At a campaign rally just days before the last general election in New Zealand, then Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was heckled by an American expat. What “evidence,” the American asked, did Peters have that “a virus… causes the disease?”
Peters refused to take the question seriously, and he likened the questioner to a flat-earther. As the COVID-denier sat down, Peters remarked to his fellow Kiwis: “We’ve got someone who obviously got an education in America.”
The joke (and the audience’s knowing laughter) is enough to make any sensible American cringe. We ask ourselves, “That’s not what they think about us, is it?” And we immediately answer, “Of course that’s what they think about us.”
Three in ten Americans are still unsure if climate change is real, and many more doubt it’s caused by human activity. Three in ten Americans suspect the COVID death toll has been inflated, with a vocal fringe claiming the government has exaggerated the danger of the virus to justify a dystopian “Great Reset.” Survey this great land and you will find not only pilgrims’ pride and purple mountain majesties, but anti-vaxxers, AIDS-deniers, young-earth creationists and the woman at my church who announced (during prayer request time) that baking soda can cure cancer.
But instead of stewing in shame, let us ask a more useful question: Is the U.S. a uniquely anti-science country? And if so, why?
The first question is hard to answer definitively. In a recent Pew survey, 38 percent of Americans said they have “a lot” of trust in scientists, fewer than in Sweden (46 percent) or Canada (45 percent), but considerably more than in France (31 percent) or Japan (23 percent). The U.S. is also in the middle of the pack when it comes to climate change, with 45 percent of Americans reporting they consider it a serious problem, fewer than in France (56 percent) or Germany (55 percent) but more than in Australia (43 percent) or the U.K. (41 percent). Americans are unusually skeptical about Darwin (42 percent compared to only 9 percent of Brits reject human evolution), while the greatest hotbed of vaccine skepticism isn’t America but Western Europe. A full third of French adults doubt vaccines are safe, as opposed to 11 percent of Americans.
So maybe the average American isn’t any more distrustful of science than, say, the average Japanese or the average Chilean. But doesn’t it feel like — and this is admittedly unscientific! — that America’s brand of anti-science just hits different? That New Zealand politician seemed to think so, and it makes sense when you look at the big picture instead of individual citizens’ beliefs. The U.S. is the only nation to have withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement. Of the world’s 10 most populous nations, the U.S. has had by far the highest COVID death toll, both in real numbers and per capita, and its current president has relentlessly peddled misinformation about the virus.
Moreover, the U.S. is an international hub of anti-science. Climate change denial has largely been fueled by American corporations and think tanks. Anti-evolutionism pretty much began in Protestant America, and it’s now gaining momentum among evangelicals worldwide and minority-Muslim populations in Europe. The resurgence of flat-earthism has been driven by American YouTubers and organizers, with conferences held in Raleigh, Denver and Dallas, but also springing up in Canada, Brazil, Italy and the U.K.
The global anti-vaxx movement is also powered by American dollars and talent. Though it was a British physician (Andrew Wakefield) who first propagated the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism, Wakefield eventually relocated to the U.S. He founded an anti-vaxx research center in Austin; cultivated celebrity supporters like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Robert De Niro and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; and directed a popular anti-vaxx documentary I once saw playing in a chiropractor’s waiting room. Kennedy spoke at a COVID-denier rally in Berlin a few months ago, and slick American documentaries like Plandemic are spreading misinformation throughout the industrialized world — and increasingly among the middle and upper classes of the global South. As the anthropologist Heidi Larson told Emily Rauhala at the Washington Post, the U.S. is a “superspreader” of anti-science.
So while the U.S. may not be uniquely anti-science, there’s something about the country that gives anti-science more oxygen. Views that might otherwise be relegated to the fringes — that fluoridated water causes cancer, or that apricot seeds cure it — are able to accrue actual political power. And we can’t just blame conservatism, which is by no means unique to America. (It’s worth pointing out that Peters, the New Zealander who shot down the COVID-denier, is the leader of a right-wing, immigration-restrictionist party.)
