From ignoring the warnings to doubting the data: Why the right is suspicious of science

The most conservative people tend to distrust scientists, believing that these experts threaten their own identity. They have been influenced by populist elites after decades of misinformation

Three women hold up placards during an anti-vaccination protest in Madrid, on December 11, 2021.
Three women hold up placards during an anti-vaccination protest in Madrid, on December 11, 2021.carlos Luján (Europa press)
Javier Salas

The radical right has issues with science. This is something that countless studies have observed, but since the Covid-19 pandemic, the problem has worsened.

This tension often appears in political discourse. In one recent episode in Madrid, there were concerns that a storm forecast to hit parts of Spain would cause historic flooding. As the Spanish Meteorology Agency (AEMET) and the authorities sounded the alarm, they were criticized by right-wing politicians and journalists. Some citizens took to the streets with the sole purpose of demonstrating on social media how they defied the calls to observe caution. In the end, despite their boasts, eight people died.

This denial of science not only threatens coexistence and informed decision-making; it also endangers the very lives of right-wing citizens, as demonstrated by events in the United States regarding vaccines. A study published over the summer by Yale University shows that, since Covid-19 vaccines became available, Republican voters have been dying from the virus at a much higher rate than Democrats.

The work – published by the American Medical Association – analyzed more than half a million deaths in Ohio and Florida, comparing them with the census of registered voters. The result of the analysis is devastating: excess mortality among Republican voters “was 43% higher” than that of Democrats. “The gap was larger in counties with lower vaccination rates,” the paper concludes. Conservative voters doubt the efficacy of vaccines and die, encouraged by anti-science populism.

The phenomenon is very complex and continues to gain ground. In the United States, between 2019 and 2021, trust in scientists plummeted among right-wing citizens, while it remained above 90% among Democrats. The percentage of Republicans who trust medical researchers went from 88% to only 66%. Conservative distrust in scientists also grew during that period, from 14% to 36%.

In Spain, sociologist Celia Díaz Catalán studies the perception that Spaniards have of science, “In general,” she notes, “trust is high… but there’s greater distrust among [those who hold] extreme right-wing views.” Forty percent of the most right-wing citizens believe that many scientific theories are completely wrong, compared to 22.8% of the general average of all Spaniards. Meanwhile, 54% of right-wingers think that people trust scientists much more than they should – double the average. These statistics are new, but, according to Díaz’s data, they were preceded by a tide: “There was already much more reluctance to consider the results of science as being positive. In general, people on the right are more distrustful of these types of institutions.”

In her work for the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, Díaz has also described that positions further to the right of the ideological spectrum have a lower ability to discern between true and false information, as well as a greater tendency to spread false information. In the United States, this has also been observed, according to a paper from 2021 that concluded how “this is partly explained by the fact that the most-frequently shared falsehoods tend to promote conservative positions.” A monumental study carried out with the help of Facebook has just shown that 97% of the fake news on that social media platform is consumed by right-wing users.

“Scientists exaggerate”

Díaz believes that the reaction to the recent storm in Spain was “striking” because of the underlying tides that it showed. “It’s dangerous, because if [extreme skepticism] is directed at all scientific research, it serves to deny other things later.” By labelling science as exaggerated or false, the door is opened to take this shortcut more often, depending on what suits our interests, ideologies or identities.

dana en Toledo
Effects of the recent storm in Casarrubios, Spain, where several people died due to flooding.Claudio Álvarez

Researcher Kathleen Hall Jamieson – a communications expert and co-founder of FactCheck.org – sums it up this way: “When science says we need to reduce carbon emissions, some conservatives hear: ‘scientists want to crash the economy.’ When scientists say mask-wearing and vaccination will slow the spread of Covid-19, some conservatives hear: ‘Scientists want to undermine my right to decide what’s best for me and my family… they’re trying to increase government power to run my life.”

