America’s elites are dissatisfied these days — dissatisfied with the American people, who are proving as unruly as Italians, or even Englishmen.
Almost nothing worries society’s leadership ranks more than the public’s waning respect for experts of every kind — from economists proclaiming that globalization confers more benefits than costs, to mainstream journalists decrying a widespread gullibility toward “fake news,” to the considered consensus of science pronouncing verdicts on such overheated controversies as climate change and genetically modified foods.
This last species of skepticism is the subject of a new report from the Pew Research Center. Blending poll results about climate science with others about what it calls “The New Food Fights,” Pew offers two key findings:
First: Americans are decidedly doubtful about scientific claims concerning both climate change and genetically altered food — despite overwhelming scientific consensus on both scores.
Second: While skepticism about climate science is strongly correlated with a person’s politics, the ideology of resistance to GMO science is more complicated.
The level of public distrust on these issues is truly impressive, given how clear scientific opinion seems to be. In 2014, Pew queried thousands of professional scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and compared their answers with those of a broad sample of U.S. adults.
Roughly 90 percent of the scientists agreed both that it is “safe to eat genetically modified foods” and that “climate change is mostly due to human activity.”
But only 37 percent of the public agreed that GMOs are safe — and only 50 percent bought into human-caused climate change.
For comparison, it’s worth noting that while virtually all of the scientists (98 percent) agreed that “humans have evolved over time,” 65 percent of the general public believes that, too. Evolution remains a famously polarizing idea — a symbol of public estrangement from science — and a good way to pick a fight. Yet according to Pew’s numbers, the public is closer to scientists’ consensus view on evolution than it is to their views on climate or genetically altered food.
Why such public incredulity? In April 2015, shortly before the Trump insurrection allegedly ushered in what’s now being called the “post-factual society,” I wrote a column in this space fretting about a “culture of mendacity” and a “pervasive … looseness about the truth in our time.”
Everything from falsehoods from supposedly non-fake-news sources like Rolling Stone and Brian Williams of NBC, to lies about enhanced interrogation techniques in Iraq and coercive drug trials at the University of Minnesota, and much more, seemed to me then to suggest that “almost everywhere you look, people in prominent positions are twisting things, stretching things and getting things wrong. And too seldom must they admit it or pay a price.”
Just last week, no less an elite oracle than the Washington Post added to this list, grudgingly admitting that it recently published (and the Star Tribune reprinted) dubious claims of “fake news” being promoted by Russian intelligence.
This long-term breakdown in loyalty to the truth at the top, within elite America, still seems to me like an important part of the “post-fact” trend — one reason why, as many are saying now, average Americans feel increasingly justified in believing whatever they want to believe, whatever confirms their preexisting assumptions.
Climate change and GMOs may be ideal controversies for such personalized “truth.” There’s a mirror image about these disputes. Each concerns fears that arise from modern techno-capitalism and the ways it has transformed both nature and human society. On climate change, consensus science reinforces fears; on genetic engineering, it soothes them. One’s readiness to believe the science in either case may be shaped in part by one’s general temperament toward industrial capitalism, technology, globalism and the rest.
So we might expect conservatives, libertarians and admirers of the free market to instinctively trust scientific reassurances on genetic breakthroughs that boost crop yields and food industry profits and enhance prosperity. They might seem likely to doubt warnings that global warming threatens dire consequences without a government-directed economic transformation to reduce fossil-fuel use.
By contrast, progressives suspicious of corporate power and protective of the environment would seem attuned to a call to turn away from industrialism’s climate change dangers, but instinctively uneasy about profit-driven manipulations of nature via GMOs.
Yet while these expectations are broadly confirmed in Pew’s findings, the interplay of ideology and skepticism isn’t quite that simple.
For one thing, Republicans turn out to be skeptical of science across the board. Pew asked whether partisans believed that scientists “understand … very well” the “health effects of GM foods” or the “causes of climate change.” No more than 20 percent of Republicans — whether conservative or moderate Republicans — said yes on either climate change or GM foods.
Democrats, meanwhile, are divided. Both moderate and liberal Democrats share Republicans’ doubts about scientific understanding on GMOs. On climate science, by contrast, “liberal” Democrats are far more trusting — nearly three times more likely (54 percent to 20 percent) to trust scientists’ understanding than they are on food science. They’re almost twice as likely as even moderate Democrats to think climate science is very well understood.
So, in short, Pew’s results do affirm the stereotype that Republicans as a group are stubborn anti-science skeptics — in fact, they’re skeptical whatever the issue.
But if you’re looking for a group that can be suspected of trusting or doubting scientific expertise depending on what they may already be inclined to believe, Pew’s circumstantial evidence points to the leftward end of the spectrum.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.