Is the US more susceptible to skepticism about expertise — and to science, and prone to conspiracy theories — than other ‘advanced’ nations? Certainly there are anti-vax zealots in other countries as well, but I’ve thought of two reasons why the US may be especially given to the notion that “my opinion is as good as your expertise,” quite aside from the allure of social media.
First is a perhaps incidental one. I’ve noticed for a while that the TV shows that I do watch — mostly some news in the morning and evening, occasional game shows like Jeopardy, occasional cooking shows (Bobby Flay, Ina Garten), and so on (I bare watch any network drama or comedy shows anymore) — are populated by commercial ads aimed toward senior members of society. Mostly, ads for prescription drugs. Which I note, crucially, are not allowed in most countries, only in the US.
What’s the danger? Because these ads invariably show shiny, happy people living wonderful lives — visiting parks, playing with grandchildren, and so on — having overcome this or that medical issue by taking the sponsor’s prescription medication. And invariably these commercials end with “Ask your doctor about xydoplex” or whatever the drug is called.
The implication here is that, by watching a 30- or 60-second TV commercial, you are now savvy to a drug that can improve your life and which presumably the doctor is unaware of! You’re the expert. Go to your doctor and let him know what’s going on, because you’ve seen the TV commercial!
In my experience the doctors (and pharmacists) know all about every drug you’ve ever heard of, and hundreds of those you haven’t, and especially those that are widely enough known to have their own TV commercials. These commercials are trying to override rational consideration and appeal to your emotions, and oh by the way, imply that the doctors are somewhat incompetent.
(Not to mention that the money pharmaceutical companies pays for these commercial surely cannot be unrelated to the cost of their drugs.)
Second: The US has had a long history of anti-intellectual thought; see the books of Richard Hofstadter. But the nadir in this tradition is surely President Reagan, who back in 1980 or so made a point of dissing the government. His two most famous quotes along these lines: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” And “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
What gall to run for office as the head of a government you believe not only incompetent, but wicked! (He might as well be an agent of a foreign government intent on taking the US down, just as T**** and all his cabinet appointees might have been.) Yet conservatives ate him up. Why? Because he was handsome and well-spoken, and because he offered simple answers to all problems, no matter how complex. (As conservatives love.)
What is one to think about arms of the government you have been led to believe are incompetent and even evil? Conservatives now think it is all part of a “deep state” of bureaucrats who work, apparently, to subvert the will of know-nothing-and-proud-of-it freedom-loving patriots.
No surprise then that so many (conservatives) mistrust government advice/mandates about vaccines and masks.
Latest example: Biden’s Climate Plans Are Stunted After Dejected Experts Fled Trump, subtitled, “Hundreds of scientists and policy experts left the government during the Trump administration. The jobs remain unfilled six months into President Biden’s term.”
Big Picture: This is part of a trend of the past 50 years in which the US is losing its dominance in the world, not just politically but in science and technology. And the belief in American “exceptionalism,” the idea that Americans can do no wrong (and ordinary people know best) is the cause.
Mark, I’m a big fan of your blog, especially your collection of quotes from relevant news sites. They are informative, and your questions are always thought-provoking. Kudos to you! Anyway, I was reading this post and thought about a research study from earlier this year in Nature, addressing some of these issues. Wanted to pass it along, just in case. The link is below.