How Americans got so weird about science


“Science”, lol. The distrust in “science” is just an extension of a general distrust in people who are better educated than oneself. As a generalization, Americans distrust folks who are smarter than themselves. But they like to trust people who are wealthier than themselves. That’s the weirdness.

Education breeds progressive thought and critical thinking and that’s really unacceptable in a hyper-capitalist society whose political spectrum lies far to the right compared to the rest of the world. Logically, the “conservatives” (the far-right really) are especially and instinctively distrustful of education, and by extension science, since it pretty much directly undermines them.

To pile on, here’s an interesting article which I recommend reading.




While I wasn’t alive for the Big Science era of the 60s, I have seen a marked change in tone of how public figures of science speak to the public since the 70s. Unfortunately the tone has changed from talking to people to talking at people. Cant say that method is effective in the US or other places I’ve been to.



No. They are both in the same business – explaining how the universe works – by supernatural forces or without. Yes, as an atheist, I can still enjoy visiting cathedrals for the architecture or enjoy Bach’s music – that isn’t the point, those are just side products of religion, and people can and do create great art and music without religion.



Although the type of anti-science in the US seems to be somewhat different. There’s the left-wing anti-science woo that is obsessed with the “natural” and is distrustful of medical science and the right-wing anti-science woo that is distrustful of evolution and climate change. The left-wing type seems to be pretty much everywhere to some degree, but the right-wing type is very US-centric (with some small pockets in Western Europe). It is strongly tied to right-wing Christianity.



I think a big, big issue here is the conflating of science with engineering. Engineers are prized, and celebrated. Actual scientists are less so, since a lot of what they do is asking uncomfortable questions. Learning often means memorising to many, and people really hate it when something they finally committed to memory is invalidated. See the backlash against downgrading Pluto, for example. People hate finding out they were wrong, and science is all about assuming knowledge is incomplete or wrong and attempting to either prove that it is right, or wrong, or where it needs to be improved.

This may also be the main reason behind the backlash against evolution, despite accepting genetics: evolution happens whether you want it to or not, but genetics is seen as engineering. Engineers are allowed to manipulate, but scientists pointing out that all life is in flux is unsettling.
The same goes for climate change: it’s the “change” part that puts people in denial. People are having trouble accepting that the planet is not as stable as they thought, and also the same sort of denial people have that credit cards and mortgages aren’t “real” debt and that they are headed toward financial collapse. So scientists are hated just as much as the friend warning you against putting more money into the housing bubble…



IDK, I think scientists have always inclined towards patronising the general public. You get the occasional gifted communicator like Carl Sagan or David Attenborough, but more often scientists assume lay people won’t listen to detailed arguments, and need stuff dumbed down to the point where it sounds like religious dogma. And in fairness, that is broadly true.

Suppose you want people to make scientifically informed choices about vaccinating their kids. Ideally you would say “here’s the available evidence; you do the math”. But most people can’t do the math, and of those who can, most never will, and of those who do, most will cherry-pick, and employ motivated reasoning, and otherwise fail to employ the rigor which is the entire point of science. So if it matters, what you actually have to say is “I’ve done the math, and I’m the scientist. Vaccinate your damn kids.”

Granted, there are more and less tactful ways to go about this, but we do an injustice to climate scientists and vaccination proponents by saying “why can’t you be more like Carl Sagan”. People are happy to be told that iron comes from exploding stars, because they couldn’t actually give two shits where iron comes from, and that’s a fun story. People are not happy to hear their SUV is causing catastrophic climate change, and it doesn’t make much difference how well it’s being communicated to them.

I absolutely agree that this antagonism is bad for science as an institution, but I think the problem is, like, 10% academic arrogance and 90% endemic scientific illiteracy. Like with a lot of things, there are valid debates to be had, but we can’t have them so long as we give equal weight to flat-out ignorance.


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I’m pretty sure our cat is autistic. Want’s to be pet, but not touched (!?!). Is socially awkward with other cats. Lives an extremely regimented life and gets agitated if things or people are not in a proper place at a proper time (down to the minute, sometimes). Seems inept at being a cat until certain situations, then is a magical genius.

It might not clinically be autism, but seems a kinder diagnosis than “That cat’s f###ed up!”



I’m around a lot of conservatives. I wouldn’t say they are distrustful of education. Rather, it’s the education institutions. They see them as promoting social norms they disagree with. In that regard, they are probably right.

These same people support getting an advanced education. They just don’t like the environment it’s being done in.



