Skepticism about "Anti-Science" Claims
Why we should doubt conventional narratives about today's controversies
For several years, commentators across Western democracies have expressed deep concerns about a perceived loss of faith in expertise, science, and technological innovation, worries that intensified over the last year as the U.S. and Western European countries struggled to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
Depending on the commentator’s point of view, explanations have pinned the blame on some combination of right-wing populist and left-wing woke driven “anti-science,” “denial,” and “post-truth,” spread by way of social media.
But these narratives capture only part of the story, glossing over a deeper set of factors related to globalization, modernization, democratization, urbanization, secularization, immigration, racial injustice, and corresponding anxieties over inequality, fairness, the loss of community, and threats to traditional ways of life.
Each week over the coming months, I will be publishing essays exploring these dynamics as they have played out over the past forty years. My journey will start in the 1960s and 1970s as activists and publics across Western democracies sought greater control over how science and technology impacted their lives, society, and the environment.
As scholarship on these emerging controversies developed over the decades, the best work took a case study approach, combining carefully conducted investigations of the particulars of specific controversies with corresponding synthesis of common patterns and principles across cases.
In the months ahead, I will be writing about dozens of classic case studies and their lessons for today. But to start things off, I provide an “orbital satellite-level” comparison of public beliefs about science and technology across countries. Even at this low resolution level of analysis, the complexity of factors shaping today’s conflicts over expert authority are apparent.
Beliefs about science and society across countries
In a 2019 co-authored research paper published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we analyzed the 2010–2014 World Values Survey, evaluating public beliefs about science, technology, and society across fifty-four countries and 81,000 survey respondents. My collaborator on the study was my brother Erik Nisbet, a professor of communication at Northwestern University.
In our study, we assessed country-level and individual-level factors predicting survey measures related to optimism about the ability of science and technology to improve society (“scientific optimism”) and those related to reservations about the impact of science and technology on traditional values and the speed of change (“scientific reservations”).
These two mental models serve as cognitive shortcuts for quickly evaluating the social implications of specific science and technology–related issues and for estimating the trustworthiness of experts and their institutions as sources of information.
To measure scientific optimism, respondents to the World Values Survey were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable” and “Because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation.”
To assess scientific reservations, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements including “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith” and “It is not important for me to know about science in my life.”
To predict survey respondent scores on scientific optimism and scientific reservations, our statistical models allowed us to control for country-level factors such as the degree of economic development, democratic development, scientific development, and the cultural history of a country, while also examining individual-level factors such as those related to socioeconomic status, personal beliefs and values, religiosity, and forms of institutional trust.
Our findings were consistent with those from a 2019 study conducted by Gallup and commissioned by the Wellcome Trust UK, which employed slightly different survey measures to map trends in science attitudes across countries.
But our analysis went beyond describing public opinion trends to dig more deeply into why nations, cultures, and individuals differ in their beliefs about science, technology, and society.
The post-industrial paradox
Each of the fifty-four countries we evaluated in the World Values Survey rated relatively highly on scientific optimism, with the combined mean score for respondents from each country ranging from to 6.0 to 8.8 on a ten-point scale.
In comparison, scores were relatively lower in terms of scientific reservations. Per country, sample means ranged from 4.0 to 6.5 on a ten-point scale with a higher score meaning greater reservations.
On both scientific optimism and reservations, the United States ranked about mid-tier among the fifty-four countries. Importantly, however, the U.S. mean score of 7.2 on optimism was considerably higher than the mean score of 5.0 on reservations [see table below].
Comparison of fifty-four countries by sample mean scores on scientific optimism and scientific reservations
* indicates Muslim-majority country; # indicates former Soviet Republic or Eastern Bloc country. <strong>Source:</strong> Data from Ronald Inglehart, Christian Haerpfer, Alejandro Moreno, et al., World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010–2014) (Madrid: JD Systems Institute, 2014).
In our statistical models, after controlling for a variety of factors, people living in less-developed countries were generally more optimistic about science and technology, expressing fewer reservations.
People living in economically advanced countries, in contrast, were generally less optimistic and more likely to express stronger reservations.
Our findings can be explained by past theorizing on the “post-industrial paradox”: In contrast to less-developed countries, citizens in more-advanced economies may no longer idealize science and technology as necessary to economic growth and human security.
Populations living in more advanced economies are still likely to expect benefits from science and technology, but they may also be more sensitized to the moral trade-offs or risks posed by technological breakthroughs and scientific discoveries.
Cultural and historical context matter
Seventeen of the nineteen countries that scored highest in terms of scientific optimism were post-Soviet/former Eastern Bloc or Muslim-majority countries, and most of these same countries score at the bottom scale on scientific reservations, a trend that remained significant when controlling for a variety of factors in our statistical models.
We interpreted these findings as consistent with a long-standing emphasis in former Communist countries on science and technology as a vehicle for progress and the admiration that Muslim publics have expressed when asked in polls about Western science, medicine, and technology.
Interestingly, even when controlling for economic modernization, people living in countries with greater scientific and technological output as measured in terms of scientific publications, patents, and citations tend to be more optimistic about science and technology and to hold fewer reservations.
