Anti-science is nothing new and in fact has been seamlessly woven into the story of human progress. Locating historical incidents linked to the repercussions of anti-intellectualism or anti-science is easy. One of the first European examples of the repercussions of anti-intellectualism is the story of Socrates's death sentence due to his philosophy of reason contradicting the established religious authorities in ancient Athens. Anti-intellectualism permeates European history, culminating with the excommunication of prominent scientists like Galileo and Kepler. Science, truth, and intellectual inquiry can present clear threats to an established authority like the Catholic Church or any other religious body, as well as threatening powerful political authorities or social systems like patriarchy. Any social system that relies on propaganda and myth-making to preserve its integrity is naturally going to be threatened by science and intellectual or critical inquiry. On the surface, there is a sort of quaintness about anti-intellectualism that appeals to populist or religious sentiments. However, beneath any stated desire to shun perceived elitism or to preserve cultural and religious tradition is a definite social problem. Anti-intellectualism and anti-science threaten to undermine the very foundations of democracy and human rights.
Is Anti-Science/Anti-Intellectualism a Social Problem?
The consequences of anti-intellectualism are potentially dire with both short-term and long-term consequences. One of the most obvious and immediate problems with anti-science is the way it "undermines public and private support for science both financially and through a reduction in the number of future scientists willing to offer new ideas and innovations," (Gauchat, 2012, p. 338). This is clearly a problem given the pressing need for technological innovations in the fields of medicine to promote disease eradication, in the fields of engineering to improve public infrastructure in sustainable and cost-effective ways, and in the field of energy to mitigate the problems of climate change. Undermining the importance of science is dangerous because it essentially means suppressing human knowledge and information for no apparent cause other than to bolster the power of religion and non-intellectual authorities. Scientists like Galileo and intellectuals like Socrates were scorned precisely because they questioned the relevance and implications of unchecked religious authority.
If fears of overreaching religious authority are not enough, there are also serious economic repercussions of anti-intellectualism and anti-science. The United States ranks below almost every other industrialized, wealthy nation in the world in terms of basic educational performance outcomes in core subjects including math, science, and countries surveyed (Desilver, 2017). The dumbing-down of America is not just a cliche; it is really happening. With an underperforming populace that is in some cases outright proud of its anti-intellectualism, the American economy is bound to take a downturn eventually due to the inability of future generations to compete with far more educated and competent individuals from countries around the world. If Americans become habituated to mistrust academia and science, then public policy would be even less based on evidence, fact, and research than it already is -- the real reason why anti-intellectualism is a social problem.
The United States boasts most of the top universities and research institutes in the world and yet anti-intellectualism has undermined American education in general and has led to the nation ranking lower and lower on actual test scores. The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. at 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction, the nation is 12th in the world for college degree attainment, and "nearly 50% of all graduate students in the sciences in the U.S. are foreigners, most of whom are returning to their home countries," (Williams, 2014, p. 1). Americans are willing to profit off of academia by soliciting foreign students, but are unwilling to participate in intellectual development.
Anti-intellectualism and anti-science leads to poor decision-making that is based not on fact or evidence but on opinion and mistruth or "alternative facts." According to Williams (2014), only 28% of high school science teachers consistently follow the National Research Council guidelines on teaching evolution, and 13% of those teachers explicitly advocate creationism or "intelligent design." With a lack of basic grasp of knowledge in history, science, math, and any other subject, Americans cannot create the types of public policies that reflect the best interests of the nation and its citizens. Decisions related to all matters of public policy and social welfare need to be based on evidence, facts, and truth and not on whim, public opinion, or propaganda.
Niose (2015) links anti-intellectualism with hyper-patriotism, stating false beliefs in American exceptionalism based on the myth of American superiority and hypoer-patriotic propaganda has led to Americans being complacent at best, self-destructive at worst. "Many Americans seem to honestly believe that their country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom, that the quality of life here far surpasses everywhere else in the world. But it doesn't," because the quality of life rankings for America in general are not even in the top ten (Niose, 2015, p. 1). America ranks sixteenth, largely because of crime rates and incarceration rates, rates of teen pregnancy, literacy, and several other measures (Niose, 2015, p. 1). The reason why teen pregnancy is on the list is because anti-science leads to a religious or ideological backlash against teaching basic sex education in classrooms, which creates serious long-term consequences for young people who become driven away from school in order to care for an unplanned child.
Consequences of anti-intellectualism are being measured systematically. One of the consequences noted in the literature is a breakdown of ethical reasoning, upon which intellectual thought is essential. Ethics are not rooted at all in religion, contrary to popular belief, but in rational thought, which is why Socrates had tried to win over the Athenian council with his argument for reason. In a survey of 666 business students at three different American…
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