Are Americans losing faith in scientific experts? Well, according to one bombshell new poll, many are—but there’s a catch.
A new survey from the left-leaning pollster FiveThirtyEight measured Americans’ trust in the scientific community. It finds that in recent years, trust in “the scientific community” has cratered among Republicans and soared among Democrats. In the past, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike had similar levels of confidence in the scientific community, but these data show an intense polarization around party lines over the last few years.
In 2015, about 42 percent of Democrats said they had a “great deal” of confidence in the scientific community, and about 35 percent of Republicans agreed. After 2020, however, that number surged to more than 65 percent among Democrats and plummeted to barely 30 percent among Republicans.
The elite class’s response to this data was essentially a collective sneer at Republicans for their supposedly rube-like distrust of experts. The FiveThirtyEight article reporting the results even branded Republicans as “anti-intellectualism” and Democrats as “pro-intellectualism” due to these findings.
But this backlash misses the point. There is, of course, value in expertise and a very real need for expert input in many walks of modern life. When I go to the doctor, I do so because she has expertise in medicine that I do not. Yet a healthy skepticism of supposedly all-knowing, benevolent “experts” and would-be planners is more than warranted—the pandemic era has proven this time and time again.
Just consider how many times the “experts” got things wrong or misled the public since the COVID-19 outbreak first began.
At the very beginning, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) blocked the use of emerging COVID-19 testing technology. They literally required everyone to use their government-approved test, which later proved to be wildly inaccurate. Only belatedly and begrudgingly did the government allow private innovators to step in and produce the accurate COVID tests now in widespread use.
But that’s just the cherry on top. The “scientific community” promised Americans that if they just complied with expert advice, the pandemic could quickly be contained and life could return to normal. Remember “15 days to slow the spread?”
The “experts” went on to promote harsh government lockdowns that, as later comprehensive research has shown, had minimal public health benefits—but did destroy the economy and cause a wide range of life-threatening unintended consequences. So, too, they pushed unscientific mask mandates and security theater that has aged about as well as BlockBuster.
No single individual embodies the scientific community’s credibility crisis better than Dr. Anthony Fauci. The well-credentialed government COVID “expert” flip-flopped on countless key public health questions, from masking to closing schools to herd immunity and more. Fauci also blatantly misled the public on issues like gain-of-function research. He went from originally enjoying widespread approval and trust to largely being perceived as a hero or villain along party lines.
With all that has happened over the last two years, how can any reasonable onlooker not have developed a healthy skepticism of the “experts?”
Far from being evidence of “anti-intellectualism,” the decline in trust for the scientific community among Republicans is actually a good sign. Blind trust in the “experts” is often exploited by those who seek centralized power and control, sometimes to tragic results.
“Many of the great disasters of our time have been committed by experts,” economist Thomas Sowell observed in a 2020 interview. “You may remember [former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt]’s ‘brain trust,’ which according to later studies, prolonged the Great Depression by several years. The ‘whiz kids’ in the Pentagon who managed to mess up the Vietnam War… you can run through an impressive list of disasters brought about by men with very high IQs.” (Emphasis mine).
Many of the great disasters of our— Thomas Sowell (@ThomasSowell) November 16, 2020
time have been committed by experts. pic.twitter.com/Wto2tYP9RJ
Of course, skepticism of the experts and the scientific community can go too far. Scientists are people, and they’re not always right—but they’re certainly not always wrong, either. In the same way that blind faith in experts leads one astray, so too can a blind rejection of everything they say.
The solution is simple. We should consider what experts have to say, but consider it critically, not accept it as gospel. Contra FiveThirtyEight’s narrative, that approach is not “anti-intellectualism.” In fact, true intellectualism requires thinking for ourselves.