Why do so many Southerners not trust science?

A Liberal Dose

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A reader who moved into the area a few years ago recently asked if I would use my column to address their question: Why do so many Southerners not believe in science? I decided that I would first turn to an expert in this area, so I asked my colleague from Tennessee Tech, Laura Smith (no relation), who also lives in Sparta. Laura teaches at Tech, and is finishing up her history dissertation for her PhD. I’m going to share with you what she said, then – in probably the next two columns – I will give my take on it.

Laura Smith:

“I’ve been in the classroom teaching about science and medicine for years, and it never fails that each semester a student will ask me why Southerners are so opposed to science.  Like many myths in history, the idea that Southerners are opposed to science is an overgeneralization, but also like many other myths in history, its roots lie not in the past but more in the present.  In my dissertation, I study the founding of medical schools in the 19th century American South and deal with that question: were Southerners against medical schools because they were against science?  The answer depends on who you asked, but it has more to do with race and class than it does with being from the South.  African-Americans, poor people, and women have historically been the people to suffer most from the ‘progress’ of science and medicine.  They were long the victims of experimentation, careless healthcare, and even bodysnatching for instruction in medical schools.  But Southerners, in general, and especially white males were not enemies of science.  Doctors and lay-people largely associated medicine and science with social progress.  Most interestingly, they believed that Southerners needed to study medicine so that they could better understand specifically Southern diseases, and local communities donated large amounts of money to ensuring their success."

So if it’s not true that Southerners have always opposed science, why do so many people think that?  The answer lies not in the distant past but in the 20th century Scopes trial.  The Scopes trial took place, in 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, where a high school teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was tried for violating a recent Tennessee act that banned teaching human evolution in public schools.  Up to this point, most people thought that it was fine to believe both in science and their religious convictions.  But, by the early 1900s, media coverage of the fossil evidence for human evolution was growing as was the passion of Christian fundamentalists who believed in a literal as opposed to symbolic interpretation of the Bible.  At the same time, more Southern children were attending public schools for the first time and hearing Darwin’s theories.  Fundamentalists pushed for the act which carried with it the strong implication that any teaching other than creationism was atheistic.  The trial was a spectacle that made money for all involved.  Thus, right here in Tennessee there began a manufactured fight, pitting science and Southern religion.  It is a narrative that has been picked up by conservative politicians appealing to Southern voters not to trust scientists to this day.  It’s important to remember that many Christian scientists have argued a reconciliation of evolution and religion by placing God as the controlling force choosing favorable traits that would pass to further generations.  It’s up to you what you believe, but the history of the evolution debate as well as the media coverage of this Southern trial has subconsciously shaded the way we view science and the South ever since.”

I agree with my friend Laura that distrust in science is not specifically a Southern phenomenon.  Or was it, traditionally, a liberal or conservative one – but it has become a conservative one in the 21st century, not just in the South but all over the country. Why?

Stay tuned.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.      

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