The Social Forces Behind Trump’s War on Science

Jeffrey S. Victor

As you know well, the Trump Administration is ignoring or even censoring scientific evidence that enforces past federal regulations that protect the American people. It is eliminating federal regulations restricting toxic pollution of the air and water. It seeks to do away with restrictions on the purity of our food. It seeks to eliminate restrictions on health and safety hazards in the workplace, in our homes, and for our children. And, of course, the Trump government is suppressing scientific findings about climate change caused by human activities.

You know all that. My question is this: How can an American government deny scientific findings? How can the government get away with it in a country that has so many well-educated people?

Unfortunately, many Americans think of science as being basically similar to a religion. I know this from fifty years of teaching mainly working-class college students about social science. When people hold this belief, it distorts their understanding of science. Religion is based upon reverence for truths from the distant past. In contrast, science searches for information about what is notknown using methods of careful observation and investigation. Religion is usually based upon obedience and faith. In contrast, science is based upon criticism and questioning claims of truth. It is not a body of unchanging facts. Most importantly, scientific “facts” may constantly be challenged, modified, and changed as new insights become available. The evolution of science is what leads many people to believe that scientific findings are merely the temporary prevailing opinions of scientists.

In my experience, at this point in history distrust of science is much more common among Americans than it is among Western Europeans. I married a Frenchwoman and did my doctoral dissertation research in her village in Normandy. Since my retirement, we have been living in France during the past sixteen winters to be with her family and our French friends. In addition, we subscribe to French newsmagazines and keep up with Google French news daily. So I can understand, on a daily basis, how many Europeans are reacting to Trump’s politics.

Hard evidence can be found in public opinion surveys conducted in Europe and the United States. A recent 2016 Pew research poll found that less than half of Americans (48 percent) believe that climate change is caused in part by human activity. In sharp contrast, a 2017 European survey performed in four countries (United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Norway) found that the vast majority of Europeans (83 to 91 percent) attributed the cause of climate change at least in part to human activity. An indication of the difference between Americans and Europeans is that Europeans are much more supportive of the Paris Accord on climate change. Another is that Nobel Prize winner Al Gore is much more popular in Europe than he is in the United States. So, we need to ask: What is distinctive about American society that promotes distrust in science?

There is some social-science research designed to find the causes of antiscience beliefs among Americans. It is widely believed that the basic cause is the American public’s widespread ignorance of science facts and methods. Accordingly, it is wrongly believed that all that needs to be done is to educate most people in scientific facts. That is a naive delusion, because ignorance is not the basic cause of the increasing distrust of science. Poor education simply makes people easier to manipulate with antiscience propaganda.

A major research study of how attitudes toward science have changed since 1974, published in the American Sociological Review, found that distrust of science increased primarily among political conservatives, even well-educated conservatives. In contrast, political liberals have not changed over the years in their trust in science. Other research, published in an environmental research journal, found that political conservatives are especially likely to distrust environmental and public health science, which might result in government regulation of industry. Therefore, the key factor in science denial is having a politically conservative ideology opposed to government regulation of unconstrained capitalism and not simply having a low level of education. Delving a bit deeper, the sociological research found that conservatives who distrust science are likely to be people who attend church frequently and live in the South. Most of these people vote Republican. It is no surprise, then, that political attitudes toward science are now polarized between partisan Democrats and Republicans.

However, I still want to know what influenced political conservatives to change over the past fifty years, from having trust in science to distrust. Historical studies have shown that two social forces fueled distrust in science over the past several decades: fundamentalist Protestantism plus the money interests of certain billionaires and big industries threatened by scientific findings. The marriage between big business and fundamentalist Protestants is a fascinating story of strange bedfellows. The combination of these two powerful forces is distinctively American and helps to explain why Europeans and Americans differ in attitudes toward science.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, revealing the dangers to the environment of the popular insecticide DDT. Following that, many other chemicals and industrial activities were revealed by scientific research to be hazardous to human health and harmful to the environment. Federal regulations followed one after the other, threatening to reduce the profits of major American industries. The big companies producing gasoline, cars, cigarettes, coal, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals for home and farm were all threatened. At first, these companies relied on propaganda (popularly known as “public relations”) and the vilification of research scientists. Remember the public-relations tactics of the cigarette companies.

However, lies and distortions were not enough. These big industries needed voters who had a habitual skepticism of science; they found these voters among fundamentalist Protestants. Ever since the early 1960s, fundamentalists had been growing increasingly angry about scientific findings and laws concerned with sexual and reproductive issues: birth-control pills, abortion, sex education in public schools, and the increasing acceptance of premarital sex and homosexual relationships. Seeing an opportunity, big industries poured money into fundamentalist candidates for political office and right-wing political organizers. Big industries also poured money into the coffers of right-wing talk show hosts who spread antiscience propaganda.

This marriage of strangers gave birth to the modern Republican Party. Now we can better understand the bond between a nonbeliever like Donald Trump and religious fundamentalists. They have an exchange relationship. Religious fundamentalists support Trump because he gives their leaders access to national power. Their followers, as always, follow like true believers. They can close their eyes to any of Trump’s immoralities. For his part, he needs their support because they are one main pillar of his base. (On September 1, 2017, a group of evangelical ministers met Trump in the Oval Office and “laid their hands” on his head while he prayed at his desk.)

As a sociologist, I see a relationship between the growing distrust in science and the larger problem of determining truth when it comes to government actions. The heritage of big industry’s distortions of unfavorable scientific findings meshes well with fundamentalist religion’s demand for faith over fact when it comes to science. The result spreads distrust in claims of evidence. Truth becomes a mere matter of partisan opinion. This is why Trump can lie every day and get away with it. (According to the Washington Post’s lie tracker, “Trump has made 2001 false or misleading claims in 355 days … an average of more than 5.6 claims a day.”)

A message long ago from the second president of the United States is particularly relevant today. “Facts,” John Adams argued, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy breaks down. Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together.” In Trump’s America, facts have become opinions and the process of democracy is breaking down. There is a growing tolerance of lies, distortions, and obfuscation unbalanced by demands for concrete evidence.

Trump did not create the politics of lies. He simply mastered it and rode the wave to the White House.

 


Further Reading

  • Adams, John. “In Defense of the British Soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre.” December 4, 1770.
  • Funk, Cary, and Kennedy, Brian. “Public Views on Climate Change and Climate Scientists.” Pew Research Center, October 4, 2016.
  • Gauchat, Gordon. “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere,” American Sociological Review, 77 (2) (2012): 167–187.
  • Kessler, Glenn and Kelly, Meg. “President Trump Has Made More than 2,000 False or Misleading Claims over 355 Days.” Washington Post, July 10, 2018.
  • McCright, Aaron M, Katherine Dentzman, Meghan Charters, and Thomas Dietz. “The Influence of Political Ideology on Trust in Science.” Environmental Research Letters, 8(4) (2013).
  • Steentjes, K. et al., “European Perceptions of Climate Change: Topline Findings of a Survey Conducted in Four European Countries in 2016.” Cardiff: Cardiff University, March, 2017.

 

Jeffrey S. Victor

Jeffrey S. Victor is a professor of sociology retired from SUNY, Jamestown Community College. He is the author of two books, including Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, eleven chapters of books, and thirty-one articles in popular and scholarly journals.


As you know well, the Trump Administration is ignoring or even censoring scientific evidence that enforces past federal regulations that protect the American people. It is eliminating federal regulations restricting toxic pollution of the air and water. It seeks to do away with restrictions on the purity of our food. It seeks to eliminate restrictions …

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