As a scientist I am often baffled by the rampant anti-intellectualism in everyday discourse. The last few years have seen a rise in this behavior, and more over a lionizing of proponents of this viewpoint. Is this a new phenomenon? I don’t think so, but at the same time I think it has changed and become something more dangerous as of late.
When I was a kid there were definitely things that were not common knowledge for the greater populace. Having grown up in mainly rural areas it was very common for me to be more informed about many issues, even compared to adults around me. I credit my mother, a well educated liberal arts major, for having fostered a deep and early respect of learning within me. However, there is one huge difference between then and now, the extent to which the general populace considered themselves uninformed.
If you had talked about vaccines to most adults in my youth they would have been for the use of vaccines and seen them as a public good brought to us by medicine. They would have no clue how they worked, or a rudimentary view at best, but wouldn’t have questioned their use. This wasn’t laziness or complacency, but rather the product of an information filter. Most people didn’t have the technical knowledge to understand the theoretical work that had gone into the development, testing, and use of say the tetanus vaccine, so they relied on someone they respected, and expected to have knowledge in the field (their doctor typically), to distill the information down, sort through misleading information, and provide them with a clear, understandable, and accurate description/evaluation. They saw this as one of the roles that content experts provided in society. One of the reasons certain professions (doctors, lawyers, etc.) were to be respected was due to their study and understanding of complex systems that most people didn’t have the time, or drive, to dig deeply into.
Enter the age of the University of Google, where we have the sum total of human information at our fingertips. Much like the printing press and common language translations of the Bible helped to democratize religion in Europe (leading to the Reformation), the internet has democratized information in general for this time period. However, without the content filters of our past people tend to treat all information as having equal value, a premise that can easily be disproved. Everyone considers themselves to be the arbiters of truth and modern social media gives all the podium to spread their “interpretation” of the facts. Combine this with selection and confirmation bias (the “echo chamber”) and we get a cacophony of voices, with varying levels of understanding.
Were their pseudoscience advocates in the past, sure. Did they have a public outlet, sure (less so, but sure). I think the difference I see is that the general public has gone from thinking their are experts in fields that should be consulted when the ideas are beyond the normal realm of experience, to an inherent distrust of the “establishment” and assumption that all views are valid if they are on Google. Political Parties use this to their advantage because it feeds into Identity Politics (both sides).
How do we reverse this trend? Honestly, I have no idea. It saddens me every day to hear somebody quote disproved “studies” about the ill effects of GMOs or the dangers of mercury in vaccines (hint, there isn’t any). Likewise, the denial of Climate Science and Evolutionary Theory (which both play into disease spread in our modern world) from the other side endanger our very species. All I can do is be the “candle in the darkness” hopefully lighting the way for some people to see science in a more complete and useful way.