But its exactly that attitude that plays right into the hands of the Woo providers and Snake Oil salesmen. I’m not sure really when things changed, even in the time of Big Science, experts were referred to as “eggheads” and the like but it didn’t seem to have been venomous. At some period the scales tipped from “well he might be an egghead but he knows what he’s talking about” to “don’t you be trying to trick me”. Not just anti-vax, thats an easy target. Even if its some kind of constant that 90% of the people can’t/dont/won’t understand, maybe part of the change was in terms of selling achievement vs selling negativity on the part of “the public voices of science”?



There are many, I’d boarder on saying most, of the religious people in the US also don’t have issues with science.

Most of the major sects of Christianity don’t actually reject evolution, for example, even if many members are ignorant to what it is and how it would work with their faith.

Climate change has been politicized to the point that too many people are for or against it mainly for political reasons, with little understanding of the science itself. The right sees it as a tax scheme and the left subsidizing their supporting lobbies. They haven’t even looked at the science because they are reading slanted “gotcha” articles.



I refer you to the Scopes Trial for an example of how religion has made people in the U.S. so very weird about science.



I think a certain cynicism (or even bitterness) might have crept into it on the part of scientists, but a lot of what’s changed is simply the things science has to talk about. The easier conversations (like basic hygiene) have mostly been had, and any new conversation is bound to be subtler and harder to explain.

People don’t even realise that science is why we know to wash our hands after taking a dump. It looks like an industry for generating obscure things to worry about, because it’s been so incredibly successful at identifying – and fixing – much more obvious things to worry about. And of course, if scientists emphasized those past successes, that would sound negative, because it’s not very chirpy to tell people that two-fifths of them would’ve died in infancy without your help.



Aside from a lot of other good points being made in this thread, another big factor is the ever-building storm of bullshit in movies and (especially) TV. Ghost hunters, Bigfoot, hell, most of “reality” TV, and it keeps getting worse.

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Thats actually a good thing. Hygiene campaigns of the past focused on benefits not doom & gloom stories. Why not learn from past successes?

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This is just one facet of a much bigger problem. America didn’t get weird about just science, America got weird about knowing things.

History, Math, Literature, Music… you name the subject, and its less relevent than it was 50 years ago. Competency in any subject at all, no longer means very much… Its not what you know, its who you know.

As for why, its the end stage of any empire. Corruption eats up any further gains to be made, until citizens no longer feel that participating offers them any advantage. Generally this is recognized several generations after it haa become true.



That goes for Constitutional Law, too. “Ah don’t need no law degree. I know that the 9th Court is wrong because I have common sense, and that’s all I need to be an expert on Constitutional Law.”

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Any example of either as a business is already a corrupt example, as they are at their core methodologies rather than games.

How do you figure that? Is that what most religions claim to be doing? Just as many confuse science (method) for technology (tangible results), many do the same with religion (method) and mythology (tangible cause). The disconnect is that 1. mythology functions as a metaphor, as storytelling rather than history, and 2. the mythology exists because it is used by the true purpose of religion, which is to discern and cultivate subjective meaning. Because knowing how and why the universe exists does not automatically help one to know one’s place in it, or find personal or cultural meaning in any objective phenomena.

Finding meaning in what doesn’t exist is how many fail at religion, but that is not a flaw of religion itself. Most people just aren’t very thorough or rigorous. And elites encourage the masses to be gullible, which I think is what the OP is getting at.

I am not sure if “supernatural” is a meaningful distinction. My experience is that people throw it about assuming that they know what it would mean. Most people I know don’t even agree about what is “natural” in the first place. So it IMO tends to lead to an infinite regress of people arguing for and against poorly-defined terms.

As an engineer, I have created several gods. It’s pretty easy, anybody can do it and it’s a lot of fun. But to me, the distinction between art and religion is a false one. To me, they are synonymous. Art and religion are no more nor less than techniques for understanding and communicating that which is completely subjective. But this generally happens in its deepest at a pre-verbal, symbolic level of consciousness. So symbols and artworks can and do incorporate things from the objective world. But just like literature, they are not meant to be taken literally. The fact that many misunderstand this does not change how religion works, any more than it does when many also misunderstand how science works.

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Oh, one more thing, there is a lot of anti-science on the left side of the political spectrum as well. As well as many secular people. Crystals and New Age stuff, westernized Eastern religions/philosophies (chi, chakras, etc), homeopathy, alternative “medicine”, certain fad diets, vaccines, anti-Nuclear Energy, aromatherapy, supplements, weed cures everything, etc etc. There are a TON of beliefs not based on science that have nothing to do with religion.

And don’t tell me Americans are gullible when you can buy “medicine” in Europe made of diluted duck parts (aka sugar pills).



They may want to start with the heavy stuff.



I quoted this before, and feel that I’ll be quoting it a lot going forward:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

—Isaac Asimov