We had a black and white Motorola television with a 21” screen that bulged out like a fish bowl. Rabbit ears balanced on the set’s faux wood cabinet picked up the three main broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC. On the evening of July 21, 1969, exactly 54 years ago today to the hour, we huddled in the living room around our family’s Motorola and watched in awe as CBS’s Walter Cronkite narrated Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface. At this moment in world history, public confidence in science was probably never higher.
Fast forward to 2023, and a whopping 20% of people who weren’t born yet in 1969 think this moment never happened—that all the moon landings, in fact, were faked. What happened?
The General Social Survey (GSS) from the University of Chicago has been measuring society’s confidence in public institutions since the early 1970s. The Pew Research Center has been measuring social trends since the 1990s. Both of these organizations have shown that scientists consistently rank among the most trusted people in America, second only to military leaders. There have been slight variations in this trust over time, but for the most part, most Americans have always trusted science and scientists. There have also been international variations on this theme, with Americans ranking somewhere in the middle of all countries with regard to how much they trust science.
Starting around 20 years ago, these variations began to take on an unfamiliar pattern. Instead of public confidence in science moving up and down in a small range, pollsters started to note a widening gap between how self-identified conservatives felt about science, and how everyone else felt.
This isn’t just an American divide—there’s also left-right divide in many countries around the world—but the divide in America (and to a slightly lesser extent, Canada) is now much wider than anywhere else in the world. In a 2020 Pew poll, 62 percent of Democrats said they trusted scientists to do what was right for the US, versus only 20 percent of Republicans. The GSS, pictured above (from the FiveThirtyEight article listed in the additional reading section) shows a similarly wide split. This same year, Pew found that 88 percent of Democrats agreed with scientific findings that climate change was a major threat to the well-being of the United States, but only 31 percent of Republicans thought so.
Sociologists have long noted that science denialism’s resonance with conservatives around the world is probably shaped by many factors. The interplay of traditional values, distrust of experts and institutions, economic interests, identity politics, fear of change, religious beliefs, and media bubbles all contribute to the persistence of science denialism within conservative communities. But disinformation expert Naomi Oreskes sees the American experience as having been especially impacted by disinformation. The political form of disinformation has been especially corrosive. During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, special interests funded a barrage of attacks on science to create doubt about policies like increasing gas mileage and banning public smoking. This work helped to confuse the public and keep pro-science policies at bay, but the really harmful shifts happened when science became overtly political.
Leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz—who also created Republican talking points in the 1990s (including anti-science language)—has noted in his survey work that it’s not so much that Republicans consider themselves anti-science. Rather, they just don’t trust science if it’s coming from the government. If someone else explained science to them, like their doctor, they would be more inclined to believe it. And where is this mistrust of government coming from? Republican leaders, who beginning with Ronald Reagan started the notion that government is the problem, not the solution.
Modern Republicanism has always held that the government that does best does least, arguing for a bare minimum of taxation and regulation so as to not impede innovation and economic development. But during the 1990s and early 2000s, this philosophy of responsible spending morphed into an active hatred of government agencies, particularly the EPA since its regulations impacted the businesses of top donors (like the oil refining Koch brothers), the IRS since it threatened the wealth of top donors, and the education department since it controls policies that run counter to conservative religious views about history, human rights, and science facts. This transition has been no accident. It is a carefully and deliberately cultivated anti-government identity for one political party.
This sense of identity seems to have metastasized today in rural America. Researcher Kristin Lunz Trujillo found in her 2022 research (published in the journal Political Behavior) that identifying as rural is a leading indicator of whether you will reject science. Rural identifiers (whether they live in rural areas or not) belong to a group that feels devalued by society. This group also resents that urban academic elites are perceived as often telling rural residents how to live their lives, and they value their real-world knowledge and expertise over academic knowledge. These factors combine, says Trujillo, to treat experts and intellectuals as an out-group. If the experts say the sky is blue, the rural identifiers will say it’s green because they simply don’t want to be pushed around by a group of people they dislike. Unfortunately, this carefully cultivated and relentlessly promoted spat is little more than grade school playground psychology run amok: child 1 looks sideways at child 2, which causes child 2 to lash out and child 1 to retaliate. There’s no actual reason why urban and rural America should have different opinions about the boiling point of water; there’s just been a terrible breakdown in communication that, at this point, has assumed a life and logic of its own. Its only reason for being is social and political.
