Guest comment: Political orientation predicts denial of science | Columns

Vaccine refusal is one of the main reasons COVID-19 infections continue to rise in the United States Safe and effective vaccines have been available for months, but as of mid-September 2021, only 65% ​​of Eligible US adults are fully immunized. In many areas, a majority of eligible adults have not taken advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated.

In the United States, polls on the intention to get vaccinated show a massive political divide. Counties that opted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election have higher vaccination rates than counties that opted for Donald Trump. Attendees at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s summer meeting applauded the failure of the United States to meet Biden’s July 4 immunization targets for the country.

Along with the politically motivated denial of the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine is a dramatic politicization of trust in science itself. In a survey conducted in June and July, Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans expressing a “great” or “a lot” confidence in science has fallen, shockingly, from 72% in 1975 to just 45% today. hui. During the same period, trust in science among Democrats has increased from 67% to 79%.

Scientific institutions have never been perfect, but overall they have a huge track record of success, both in basic research and in applied sciences like epidemiology and immunology. The vast majority of expert opinions on, for example, antibiotics, radio waves, orbital mechanics or electrical conductivity are accepted without complaint by the general public. Obviously, people are happy with applied science in almost every field.

So why is confidence in science so malleable, and what does a person’s political orientation have to do with it?

The rejection of scientific expertise when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines seems to substitute for something else. As a philosopher who has studied denial of science, I suggest that this “something else” includes factors such as distrust of public institutions and perceived threats to one’s cultural identity.


Identifying as a Republican is very strongly associated with adhering to the core tenets of conservative ideology. A 2021 public opinion study confirms that endorsement of conservative political ideology is currently the dominant predictor of anti-science attitudes.

Another recent study on anti-science attitudes identifies several trends particularly associated with conservative ideology. People with anti-science beliefs tend to sympathize with right-wing authoritarianism – that is, they are conformists who rely on selected authority figures and are ready to act. aggressively on behalf of these figures.

They also tend to support the group-based hierarchy, with “higher” groups dominating “lower” groups. Political psychologists call this “social dominance orientation” and see it, for example, in attitudes towards racial or gender equality.

Indeed, social scientists who examine the causes of denial of science have increasingly focused on two contributing causes. Certain personality traits, including comfort with existing social and cultural hierarchies and a predilection for authoritarianism, go hand in hand with a skepticism for science. The same is true of closely related aspects of identity, such as identification with a dominant social group such as evangelical white Christians.

Conservative traditionalists from the historically dominant white Christian population in the United States have had the most reason to feel threatened by science. Evolution by natural selection is a threat to many doctrinal religious traditionalists. Climate science threatens the economic status quo that the conservatives seek to maintain. The whole concept of a public health mandate runs counter to the individualism of the “small government” of political conservatives.

Additionally, because COVID-19 has been heavily politicized since the start of the pandemic, public health measures have become directly associated with the political left. The rejection of such measures has therefore become a signal of political and cultural identity.

Other recent studies on denial of science have shown that people who have little faith in the honesty and trustworthiness of others, as well as in social institutions such as government, academia, and the media, tend to deny the dangers of COVID-19. . Low social trust tends to take a conservative political stance – in particular, with Trump’s backing. Its supporters are much more likely to say that scientific research is politically motivated.


Growing economic inequalities and racial and ethnic diversification are also part of the mix of science denial.

One school of thought in psychology, called compensatory control theory, argues that many social phenomena – including the denial of ideological science – arise from the basic human need for a sense of control over one’s environment and the outcomes of one’s life. According to this theory, perceived threats to the sense of personal control can motivate the denial of scientific consensus. The idea is that due to a combination of economic insecurity, demographic shifts, and the perceived erosion of white-favored cultural norms, some people feel an existential threat to white supremacy that they have long enjoyed – this which prompts them to deny the government’s warnings. on the dangers of COVID-19.

I believe that this compulsive defensive plays a big role in the phenomenon of denial of science, once trusted elites like politicians or media presenters trigger the tendency to oppose a particular science-based public policy. . You can’t control the coronavirus – or the inequalities, or a changing culture – but you can control whether you take the vaccine or wear a mask. This sense of control is implicitly but powerfully appealing on a deep emotional level.

The need for control may also explain an attraction to politicians or media figures who promise to give you back your power by endorsing unproven alternative home remedies.

Denial feeds on political polarization

As I say in my book “The Truth About Denial,” I think denial of science, including denial of the COVID-19 vaccine, is probably best viewed as the result of vicious feedback loops. Factors such as economic pain, white Christian identity, and low social trust play out in populations facing relative social and informational isolation. This denial can more easily set in among people who have chosen to limit their experiences to relatively homogeneous geographic areas, social contexts and media environments.

In the short term, a company’s failure to immunize enough people to bring COVID-19 under control will dramatically change people’s lives for years to come. The biggest problem is how science itself has become politicized in ways never seen before. This development endangers the ability of organized society to respond effectively to pandemics and other existential threats, including climate change.

Is there any hope of depolarizing the issue of COVID-19 vaccination, or confidence in the science itself? I probably wouldn’t say until conservative leaders in politics, media, and religion exert a concerted effort to change the narrative.

This guest comment is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original on

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