For this reason, crisis communications expert Maricarmen Climént recognizes that, in her field, the ideological factor must be taken into account: “Not everyone [shares] the same context to process information. It’s all linked to what people feel. Ideology is a problem: it’s one more element to consider, because people have biases and preconceived ideas.” When the government warns about the harmful effects of red meat or sweets, there are those who see their identity – their way of life – as being threatened. They respond by defending these practices with greater force and doubting scientific studies, and posing on social media with chocolate and steaks.

Many specialists explain that this denial by the right arises from cognitive dissonances – the clash between what science says and certain values or visions about how the world should be. “If we have to give up using the car for everything, it can be painful for many people,” explains Díaz. Hence, for example, the importance of minimizing the climate emergency. “In Spain, there are practically no [climate change] deniers. What changed in recent years is the idea of the true severity of the effects of climate change, fundamentally among the right.” After securing Brexit, Nigel Farage – the former leader of the UK Indepence Party – is battling against car-free zones, accompanied by posters that read: “Stop the toxic air lie.”

Another very simple and universal mental shortcut is to think the same as the people one trusts with complicated problems or situations. For instance, having the same opinion as the politicians one votes for. This is one of the most widespread arguments to explain the suspicion that conservative people feel towards scientists: that they are encouraged by political elites.

Trump booed by his own

There are, however, arguments against such views. “The problem is complex,” Jamieson summarizes via email. “The Covid vaccines were created under the Trump administration and [his supporters] booed him when they found out he was pro-vaccination.” In August of 2021, Donald Trump was attacked by his own followers at a rally in Alabama after acknowledging: “I totally believe in your freedoms, but I recommend that you get vaccinated. I did it, it’s good, get vaccinated.” Santiago Abascal – the leader of the far-right Vox party in Spain – didn’t want to reveal if he had been vaccinated against Covid, for fear of losing voters.

Scholars of the phenomenon are clear that there’s a lever that activates certain attitudes: misinformation deliberately propagated by powerful economic groups, interested in undermining the credibility of science. For every study that warned about global warming, these groups paid for another, manipulated one to question it. For every doctor who criticized tobacco, they paid another to refute it. They are the merchants of doubt, as science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway call them. Thus, the perception has been sown that science is weak, inconsistent, self-interested and opinionated; studies are merely pretexts that governments use to intervene in our lives. The interests of certain industries overwhelmingly influence the pro-business conservatives within the Republican Party.

This is what Oreskes thinks. She has just published a study in the journal Science, which shows how Exxon and other oil companies were aware of the catastrophe they were unleashing on the world with their activities. In a recent article for Daedalus, Oreskes and Conway write: “In short, contemporary conservative distrust of science is not really about science. It is collateral damage, a spillover effect of distrust in government. Therefore, to rebuild trust in science, we cannot simply defend science as an enterprise or demonstrate the integrity of scientists. We must address – and counter – prevailing conservative narratives of a government that smothers prosperity and threatens the liberties of its people, when it is in fact working to sustain and equitably distribute prosperity and protect its people from grave threats like climate change.”

A danger for peaceful coexistence

“We must be very careful, because distrust is being generated in [our] institutions. This is really dangerous for coexistence in society,” warns Celia Díaz Catalán. In Spain, for instance, far-right leaders have railed against emergency alerts being sent to cellphones, demanding that these warning systems only be installed with consent. This endangers people’s lives.

Is there something else to this disbelief in science? The influence of populist elites, capitalism, decades of misinformation, cognitive dissonance and perceived threats to identity may be factors that explain such attitudes. However, there are researchers who have recently pointed to other underlying mechanisms. Stephan Lewandowski – one of the leading experts on the psychology of how science is perceived – has published several articles in which he hypothesizes that suspicion of research isn’t dictated by political pragmatism. Rather, he says that this suspicion is intrinsic to the conservative mind.

In his opinion – and as his studies point out – the right-wing worldview clashes with the scientific system itself, due to the notion of selfless work, the universality of knowledge and the existence of common property that exist among the scientific community. “Conservatives are less likely to support the norms of science and, therefore, they more often tend to distrust scientific results in general,” the Australian psychologist notes.

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