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Many Americans deeply distrust experts. So will they ignore the warnings about coronavirus?

The problem isn’t just partisanship; it’s the anti-intellectualism in American life.

Shoppers lined up at a Costco store in Seattle on March 14. (REUTERS/David Ryder)
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Republican voters are still far more likely than Democrats to believe the coronavirus pandemic has been exaggerated, their skepticism egged on by Fox News and even Republican officeholders. That’s true even after President Trump took emergency measures. But partisanship isn’t the only barrier to getting Americans to listen to scientific consensus, such as public health experts’ recommendations about social distancing and hand washing. Anti-intellectualism has a long pedigree in the United States. Here’s the problem — and what can be done about it.

Anti-intellectualism in American life

A sizable number of Americans harbor a fundamental mistrust of intellectuals and experts, a trait known as anti-intellectualism.

As described by the historian Richard Hofstadter, anti-intellectualism is a view that:

intellectuals … are pretentious, conceited … and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive …. The plain sense of the common man is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise.

Anti-intellectualism often goes along with conservative ideology, religious fundamentalism and populism. Conservatives and fundamentalists may feel threatened by the implications of scientific research on issues such as climate change and evolution, while populists may see experts as a class of “elites” seeking power over ordinary citizens. Anti-intellectualism is fueled by these factors, but it cannot simply be reduced to any one of them.

Anti-intellectualism, therefore, challenges those trying to communicate scientific information. Citizens harboring such sentiments are unlikely to be persuaded by expert consensus because they do not trust experts by definition.

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Here’s how I studied this

In a recently published article, I explore the link between anti-intellectualism and opposition to scientific consensus. The study draws on the General Social Survey (GSS) and an original survey of 3,614 people from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. I created an anti-intellectualism scale from survey responses that measured the trust people have in different communities of experts, such as doctors, economists and financial experts.

In the GSS and the Mechanical Turk groups, my measure of anti-intellectualism was closely associated with opposition to the scientific consensus on the safety of nuclear power, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and water fluoridation, as well as on climate change. Ideology and partisanship were not as consistently related to these positions.

I divided those who took my MTurk survey into two groups. One group was informed of the relevant expert consensus on climate change, nuclear power, GMOs and water fluoridation, while the other group was not. Afterward, everyone was asked their level of support for each consensus position on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Among those with low levels of anti-intellectual sentiment, reading about the scientific consensus increased support for these positions; on average, these respondents had levels of support six points higher on the scale than those who did not read the information.

However, the higher participants scored on anti-intellectual sentiment, the less convinced they were by expert consensus. In fact, strong anti-intellectuals doubled down in their opposition to these positions. Anti-intellectuals who read information about expert consensus were, on average, nine points less supportive of consensus positions than those who did not on the same scale.

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I also divided my MTurk participants into two groups. The first group read an article that included populist rhetoric; the other read a nonpolitical news story. So, some participants received both the rhetoric and the consensus information, some got neither, and others got a mix of the two. The article with populist rhetoric was a lightly edited version of a real news report of one of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. Included in the report was this quote, variously attributed to different people, as I’ll describe below:

For decades, Washington insiders have fixed the system at the expense of hard-working Americans … The Washington establishment and their friends on Wall Street believe they are entitled to get whatever they want, whenever they want.

Some people in the group receiving populist rhetoric got a version of the story where that quote was attributed to Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), while others got a version in which it was attributed to someone of their party. Republicans read that Trump said it; Democrats and independents were told Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said it.

My anti-intellectualism measure was twice as strong a factor in predicting who would or who would not be convinced by expert consensus information when respondents were exposed to populist rhetoric. Anti-intellectualism mattered less for those who read the piece of nonpolitical news instead.

With populist rhetoric coming from both the political left and right, anti-intellectualism may shape public opinion more now than in the past. That could complicate messaging about the coronavirus.

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What this means for slowing the coronavirus pandemic

Recent research has shown that many Americans may be convinced by scientific consensus. It can even weaken partisan divisions that exist on issues like climate change.

But my analyses suggest that may not work with everyone, and not just because of partisanship or ideology. Most Americans trust experts. But a sizable bloc — 20 percent to 25 percent — does not. In fact, those Americans may even be repelled by experts’ signals. For the pandemic, the challenge will be to find communication strategies that persuade these individuals to take the necessary steps to keep themselves and their communities healthy.

Citizens will listen to those they trust. But, of course, who counts as trustworthy will vary from one person to another. To convey and reinforce public health messages, leaders may wish to ask that those messages be reemphasized by a wide variety of sources, including religious and community leaders, politicians, celebrities, athletes and others.

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Eric Merkley (@EricMerkley) is a postdoctoral fellow in the Policy, Elections, and Representation Lab (PEARL) at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

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