Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 1

Camille Ferey is a doctoral student at the Université de Paris-Nanterre where she is writing a thesis about theories of participative democracy and democratic social movements. She wrote the following op-ed in BibliObs back in July.

Populism against science: a new political cleavage?

Rarely does science provoke as many hopes and controversies as it has been doing over the last few months.

It is a matter of great importance: upon the progress of science depends the neutralization of a disease that has confined half of humanity, upon its instructions and warnings depend our rights to travel, to meet and to kiss. However, many commentators talk about the threat of “distrust” that undermines the authority of science, if not of the authority of Truth itself, in our democracies. Furthermore, this dominant narrative confounds this phenomenon of skepticism (which is very real) with a different phenomenon, a political one: populism. The political cleavage is then reduced to a binary opposition between reason and populism, and consequently all criticism of scientific and political institutions is ruled out.

Mistrust of science and political non-conformism: a problematic confounding

It is a widely circulated narrative, with its opinion polls, its statistical studies, its indicators and its media talking points: democracies are suffering because of the irrational acceptance by a growing number of citizens of a mass of fake news, alternative truths and conspiracy theories (vaccines are bad for your health, the theory of evolution is a lie, climate change is a hoax). Yet, this narrative never asks whether what is taking place is a rejection of scientific theories, of scientific protocols, of scientists, of institutions of research, of technical applications of science or of its political uses. This vagueness allows to systematically associate this distrust with a specific phenomenon: populism, which is designated willy-nilly as both a cause and an effect of the regime of errors and lies.

The latest CEVIPOF poll on the relations between science and society establishes a correlation between, on the one hand, “an indicator” of mistrust calculated based on questions such as “Do you think that science brings more good than bad, as much good as bad, or more bad than good?”, and, on the other hand, “and indicator of populism”, based on the following questions: “Politicians are generally corrupt? A good political system is one where citizens rather than a government decide what they think is better for the country? Democracy functions best if the representatives are allotted citizens?”. A surprising definition of “populism”, which rather resembles the definition of democracy, or maybe of common sense.
Continue reading