Expertise Under Assault

March 5, 2021 • Volume 31, Issue 9
Is skepticism toward scientists and other experts growing?
By Sarah Glazer


Distrust of government and scientific experts has taken disturbing forms recently — from the violent attack on the Capitol by a mob that refused to believe election results, to conspiracy theories about the supposed dangers of vaccines. A society that does not believe the same set of facts cannot hold together, some experts warn. If more people are not persuaded to trust the coronavirus vaccine, the nation might not be able to achieve the “herd immunity” needed to stop the pandemic. Some blame social media and echo chambers of like-minded users. Others point to populism and its disdain for elites. Yet mistrust of the establishment has also been positive — leading to movements for social change in fields ranging from medicine to environmental protection. Americans have long been pulled between suspicion of experts, when it comes to regulatory controversies that threaten their values, and confidence in the technology upon which they depend. In recent decades, trust in scientists has fallen among conservatives, while liberals still rate scientists highly.

Photo of protesters in Los Angeles, California, in January rallying against the COVID-19 vaccine. (Getty Images/Los Angeles Times/Irfan Khan)
Protesters in Los Angeles rally against the COVID-19 vaccine, mask mandates and lockdowns in January. The questioning of the pandemic's seriousness is part of a broader skepticism toward scientific expertise. (Getty Images/Los Angeles Times/Irfan Khan)
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Science Policy
Mar. 05, 2021  Expertise Under Assault
Jun. 10, 2016  Nanotechnology
Apr. 25, 2014  Synthetic Biology
Feb. 01, 2011  Globalizing Science
Jan. 11, 2008  Science in America
Sep. 01, 2006  Stem Cell Research Updated
Aug. 20, 2004  Science and Politics
Dec. 22, 1978  Technology Gap: Reality or Illusion
May 26, 1978  Politics of Science
Apr. 11, 1973  National Science Policy
Jan. 05, 1972  Technology Lag in America
May 18, 1960  National Science Policy
Oct. 23, 1945  Government and Science
Conservatism and Liberalism
Consumer Behavior
General Social Trends
Infectious Diseases
Internet and Social Media
Party Politics
Party Politics
Protest Movements
Regulation and Deregulation
Science and Politics