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Education, Science & the Growing Anti-Intellectualism among Conservative Republicans

As a long-time political science professor, the thing that worries me most about the modern Republican Party is its growing aversion to objective knowledge. Today, within the GOP there seems to be open hostility towards intellectuals and intellectual pursuits, including education, science, and the use of objective research to create public policy.

This skepticism towards intellectualism seems to stem from a mistrust of experts and institutions like universities, the media, and the government. Many conservatives profess a preference for religious beliefs and "traditional" values and rail against the "liberal elite" which they claim rule the knowledge centers of America. This doubt has been weaponized by Republican politicians like Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to undermine faith in evidence-based decision-making and the nation's most important institutions.

Conservatives have a long history of anti-intellectualism and science-denial as historian Matthew Dallek explained in a piece for the Washington Post several years ago. It has its roots in the debate regarding the teaching of evolution in the early 20th century and intensified in the fight over environmental regulations after WWII. Today, you can see it in every culture war issue in America.

  • White Evangelical Christians are largely opposed to teaching evolution and the "Big Bang Theory" in public schools, and many conservatives support the teaching of creationism [or "creation science"] as an alternative.

  • Many Republican politicians reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, and have resisted policies designed to address the issue.

  • Some Republicans expressed skepticism towards Covid vaccines, despite overwhelming evidence of their safety and effectiveness.

  • In recent years, many Republican politicians have sought to undermine the legitimacy of journalism, and have spread misinformation and conspiracy theories through alternative sources [talk radio, Fox News, and social media].

  • Christian conservatives reject research demonstrating that sexual orientation and gender identity aren't choices or caused by mental illness, and have supported gay conversion therapy and policies that discriminate against LGBT individuals.

  • Many conservatives oppose comprehensive sex education, preferring abstinence-only education despite years of research that demonstrates that it's ineffective at preventing teen pregnancy.

  • Recently, conservatives have begun a war on teaching the actual history of America, especially our history of slavery and race relations, insisting that an objective retelling of our treatment of Asians, blacks, and indigenous peoples is divisive and undermines civic pride and the self-esteem of white children.

All of this now impacts how conservatives view our educational institutions. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that an overwhelming number of Republicans [62%] think that K-12 education is worse today than when they were in school. In contrast, only 28% of Democrats said today’s education is worse. The poll reflects the ongoing culture war about how sex education, American history, and science are taught in the public schools.

Although the questions were worded a bit differently, a recent Gallup poll found similar views among conservatives. Only 14% of Republicans have faith in America's public schools compared to 43% of Democrats. The 29-point disparity is the largest gap in sentiment ever recorded by Gallup on the topic.

Republicans also have a vastly different view of higher education today. According to the latest results of a survey conducted by New America, a nonpartisan think tank, 73% of Democrats believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, while only 37% of Republicans agreed.

And a FiveThirtyEight/PerryUndem/YouGov survey discovered why Republicans feel that way about higher education. More than 4 in 5 Republicans agreed with the statement that “most college professors teach liberal propaganda,” compared with 17% of Democrats.

Republican anti-intellectualism also undermines the public's confidence in scientific research. A recent Gallup poll of 1,381 adults found less than half of Republicans [45%] have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science, 27 percentage points lower than in 1975, the last time they asked the question. Today, Democrats are 34 points more likely than Republicans to have confidence in science, a gaping partisan split that did not exist in 1975 when GOP voters were 5 points more likely than Democrats [72% to 67%] to have confidence in scientific research.

Trust in the Federal government has also declined sharply among conservatives. Only 18% of Republicans trust the federal government's handling of the nation's domestic problems. That's the lowest level ever recorded by the Gallup organization for any partisan group. In contrast, 71% of Democrats trust the government's handling of domestic affairs.

These trends among conservatives are damaging to our nation because they undermine the role of government and knowledge centers in addressing the nation's challenges through the use of evidence-based decision-making. Moreover, they breed the creation of conspiracy theories to explain why research doesn't fit their preferred narrative [historians distort events to undermine patriotism, scientists are atheists so they create theories that contradict religious dogma, climatologists hate capitalism so they conspire to create crises to damage fossil fuel companies]. Most Americans understand that these conspiracy theories are just nonsense, but there is a growing minority that buy into them and these are the same folks that attacked the Capital because they believed that election officials around the nation were all part of a conspiracy to steal a presidential election. And, it's not at all clear that we've seen the worst of this yet.

#culture #science #politics #research #polling

By: Don Lam & Curated Content

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