The success of politicians (e.g., Donald Trump) and political movements (e.g., Brexit) that express skepticism toward experts raises important questions about the political implications of declining trust in expertise. Research from Matt Motta shows that anti-intellectualism – the distrust and dislike of experts – is associated with support for political candidates and movements who share those feelings. It is also linked with opposition to scientific consensus on climate change and nuclear power.
In June 2016, outspoken Brexit advocate Michael Gove claimed that the United Kingdom has “had enough of experts.” Gove was apparently “glad” that his campaign failed to win the support of European Union economists; echoing the catchphrase of America’s most-prominent Brexit supporter in telling them, “you’re fired!” On the campaign trail, President Trump – who frequently expressed skepticism towards economic and scientific expertise – returned the favor by declaring himself “Mr. Brexit.”
The electoral successes of Donald Trump and Brexit share something important in common. Both attempted to appeal to voters’ distrust of expertise in rallying support for their causes. Were they successful? More generally, what are the political implications of the public’s declining trust in expertise?
My new research suggests that anti-intellectualism – i.e., the public’s distrust and dislike of experts – has important political consequences in the United States. Drawing on more than four decades of survey data, I find that anti-intellectualism is linked to voters’ support for candidates and political movements that are skeptical of expertise. I also find that it is associated with opposition to policy-relevant scientific consensus on human-caused climate change and the safety of nuclear power.
Elites’ use of anti-intellectual rhetoric, with the hope of winning popular support from like-minded voters, is not a new phenomenon. The use of the term “anti-intellectualism” to refer to citizens’ negative attitudes toward scientists, academics, and other experts was popularized by Richard Hofstadter in the early 1960s. Mid-twentieth century politicians like Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (who called for investigations into academics’ supposed-ties to Communism) and Alabama Governor George Wallace (who derided college professors and judges as “pointy-headed intellectuals”) frequently made use of anti-intellectual language.
However, since the mid-1990s, anti-intellectualism has been on the rise in the American public, especially amongst self-identified ideological conservatives, as demonstrated in Figure 1. Since 1972, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked nationally representative samples of Americans (roughly once every two years) to report whether they have a great deal, only some, or hardly any trust in the “scientific community.” The figure plots the proportion of liberals and conservatives placing high levels of trust in the scientific community (Note: this is an extension of analysis from Gordon Gauchat).
Figure 1. Liberals and Conservatives’ trust in the scientific community
As the figure shows, liberals and conservatives held similar levels of trust in scientists from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s. Focusing on the right-hand panel in 1974, for example, 52% of liberals and 50% of conservatives held a great deal of trust in the scientific community. Following approximately 1994, however, their opinions began to diverge. By 2014, 53% of liberals and only 36% of conservatives held a great deal of trust.
Anti-intellectualism has also been observed through a national panel election study in 2016. The Center for the Study of Political Psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn asked respondents to report the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “I would rather place my trust in the opinions of ordinary people than the opinions of experts and intellectuals.”
My research shows that anti-intellectualism is associated with support for candidates who express skepticism toward experts. In the 1972 GSS, 22% of people who placed hardly any trust were predicted to support George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1968, compared to only 12% of those placing a great deal of trust in scientists (about a 9% difference, with rounding).
In the CSPP study, anti-intellectualism was also associated with higher comparative candidate evaluations (CCEs) of Donald Trump, relative to Hillary Clinton. “Feeling thermometer” scales shows us that over the course of the 2016 campaign, net positivity toward Donald Trump was predicted to be between 5-9% higher for individuals strongly agreeing that expert opinions are less trustworthy than those of ordinary people, compared to those who strongly disagreed with that statement. Moreover, in the study’s June wave, nearly 44% of those strongly agreeing with the statement indicated that they supported the Brexit movement, compared to only 25% amongst those who strongly opposed the statement (an 18% difference).
Anti-intellectualism also has important policy implications. In the CSPP data, anti-intellectualism was associated with a 22% decrease in the likelihood of viewing climate change as caused by humans. In the GSS data, it was also associated with an 7% increase in the belief that nuclear power is dangerous (1993-1994) and an 8% decrease in the belief that climate change is dangerous (1993-1994, 2000).
Verbal intelligence as an indicator of anti-intellectual attitudes
Much work remains to be done concerning the origins of anti-intellectual attitudes. Factors like citizens’ interest in and knowledge about science, as well as their levels of education, have been proposed as potential explanations; often with mixed results. I conclude my research by considering a new explanation, originating from research in social psychology – verbal intelligence.
Verbal intelligence is usually measured based on scores on short vocabulary tests, and has been linked to open-minded thinking. This might encourage citizens to view experts positively, even when experts disagree or engage in self-promotional behaviors. Several waves of the GSS included a short measure of verbal intelligence.
For liberals and conservatives alike, I find that verbal intelligence decreases the endorsement of anti-intellectual attitudes. Scoring in the top 25th percentile on the test, compared to scoring in the bottom 25th percentile, was associated with a 9% increase in the likelihood of placing a great deal of trust in the scientific community (again using modeling strategies that account for basic demographic and political factors).
These results offer initial evidence suggesting that Americans’ cognitive abilities might be associated with their endorsement of anti-intellectual attitudes. Future research should consider verbal intelligence when attempting to understand why some citizens hold anti-intellectual attitudes, and others do not.
