Our country has seen its fair share of -isms in its days. Our love of capitalism drove our economics for the past few hundred years, and conversely, our hatred and fear of communism and socialism intensified our cold war competition with the Soviet Union. American Exceptionalism has given us the idea that we are the shining city upon a hill, the ideal democracy, the leader meant to spread our freedom through the world. American Imperialism follows this, of course, as our need to spread our ideas has led to military conflicts around the world, from our annexation of Hawaii to our current actions in the Middle East. But today, we are going to be looking at a relatively new -ism in American culture, and as you already know from the title, this is the rise of Anti-Intellectualism in America.
Before we can begin to discuss the consequences of this trend, it must first be defined. Anti-Intellectualism is the distrust in scholarly figures, as well as the attempt to simplify complex issues with solutions that are easily understandable, but in their lack of complexity, would fail completely. This pattern has manifested itself in a few key aspects of American politics. First, we see the denial of scientific consensus, in the form of climate change denial and insisting that young earth creationism be taught alongside evolutionary theory in science class as an equally legitimate theory. The number of people that believe in the fantastically unscientific idea of creationism is astonishing; 42% of the people in the US believe that the earth was created 10,000 years ago.
This trend may appear benign on the topic of our origins, yet it has severe implications when it comes to issues that will affect the future direction of our country. Take our crime rate as an example. Currently, we are in a historic low rate of violent crime in the U.S., as seen in the FBI crime statistics. Yet at the RNC, there was an entire night dedicated to the idea that crime was rising in the Nation. When questioned, Trump’s campaign chairman denied the facts and insinuated that there was a possibly a liberal scheme in the FBI to alter the statistics. This denial of basic facts is dangerous, as it allows for demagoguery using fear that is based on completely unsupported claims. Any policy which is then passed based on this faulty information will not be a success. Continuing the crime example, a crack down on a non-existing crime rise will only feed fire to the already growing flame of tension between police.
This sentiment of distrust in facts and figures evolved from the same strain of ideas that brought the current anti-establishment wave to American politics. Most average people have experienced the dwindling of the middle class during the current recession, yet at the same time, the stock market is at near record level. Out of these circumstances spawned the distrust of the established powers, from groups like mainstream politicians to bankers and to the scientific community. We can see the symptoms of this distrust anywhere, from the outspoken dissent at both the Democratic and the Republican national conventions, to the anti-vax movement spreading in the nation. Both are results of a distrust between the average people and the elite class, but while the first only rattles the cages of established politics, the second is a dangerous, and possibly deadly, trend that upends years of health standards built by years of vaccinations.
The anti-vax movement is possibly the most dangerous outcome of the distrust in the established scientific community. The movement isn’t politically discriminatory, as both Jill Stein, (Green Party candidate for president) as well as Donald Trump, have voiced their doubts in vaccines. The whole movement was sparked by a paper by Andrew Wakefield that linked multiple vaccines, including the measles vaccine, to autism in children. The paper was later shown to be fraudulent, its results were never reproduced, contributing authors withdrew their names, and the paper was retracted from the journal in which it was published. But the anti-vax sentiment remained, despite the opposing consensus of the scientific community, as well as vaccines’ proven results in eradicating some of humanity’s worst plagues, including the infamous smallpox. Recently, the danger of not vaccinating has been poignantly shown by the outbreaks in measles, which from 2000-2007 had been contained to an average of 63 cases per year. But recently, the number of cases has been surging, with 634 cases in 2014, and most cases are reported in areas with low vaccination rates. The lack of trust poses life threatening danger to those who cannot be vaccinated due to age or chemotherapy treatment. They rely on herd immunity to protect them from exposure to a dangerous virus that was previously on the decline. While a dose of distrust may help to prevent corruption, this level of distrust is dangerous to some of our most vulnerable citizens.
In order for America to progress as a nation in this age of rapid scientific advancement, we must embrace the search for knowledge. We cannot hide behind claims of conspiracy or unsupported ideals. The scientific method has given us so many wonders, yet when it is used to show a pattern of climate change that threatens energy profits, we choose to ignore or deny its findings. The rejection of science will lead to catastrophe, like the measles outbreaks after it had been nearly eradicated. All because of a conspiracy that vaccines could give children autism. In order to succeed you must embrace complexity, embrace science, and find complex solutions to today’s complex problems. The scientific method has provided the world with some of its greatest wonders; we cannot abandon it in our times of trouble, for those are the times when we need it most.