gaissmaier, 2011).
Science may be central to our lives, but it is also just one of many lenses with which to frame an issue or event. The emphasis many well-meaning citizens place on facts alone has proven inadequate for informed 21st century policy making.
Upcoming posts will continue to explore anti-intellectualism in and out of the literature and highlight research-based strategies to diminish its role in policy making and public discourse more broadly.
In the meantime, now that Unelected Representative is four posts in, I’m interested to hear from readers. What topics are you most curious to explore related to decision making in Congress? Share any suggestions or questions in the comments.
And thanks for reading, sharing, subscribing and joining me on this journey.
Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. University of Chicago Press.
Gigerenzer, Gerd, and Wolfgang Gaissmaier. 2011. “Heuristic Decision Making.” Annual Review of Psychology 62: 451–82.
Merkley, Eric. 2020. “Anti-Intellectualism, Populism, and Motivated Resistance to Expert Consensus.” Public Opinion Quarterly 84 (1): 24–48.
Sarewitz, Daniel. 2004. “How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse.” Environmental Science & Policy 7 (5): 385–403.