Student - June 28, 2017

Cornell researcher explains distrust towards experts

Liza van Kapel

WUR student Liza van Kapel is staying at the prestigious Cornell University in the USA until summer. Recently, she spoke to Warren Allmon, in the light of the recent development of Trump’s climate policy. Allmon is the director of the Paleontological Research Institution, which pursues research and education about the Earth, its history and its natural systems.

© Paleontological Research Institution

What is your view on the current political landscape in the U.S.?
‘Before November 2016, I would have told you the following: Anti-intellectualism has always been deeply embedded in the United States. Founding fathers Hamilton and Jefferson differed in opinion about how to run the country: by experts, or by the common man. Large-scale immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries increased the mistrust to everything foreign, including scientific ideas. After World War II, America became the world’s scientific leader, and college education expanded. But the distrust of experts once again increased after the 1960s.’

 What has changed since November?
‘All the previous is still true, but you need to understand it to understand the rise of Trump. His very unusual personality aside, he is a very American creature from that one pole of America: he does not read, does not want to learn and especially does not trust experts. As I explained, that attitude has always been here, it just had never run the country. On top of that, he is the first president who is so aggressively stupid, and even proud of it. Some previous presidents who have been viewed as not that bright now in comparison don’t look so bad! I have to remind myself every day that we actually ended up in this situation.’

Some previous presidents who have been viewed as not that bright now in comparison don’t look so bad!
Warren Allmon

How does that affect your work in educating people on climate change?
‘There are no national education standards in the U.S., so states and even local school districts have a lot of control. We try to reach high school teachers all over the country, which is challenging with our limited financial resources. Teachers are also one of the hardest groups to reach, because they already have an information overload. Nevertheless, teachers do come to us for advice on teaching difficult or controversial subjects in science, such as climate change, and we have recently published a new guide including that advice.’

Doesn’t adapting to or avoiding climate change have economic benefits?
‘Yes, and that is recognised by some people and sectors, such as insurance companies and some state and local governments. We did a survey amongst farmers a few years ago and we found that they are not interested if you call it “climate change”. But if you call it “extreme weather”, they are very interested. It is still an extremely difficult subject to talk about rationally.’