Two things that are distinct about America are its federalist system of government and its role in the Cold War. In the federalist system, state and local governments have a huge amount of power, especially over K-12 education. This means anti-vaxxers and anti-evolutionists can gain a foothold in county school boards and state legislatures and affect policy. They can loosen the guidelines for immunization exemptions or tinker with their school district’s biology standards. They can push for laws like the one Tennessee passed in 2012 that allow schools to teach “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of such theories as “biological evolution, the chemical origins and life [and] global warming.”
Scientific debates take on a different political flavor in America because they intersect more with the classroom. They often come down to the emotionally charged question: “What are they teaching your kids with your taxpayers’ dollars!?” And that kind of debate just doesn’t go as far in France, Japan or elsewhere, because in those countries education is much more regulated at the national level.
Something else that gives anti-science views more fuel in America is the fact that, for nearly 80 years, the nation has been a global hegemon with a vast military-industrial complex. And science, despite its claim to be “apolitical,” has been vital to that hegemony. The result is that science is uniquely politicized in the U.S. This was especially true during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit and Americans had a bit of a freak-out. In 1958, the U.S. government dumped money into scientific research and science education. Math and science requirements in high school were ratcheted up. Schools were tasked with sussing out and cultivating the smartest students via standardized testing and “gifted and talented” programs. NASA was created, and the National Science Foundation received huge injections of cash.
Science’s great claim is that it’s objective and neutral. But how can Americans accept that claim when science has repeatedly gotten its hands dirty? How can science be apolitical when it’s long been an instrument of the American state?
No, COVID-19 isn’t a hoax, and the vaccine won’t turn you into a zombie. But the CDC and the Public Health Service did sponsor a decades-long study in which hundreds of Black men were neither informed they had syphilis nor given penicillin to treat it. And in 1940 the FDA did (buckling to pressure from pharmaceutical companies) approve the use of diethylstilbestrol (DES) to treat menopause, despite the fact that it produced tumors and birth defects in lab mice and gave human subjects severe nausea. (The FDA withdrew its approval three decades later, when it turned out DES was causing vaginal cancer in women who had been exposed to the drug in the womb.)
No, 5G towers don’t cause cancer and won’t brainwash your children. But the Atomic Energy Commission did feed radioactive iodine to premature infants, and Quaker Oats with radioactive calcium to mentally disabled children. And the CIA did administer electroshock therapy and cocktails of psychedelic drugs to unwilling subjects to see if mind-control was possible, even hiring sex workers to lure men to safe houses where they became the CIA’s guinea pigs.
No, the moon landing wasn’t a hoax. But NASA did secretly assist the Army by deploying a reconnaissance satellite into synchronous orbit over Vietnam. And as historian Neil Maher has catalogued, NASA even floated the idea of launching “a giant aluminized Mylar mirror” into orbit, “where it would illuminate a 200-mile-wide swath of Vietnamese jungle with an intensity approximately 1.7 times that of the full moon,” so the Americans could see at night and the communists couldn’t hide. A giant moon-mirror in space.
And of course, climate change is real. But it’s no coincidence that our most accurate measurements of atmospheric CO2 levels date back to 1958, the same post-Sputnik year that NASA was founded and the National Defense Education Act was passed. The National Weather Service also saw its funding increase that year; armies throughout history have known the importance of forecasting the weather. Some of that money went toward building the Mauna Loa Observatory, where Charles David Keeling installed an infrared gas analyzer and eventually discovered CO2 levels were rising. That famous upward line you may have first seen in An Inconvenient Truth is a product of the military-industrial complex.
When the Cold War consensus crumbled — when we were no longer united by the fight against communism, and our politics became more polarized — science lingered as a weird vestige of a bygone era. When scientists go on television and give their press conferences, they act like they have the same monolithic authority they had when they were putting men on the moon — like they’re Ed Harris or one of the other serious men in the control room in Apollo 13.
This rubs a lot of Americans the wrong way. When Democrats say they “believe in science,” they’re trying to say they’re on the side of an apolitical establishment we’re all bound to respect. But not everyone buys that. Given how closely American science is tied to American nationalism, is it any surprise that many Americans understand science as inherently political? And isn’t the political inherently untrustworthy?