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  • Fruit Flies and the Age of Anti-Intellectualism
Jun 2010
Jun. 29, 2010 — Scientific research has lately faced an intractable challenge to its legitimacy. It’s not a new threat. The research community has wrestled with it in the past. And it will almost certainly encounter it again.

In his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, historian Richard Hofstadter described this tendency as a distrust of, or even hostility toward, academics and assorted other thinkers. “The common strain that binds together the attitudes and ideas which I call anti-intellectual,” he wrote, “is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”

Rooted in a number of factors - including the values and culture of democracy, a tough, pragmatic business ethos, and a long history of evangelicalism - anti-intellectualism in America often takes the form of a baleful kind of populism, in which those who engage in “the life of the mind” are tagged as elitist and dismissed as out of touch and useless, even deceitful and dangerous.

Hofstadter knew anti-intellectualism to be a cyclical phenomenon dating back to before the birth of the nation, and were he alive today, he would recognize an especially virulent strain of it. It’s not just intellectualism in the crosshairs, but apparently thought itself. Americans no longer have patience for lengthy exposition or reasoned debate. Public discourse has been reduced to a shouting match, each side seeking only to be louder than the other. Any kind of nuanced argument is suspect. Self-reflection is considered a sign of weakness.

All of which ties in with a related trend. Call it anti-rationalism, said author Susan Jacoby in a 2008 opinion piece in The Washington Post: not simply a lack of knowledge, but a surprising arrogance about that lack of knowledge. “The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.” Ignorance, it seems, has been elevated to a kind of virtue.

Nowhere are these phenomena more pronounced than in the political arena. To whatever extent Americans today exhibit an anti-intellectual sentiment, politicians have seized upon it and, in making a whole lot of noise about it, actually aggravated the problem. Seeking to instill a certain contempt for the other side - and thus ensure a solid voter base - they have fanned the flames of anti-intellectualism, often relying on claims that are spurious at best.

A well-known example pertaining to the sciences: On Oct. 24, 2008, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, then the vice presidential candidate, weighed in on federal funding for biomedical research. “Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good,” she said. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not!” As it happened, she made these comments during a speech on special needs children - autism, in particular. Critics were quick to point out that findings from a recent study with Drosophilia fruit flies had clear implications for autism research. Whether you think she was aware of this prior to the speech depends on just how cynical you are.

The research community obviously has a bit of a PR problem. Investigators are often loath to make sweeping pronouncements about the impact of their work on the daily lives of Americans. Yet, by and large, that is precisely what the public wants to hear. “If you can’t explain the benefits,” they seem to say, “then what good, exactly, is the research?”

So what do we do? How do we stem the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in America? Efforts are under way to close the “credibility gap” between scientists and nonscientists, to communicate to the latter how objective inquiry works, where recent findings might lead us and what about them we still don’t understand - and importantly, to do so in a compelling way. No one expects these efforts simply to extinguish anti-intellectualism in American life; researchers won’t suddenly find themselves treated like rock stars or sports heroes. Still, if they lead to a greater appreciation of both the importance and wonder of science, I think we can call it a win.

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