Fluoride Action Network

Anti-intellectualism and the mass public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: Nature Human Behaviour | By Eric Merkley & Peter John Loewen
Posted on April 28th, 2021
Location: Canada, National


Anti-intellectualism (the generalized distrust of experts and intellectuals) is an important concept in explaining the public’s engagement with advice from scientists and experts. We ask whether it has shaped the mass public’s response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). We provide evidence of a consistent connection between anti-intellectualism and COVID-19 risk perceptions, social distancing, mask usage, misperceptions and information acquisition using a representative survey of 27,615 Canadians conducted from March to July 2020. We exploit a panel component of our design (N?=?4,910) to strongly link anti-intellectualism and within-respondent change in mask usage. Finally, we provide experimental evidence of anti-intellectualism’s importance in information search behaviour with two conjoint studies (N ~ 2,500) that show that preferences for COVID-19 news and COVID-19 information from experts dissipate among respondents with higher levels of anti-intellectual sentiment. Anti-intellectualism poses a fundamental challenge in maintaining and increasing public compliance with expert-guided COVID-19 health directives.


A lesson from these conflicting theoretical and empirical accounts is that we should not explicitly or implicitly build a source of anti-intellectualism into a definition of the concept or into its measurement, but rather rely on the fact that anti-intellectuals will consistently display mistrust in a wide range of experts and intellectuals. Anti-intellectualism should strongly shape the public’s response to expert recommendations because citizens are persuaded by sources they perceive as trustworthy5. Recent work has highlighted the importance of anti-intellectualism and trust in experts in understanding public support for climate change, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, water fluoridation4,7 and vaccinations27. And experimentally, the persuasiveness of expert consensus cues appears to be moderated by anti-intellectualism, such that signals of expert consensus may make anti-intellectuals double down in their opposition to positions with expert consensus7.

*Read full article online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01112-w

References for above:

4. Motta, M. The dynamics and political implications of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Am. Politics Res. 46, 465–498 (2018).

5. Lupia, A & McCubbins, M. D. The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know?. (Cambridge Univ. Press: 1998. Google Scholar

7. Merkley, E. Anti-intellectualism, populism, and motivated resistance to expert consensus. Public Opin. Q. 84, 24–48 (2020).

27. Stecula, D. A., Kuru, O., & Jamieson, K. H. How trust in experts and media use affect acceptance of common anti-vaccination claims. The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review (2020).