‘Americans just don’t believe in science’

Masks off: Many in the USA see virus control measures as tyrannical. © Getty

Are anti-science attitudes killing Americans? As the number of new virus cases in the US hits record highs, top doctor Anthony Fauci has pointed the finger at those who deny science.

Anthony Fauci may be one of America’s top doctors, but he is in despair about Americans.

“They just don’t believe in science and they don’t believe in authority.”

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been a prominent public figure during the pandemic. Now that coronavirus deaths have topped 50,000 a day, he is not feeling optimistic. The US is “going in the wrong direction”.

But is he right?

There are certainly many Americans unsure about the reliability of science. A recent survey found that 35% believe it can be used to produce “any result a researcher wants”.

Views are also strongly divided along political lines. Democrats are more likely to trust science; Republicans more likely to doubt it.

But, in the richest and most advanced economy in the world, why does anti-science thinking have any place at all?

Some say it’s a question of freedom. Americans are more passionate about their individual liberties than anyone else. It’s not the science they distrust, it’s being told what to do. Hence the astonishing videos of people throwing tantrums when asked to wear a face mask.

Others think it’s more to do with economic liberty. Many Americans believe in the importance of free markets and disapprove of regulation. The recommendations of scientists – to impose strict lockdowns, for example – interfere with business.

Then there’s religion. Some trace American ‘anti-scientism’ back to politician William Jennings Bryan. A three-time Democratic candidate for president, Bryan strongly opposed the theory of evolution, arguing it shouldn’t be taught in schools.

Anti-scientism is nothing new though. It has been around since the Scientific Revolution. The poet William Blake was famously critical of Isaac Newton for having a cold, mechanical view of the world. Mystery and intuition were more important for Blake.

But America was built on trust in science. Thomas Jefferson idolised Isaac Newton. Americans got to the Moon and spearheaded the digital revolution.

Can anti-science attitudes really be to blame for the USA’s record death toll from Covid-19?

True or die

Unfortunately, yes. “Science is truth,” said Fauci. But Americans just don’t care. Too many aspects of US culture encourage people to privilege their own opinions or beliefs over scientifically established facts. Most importantly, this is true of Trump’s White House. Time and again, it has failed to follow scientific advice in its response to the coronavirus and the US is experiencing the consequences.

No. The fact is, by far the majority of Americans do believe in science. The problem is not what the scientists say. What Americans really can’t stand is being forced to do anything against their will. This passionate attachment to independence drives their resistance to gun control; their scepticism about climate change, and the widespread anger about virus control measures.

You Decide

  1. Which is more important: a scientific fact or your opinion?
  2. Which is more important: individual liberty or public health?

Activities

  1. Design a public health poster announcing three things people must do to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, such as wearing a mask or socially distancing. What persuasive language can you use to convince unwilling people?
  2. Research the response to the virus in the US, Germany, and Ghana. What are the similarities and differences? Which country is coping best and why?

Some People Say...

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Richard Feynman (1918-1988), American theoretical physicist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The US has 4.2% of the world’s population, yet 26.3% of global Covid-19 deaths. Numbers of new cases are rising. A recent survey by Pew Research Centre found that, while 35% of Americans think scientists make up whatever results they want, 63% believe science normally produces reliable conclusions. Politics only comes into it on certain issues – Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to distrust science on the climate crisis, for example.
What do we not know?
Although Fauci may believe that anti-science thinking is to blame for America’s poor response to the pandemic, it is almost impossible to prove. A far more significant factor may be the federal organisation of American government, which gives the 50 individual states a lot of power over how to respond. With different states doing different things, it is harder to create the strict conditions needed to slow the spread of the virus.

Word Watch

Free markets
A system where the government does not intervene in the buying and selling of goods.
Regulation
When governments step in to control what (and how) people buy and sell things.
William Jennings Bryan
Ran for US president in 1896, 1900, and 1906 as a Democrat. He attacked the theory of evolution in the Scopes Trial in 1925, in which schoolteacher John Scopes was taken to court for teaching it.
Scientific Revolution
A period lasting from the mid-1500s to the late 1700s, in which modern science – and the scientific method – emerged. The scientific method is based on close observation and scepticism about what is being observed.
William Blake
Poet and printmaker associated with the Romantic Age (late 1700s and early 1800s). The Romantics were often doubtful of the value of science – they thought it gave reason too much credit.
Isaac Newton
A central figure of the Scientific Revolution (1642-1726). His influence was huge, but he is most remembered for coming up with the theory of gravity when an apple fell on his head.
Thomas Jefferson
One of the founding fathers of America, and its third president. He was also a lawyer and scientist.
Digital revolution
The shift to digital technology, such as computers and mobile phones, that began in the second half of the 20th Century.

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