In this case, however, it remains unclear whether a national culture of scientific optimism that expresses fewer social reservations drives scientific ambition and productivity or whether national ambition and productivity boosts public optimism and limits the expression of reservations.
Religious faith and freedom of expression
Turning to individual-level factors, religious individuals living in more-advanced countries with greater political freedom were more willing to express their reservations about science and technology than their similarly devout counterparts living in countries that lack such freedoms.
Several related processes may account for these findings. First, as people living in more-advanced countries achieve greater personal and societal security, they appear to be no longer willing to overlook the potential risks, economic costs, or moral trade-offs associated with scientific advances and innovations.
To the extent that individuals living in more-advanced countries also enjoy greater political freedom, they can also express these reservations about emerging issues, such as gene editing, without fear of political sanction.
In contrast, those living in less-developed countries may not only view science and technology in terms of social progress and enhanced security but also as a source of national pride and global competitiveness. To the extent that they live in a country with fewer political freedoms, even if they did hold reservations, they may not be willing to express them for fear of reprisal.
Liberal values, inequality, and authority
Across countries, those individuals who share classical liberal values oriented toward free enterprise, free inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge, networks, and information, and who have thrived in a globalized market economy also tended to be among the most optimistic about science and technology and to express fewer reservations.
There were, however, important caveats and contingencies to these relationships based on the country-context in which an individual lived.
Specifically, the least educated residing in the richest countries tended to express much higher levels of scientific reservations than the least educated living in poorer countries [see figure].
Reservations about science and technology by education and country-level human development index (HDI)
Source: Author analysis of Ronald Inglehart, Christian Haerpfer, Alejandro Moreno, et al., World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010–2014) (Madrid: JD Systems Institute, 2014).
For wealthier optimists, scientific advances and innovations are likely to enhance their careers, fuel gains in their stock portfolios, and provide benefits that they can afford. But many other members of the public are justifiably concerned that advances such as automation or gene editing may displace their jobs, remain beyond their ability to afford, and/or conflict with cherished values.
Lower levels of reservations among highly educated individuals, regardless of the country in which they live, is also consistent with formal education having a socializing influence that shapes individuals’ views about science in terms of progress and optimism, rather than in terms of the moral and religious implications
There is no clear “communication fix” for the deep-seated reservations that some segments of Western democracies have about science and technology, reservations that our data suggest are at least partially rooted in widening levels of inequality and the role that innovation plays as a main driver of such disparities.
Across advanced economies, scientific innovations have generated vast wealth for those professionals at the top of the knowledge economy, just as those same innovations have eliminated millions of jobs among those at the bottom, transforming entire industries and regions.
Broader strategic thinking is therefore needed about the handful of policy goals and investments that would help alleviate inequality, and the threats posed to the scientific enterprise if such policies are not pursued.
In the wake of the pandemic, such thinking has begun, but it remains unclear what direction history may take. In the short term, however, what seems certain is that inequality is likely to widen even further.
Yet if expertise in the U.S. and Western Europe is to be leveraged on behalf of solutions to inequality and related problems such as climate change, such efforts will be increasingly limited by waning trust in government and almost every other major institution, including the news media, business, the legal system, universities, elites generally, and even capitalism itself.
In the U.S., for example, as progressives have battled to combat problems such as climate change and inequality via enhanced federal spending and regulation, relying on technocratic expertise to justify the shift, multiple dimensions of American society have been moving in the opposite direction, becoming more diffuse, decentralized, and distrustful of government technocrats.
It is true that the mid-century years that progressives and many experts yearn for featured low income inequality, much higher unionization, and robust economic growth, but this economic prosperity was enabled by a two-decade lack of global competition, as Europe recovered from World War II and Asia embarked on economic modernization.
The brief historical moments for which progressives wax nostalgic were also periods of unusually high institutional confidence and optimism about government [see figure above].
When Lyndon Johnson was elected president in 1964, in a span of a few years he achieved landmark civil rights, Head Start, Medicare, and Social Security bills at a time when 77% of Americans said they trusted the federal government “always” or “most of the time” and as his Democratic party held two-thirds majorities in Congress.
A similar level of trust in government existed in 1970 when Republican president Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and established the Environmental Protection Agency. But now, during an era of perpetually divided party control of government, trust stands below 20%.
In the wake of the contested U.S. presidential election, the storming of the Capitol building, and no end in sight to partisan hatred, it is highly unlikely that we will see similar forms of comprehensive legislation for at least a decade and probably longer, no matter how much scientific evidence is marshaled on behalf of reform.
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Bauer, M.W., E. Shukla, and N. Allum (eds.). 2012. The Culture of Science: How the Public Relates to Science across the Globe. London: Routledge.
Gallup. 2019. Wellcome Global Monitor—First Wave Findings. London: Wellcome Trust UK.
Nisbet, M., and E.M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PloS one 9(2): e88473.
Nisbet, Matthew C., and Eric C. Nisbet. 2019. The Public Face of Science across the World: Optimism and Innovation in an Era of Reservations and Inequality. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Putnam, R. D. (2020). The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and how We Can Do it Again. Simon & Schuster.