When anti-intellectualism turns deadly

President Donald Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives to speak at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

President Donald Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives to speak at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.” Albert Einstein said that, and in the decades since that day there has not exactly been strong evidence to the contrary. In fact, much like the expansion of the universe, it sometimes feels as if the stupidity of humanity has been accelerating.

Anti-intellectualism, which refers to hostility and mistrust directed towards elites and intellectuals (often in education and scientific fields), has always been a part of the United States. However, as once scientific debates over issues like climate change have become politicized, anti-intellectualism has been thrust into the spotlight.

Perhaps no other event signifies this shift than the election of Donald Trump, the science-denying always-lying candidate who was able to convince millions that a billionaire would be champion of the common folk against political elites.

Some think it doesn’t really matter if people believe in things contrary to established science. In some cases they’re probably correct. While it’s certainly frustrating that a significant proportion of the population thinks that the sun orbits the earth (it doesn’t) and that the earth is flat (even more wrong) those views aren’t necessarily dangerous to society. They’re a little funny and a lot sad, but the main problem is when distrust of established science extends to issues that have an impact on others. The most famous of these is climate change. If you are someone that doesn’t believe in climate change (or more specifically that humans are contributing to it) and act accordingly, such as supporting climate change denying politicians, then you are putting everyone on the planet at an increased risk.

Over the winter, there has been another example of anti-science individuals endangering lives. Anti-vaccine parents who refuse to inoculate their children against easily-preventable diseases are putting not just their kids but many other people at risk. There have been measles outbreaks in locations across the country (affecting over 150 people in 2019 so far) and, unsurprisingly, most of the cases occurred among children who were not vaccinated.

The scientific consensus on vaccines is pretty clear. Vaccines prevent a number of diseases that have the potential to kill, especially among young children. Serious side effects associated with vaccinations are extremely rare, and they don’t cause autism (cough cough Mr. President). Nevertheless, a number of parents opt not to vaccinate their children for reasons ranging from religious and philosophical to simply personal preference.

While all states have laws on the books requiring immunization before children can attend school, almost all of them allow exemptions to this rule. Most allow parents to opt out for religious reasons, and 17 allow other exemptions. There are only three states (Mississippi, West Virginia and California) that deny essentially all exemptions (with the exception of medical, of course).

Critics of states that deny exemptions will say that the government should not be imposing their will on individuals and infringing on their right to self-determination. While this is certainly an important protection to maintain, there are circumstances where a society can require individuals to act in a certain way. When a public health intervention is required to protect the public, it has historically been acceptable to require the forfeiture of some personal liberty. The best analogy would be a quarantine, where the government restricts a person’s freedom of movement in order to keep diseases from spreading.

This issue is a similar principle. Parents are taking actions that endanger their children as well as others that can’t be vaccinated for medical conditions or have weak immune systems. Religious freedom does not justify these reckless actions, according both to common sense and the law. States should be tightening their exemption requirements so we can put an end to diseases like Measles once and for all.

While limiting exemptions may prevent Measles from coming back, such actions are only a temporary fix to the problem of anti-intellectualism. As long as people continue to doubt science in favor of the “truth” they want to believe (and take pride in doing so) our society will be at risk.

A healthy skepticism is important in anything, but when a scientific consensus is reached, it no longer matters how you “feel” about something. Continuing to doubt the experts will only serve to compound the dangers of climate change, disease and many other problems the world faces.


Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.