And maybe religious. Robin Veldman has written about how, as the religious right’s takeover of the Republican party has become more complete, it makes perfect sense that trust in science trends should diverge so markedly. The trends are self-reinforcing, as more science deniers flock to the Republican party, and more science believers identify as Democrats. A 2022 Pew survey confirms that only 39% of those with high religious commitment believe the earth is getting warmer because of human activity, compared to 70% of those with low religious commitment.
As we have talked about in previous blog posts, the right has tapped into this discontent and disconnect and turned it into a potent engine for disinformation, which draws more adherents to anti-intellectualism and more money to disinformation spreaders like Republicans and Joe Rogan. Engineer turned conspiracy theorist Bill Kaysing was one of the first to claim the moon landings were fake (among other claims), for example. Today, Rogan and other bloviators with large audiences echo Kaysing’s theories and invite “experts” onto their shows to debate the pros and cons of these delusions—the false equivalency strategy we’ve written about before. The same strategy works for climate change, vaccines, evolution, the ozone hole, acid rain and DDT: Find someone who disagrees, have them debate a real expert, nurture the illusion that you’re actually being intellectually honest by listening to both “sides,” and then further spin this narrative to suggest that anyone who doesn’t listen to both sides is being “elitist” (see our previous two essays on scientific elitism). More disinformation spreads, more resentment builds against the elites, and more people get recruited to the war on knowledge.
There is much more to describe here than can be described in a brief blog post. Additional reading is listed below—really the tip of the iceberg on this topic. It is, of course, the stuff of science fiction that in our modern age of so many science and technology miracles, we are still so susceptible to being dragged back to the Dark Ages and be led by blindness and superstition rather than knowledge and reason. Why? Maybe politics and science literacy aren’t the only problems here, but history literacy as well—that too many people lack a basic understanding of where we have been, what we have learned, the struggles we have been through together, and where we must go as a society. Without understanding our history, we don’t learn from the successes and failures of our predecessors, or build a broad and inclusive sense of identity and belonging that fosters unity and societal cohesion, or develop empathy and compassion for the struggles of our fellow citizens throughout time. Without history, we don’t develop the critical thinking skills needed to question sources and evaluate biases, we don’t appreciate the need to safeguard our rich heritage for future generations, and we miss the opportunity to be inspired by tales of human resilience, determination and innovation. In history’s place, we let social media spoon-feed us misinformation and fake news, we let echo chambers reinforce our existing beliefs and shield us from diverse perspectives, we let oversimplified sound bites substitute for truth with complexity and nuance, and we let revisionism erode the legitimacy of well-established facts and historical accounts.
Maybe a nationwide reading assignment is in order? Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is a sweeping history about the beginnings of human civilization, and how vital knowledge and technology have proven to be for the survival and advancement of societies; Horizons by James Poskett is an incredible story of how knowledge grew and spread around the world during the Dark Ages; The Nature of the Book by Adrian Johns, and The Invention of Science by David Wooton are remarkable treatises of how modern science and knowledge came to be; The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is a must-read, describing one of the most fateful intersections of science and politics in human history; American Moonshot by historian Douglass Brinkley describes the enormity of the political and technological effort behind catching up in the space race and reaching the moon before the Soviets did (in order to prove to the world that the American style of government was superior to communism); and The Path Between the Seas by historian David McCullough, The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, and the Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku are all highly entertaining accounts of how science and technology (coupled with need and ingenuity) have paved the way to modern society and will pave the way to the future as well. On the flip side of this history, A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan, and Citizens by Simon Schama are heart-stopping accounts of what happens when the anti-intellectuals in society take over—in Egan’s book, how the KKK took over middle America in the 1920s, and in Schama’s book, how anti-intellectualism resulted in the utter destruction of France at the same time as America’s founding.
Maybe by encouraging a better appreciation and understand of history, we can help get science out of politics, one reader at a time, and replace this animosity with dialogue about how we can help each other meet the needs and challenges of the future together.