P6270388.JPG by Flickred! is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
Shortened URL for this post: http://bit.ly/2vE1S69
Matt Motta – University of Minnesota
Matt Motta is a PhD Candidate at the University of Minnesota, where he is a Doctoral Dissertation Fellow and NSF Graduate Research Fellow. In addition to studying citizens’ attitudes toward experts, he is broadly interested in how people acquire information about politics, and how that information shapes political behavior. Matt is also a research associate for the Wesleyan Media Project.
Regarding Brexit. Why not read the short term economic forecast by the UK Treasury of what would happen in the case of Brexit vote and compare it with what actually happened? (Not to mention numerous other authorities.) Then you will understand why people don’t trust experts.
You’re being completely disengenuous when you write, “Why not read the short term economic forecast by the UK Treasury of what would happen in the case of Brexit vote …?
The Tresury’s forecasts were predicated on the immeidate triggering of Article 50, and were based on no other action being taken.
In the event, Article 50 was triggered 9 months after the vote (as an aside, in my opinion it should not have been triggered until Parliament – and I do mean Parliament, not just the Government – had decided what form of Brexit we should seek to negotiate with the EU27; something which is still far from clear nearly 17 months down the line), and the Bank of England implemented a four-pronged stimulus package designed to boost the economy and prevent a recession following the vote to leave, including the first cut to interest rates in 7 years and a massive injection of quantitative easing.
Taken together, these items massively shifted the goalposts. And even then, sterling immediately suffered a large (and persistent) reduction in value, which has had – and continues to have – a large impact on the UK economy.
The experts were broadly correct. There hasn’t been a massive improvement in the economy as a result of the vote to leave the EU, has there?
I must denounce the arrogant assumption espoused herein, that those who detest intellectuals, scientists, and academics are more likely to be stupid than those who faun over them. The attempt to reinforce the preconception that those who despise your worldview are cognitively less competent than others is carefully constructed to discredit the other, not to understand him. It demonstrates how disgracefully limited the imaginations of the intelligentsia are at grasping the nature of opposing views and their true origins, how willfully ignorant you are about the circumstances and events which have given rise to these feelings, and the toxic role intellectual institutions have played in harmfully impacting the lives of those who have turned against intellectualism. Perhaps acknowledging validity of others is too threatening to intellectuals and scientists, and that is why they consistently manipulate their studies and data to reinforce their political aims, which hatefully target their opponents and subject them to degrading labels such as you have ascribed: cognitive limitations. My ass.
They are also using the term very generically, as if every field of what could be called “science” or “experts” in those fields are equally valid. As if the “expert” economist has the same trustworthiness as the “expert” in metallurgy. The “experts” who are most likely to interact with the public come from fields that possess the least amount of rigor.
They also conveniently ignore the weaponization of social-so-called-science that has occurred since the early 70s. All of the wonderful marvels of the few decades preceding the 70s gave the public very good reason to trust the “experts” whereas today, we are far more likely to think of soft-sciences (not really science) such as economists as experts who simply do not have the same amount of rigor associated with it.
To try and understand what you are saying is that because intellectuals reject; xenophobia, homophobia, nationalism and religious ideology they are some how wrong. No all those aspects of human kind are wrong. All of them have done is to cause misery, distrust, war, subjugation, and murder. What common ground can any intellectual have with any of them. and why do you?
Interesting link to intelligence, there. I look forward to reading your paper.
There is one obvious problem with such an approach: that would indicate that the population has gotten measurably stupider for multiple decades, when there is no other evidence of such a shift.
I think a far more likely reason is that – over that time period in particular – experts have repeatedly been exposed as frauds, manipulating data for political and financial incentives. I fully agree that the public trusts experts less than it has in the past, but I disagree that this is because the public is gtting stupider. It’s because the actions of a few bad “experts” have eroded trust. As a reminder, trust is earned, and you don’t earn it by getting a PhD.
“The experts were broadly correct. There hasn’t been a massive improvement in the economy as a result of the vote to leave the EU, has there?”
No one claimed that there would be a massive short term improvement in the economy as a result of the vote to Leave though some have claimed that the economy will gain advantages when we do leave. The Treasury claimed that there would be a fall in GDP (not a fall in percentage increase but an actual fall) and a rise in unemployment in the short term. The IMF predicted a sharp increase in interest rates. The majority of experts were hopelessly wrong. If they made bad predictions because they made the wrong assumptions then that is a good reason to be sceptical of experts.
The Treasury document states the following with no conditionality or caveats.
“The analysis in this document comes to a clear central conclusion: a vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession and lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000.”
Has anyone looked at the public trust of experts by field? When using expert in a very generic sense, that captures people’s trust in Feminists, economists, lobbyists and other social so-called sciences alongside petroleum engineers, structural engineers, chemical engineers, metallurgists and so on.
It is not at all surprising that there has been a divergence in trust of experts since the early 1970s. Social sciences were not in the public consciousness and science had not been weaponized at that point. Most people thought of the wonders of engineering over the past 30 years in he early 70s. Everything from jet airplanes to nuclear energy to putting a man on the moon was in the public consciousness.
We’re sick of alleged experts sticking their personally-invested opinions down our throats.
The key point missing here is that anti-intellectualism is, in some ways at least, an understandable defensive reaction to genuine elitism and exclusion. There’s an utter lack of self-awareness among the academic, political and media classes (and yes, these classes ARE heavily dominated by the privileged) about how their sneering, contemptuous, out-of-touch attitudes have alienated the wider public and led to the divisions we’re seeing.