The American public’s mistrust in the principles of science has seen a large resurgence in recent years. The belief in pseudoscientific assumptions, those not tested in concordance with scientific theory, has been prevalent for nearly a century and half in America. Earlier pseudosciences such as phrenology, “the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indicator of character and mental abilities,’’ were latent with racist and exclusionary rhetoric, and a lot of pseudoscience in 2020 still carries a racist dynamic.
With the inception of the internet came the ability for people of different niche groups to perpetuate different illegitimately “scientific” causes, such as flat Earth communities, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and scientific racists. The ability for different organizations to fraternize and form alliances entrenches misinformation deeper into our society.
Mistrust of the scientific method has steadily risen since 1974, according to a study conducted by sociologist Gordon Gauchat — and within that same study, education rates appeared to have improved substantially. If education rates in America have risen, then why has the commonality of mistrusting science also grown? This influx in suspicion can be attributed to a rising internet culture and increasing pseudoscientific presence in politics.
Social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook are culpable for the vast stretches of pseudoscience across the internet — specifically, the racist pseudoscience that has found a presence on social media. Many of the enclaves of “believers” online enlist new members with psychologically catered media. The unfortunate thing is that prior to the current state of social media, most of us considered it to be a self-regulating entity. While Facebook and Twitter have recently implemented measures of fact-checking, these regulations have failed to dismiss clear acts of scientific mistrust. Racists and crackpot scientists utilize highly specific types of rhetoric and euphemisms on social media which may bypass these filters. A prime example of this is how fringe groups’ anti-Semitic rhetoric may not directly attack Jews but intentionally point fingers at successful Jewish people, with people of color being subject to a similar calculated rhetoric online.
Recently, more legitimate sources of information have also been utilized by racists in attempts to cherry-pick or skew data. Nature, a scientific journal, has presented many articles warning researchers about pseudoscientists exploiting their data, particularly population geneticists and anthropologists. The interwoven nature of pseudoscience and racism on the internet results from the negligence of major corporations and the government in failing to intervene in the strategies used by conspiracy scientists and scientific racists online.
Actions of certain politicians have also displayed the general mistrust of science. In 2012, former U.S. Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, a practicing physician, stated that evolution and the Big Bang theory were “lies straight from the pit of hell,” while former U.S. Representative Todd Akin of Missouri also stated, “If it is legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” so you get the picture of who we’re dealing with here. Currently half of all Republicans and over a third of all Democrats believe that the Earth is only 10,000 years old, which indicates that scientific skepticism is clearly not a partisan political ideology. Conservatives, however, tend to disproportionately deny global warming as a human-caused phenomena. While most conservative lawmakers may believe in the scientific principles aligned with the theory of global warming, they fail to implement any laws advocating for environmental friendliness because of their alignment with GOP rhetoric. Party politics enable the spread of pseudoscience throughout society, even when those preaching pseudoscience fail to believe it.
The spread of flawed information, from political campaigns and false scientists, has garnered attention in the past few years, and it seems likely there’s a connection between these attempts at suppressing the truth. The accessibility of the internet and the current negligence of social media companies has created an opportunity for the subsequent general mistrust of science to proliferate in ways it couldn’t before. Because of the dismissal of science in our government, I believe people have begun mistrusting scientific reasoning by associating it with our current and past administrations.
In the past three years, President Donald Trump has proposed cuts to approximately 31 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and 12 percent of the National Science Foundation’s budget. Although the federal government has tried to decimate much of the funding dedicated toward scientific research, they still have feasible options at derailing the prevalence of pseudoscience in society. By increasing grant money toward research programs in universities in predominantly conservative regions and ceasing political rhetoric that makes science-backed conclusions seem false, the current administration could begin to combat the rise of pseudoscience in an already mistrusting public. The U.S. government has the power to influence the public perception of scientific principles — and it needs to use it wisely.
Sam Pomichter is a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience.