Anti-Intellectualism, Populism, and Motivated Resistance to Expert Consensus

Merkley, Eric
Public Opinion Quarterly

Scholars have maintained that public attitudes often diverge from expert consensus due to ideology-driven motivated reasoning. However, this is not a sufficient explanation for less salient and politically charged questions. More attention needs to be given to anti-intellectualism—the generalized mistrust of intellectuals and experts. Using data from the General Social Survey and a survey of 3,600 Americans on Amazon Mechanical Turk, I provide evidence of a strong association between anti-intellectualism and opposition to scientific positions on climate change, nuclear power, GMOs, and water fluoridation, particularly for respondents with higher levels of political interest. Second, a survey experiment shows that anti-intellectualism moderates the acceptance of expert consensus cues such that respondents with high levels of anti-intellectualism actually increase their opposition to these positions in response. Third, evidence shows anti-intellectualism is connected to populism, a worldview that sees political conflict as primarily between ordinary citizens and a privileged societal elite. Exposure to randomly assigned populist rhetoric, even that which does not pertain to experts directly, primes anti-intellectual predispositions among respondents in the processing of expert consensus cues. These findings suggest that rising anti-elite rhetoric may make anti-intellectual sentiment more salient in information processing.