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

Merkley, Eric

Public opinion is far apart from experts on a wide range of issues. The dominant explanation of this is ideologically-driven motivated skepticism. However, this is not a sufficient explanation for less salient and politically-charged questions. I argue that more attention needs to be given to anti-intellectualism – the generalized mistrust and suspicion of experts and intellectuals. Using the General Social Survey and a survey of 3,600 Americans on Amazon Mechanical Turk, I show a strong association between anti-intellectualism and opposition to scientific positions on climate change, nuclear power, GMOs, and water fluoridation. An embedded survey experiment also shows that anti-intellectualism moderates the acceptance of messages related to scientific agreement. Finally, the paper explores the existence of a link between anti-intellectualism and populism – a world view that sees political conflict as primarily between ordinary citizens and a privileged societal elite. It shows that populism is strongly associated with anti-intellectualism, and demonstrates experimentally that generalized populist rhetoric – even that which does not pertain to experts directly – can activate anti-intellectual predispositions in the processing of expert messages on unrelated issues. These findings suggest that rising anti-elite rhetoric may make antiintellectual predispositions more salient for information processing.