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.

By happy coincidence these two attitudes, mistrust and populism, defined by those who decry them, become fused. It is the same people who respond that they think that sortition can be a good democratic tool that also think that science has not necessarily brought more good than bad to humanity. From this it is concluded that populists mistrust science, and vice versa. The two attitudes delegitimize each other, and that is that.

What world view does this confounding of “populists” with “distrustful” serve? This combination allows its promoters to attribute the growing success of populist leaders to a cognitive defect of individuals. Thus, it is not economic, social or political processes (increasing inequalities, segregation of communities, poverty, and the professionalization of politics, for example) the may be the cause of the election of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, but the “mental disposition” and “judgement errors” or their voters. By connecting it with mistrust of science, populism is essentially explained, according to this narrative framework, by an analysis of individual attitudes borrowed from the theory of “cognitive biases”.

What does this widely communicated theory teach us? Primarily that political phenomena which do not follow the liberal ultra-center are first and foremost the result of irrational attitudes. “Precautionary populism”, for example, consists of an exaggerated fear and an exaggerated response to something (immigration, unemployment, etc.). It is thus an irrational attitude which pushes toward “extremism”. The problem with this analysis is that in this way a denunciation of illegitimate fears quickly turns into a denunciation of any critique of the dominant ideology, since no criterion is offered for distinguishing mistrust and fear from criticism and moral rejection.

Hence, Left populism, which decries science serving financial interests, and Right populism, decrying science for destroying an imagined tradition, become completely equivalent because they are grouped by this analysis based on sharing “mistrust”, regardless of its causes, its reasons, its definition. This narrative thus treats very diverse groups equally under the pretext that opinion polls show that they subscribe more than other groups to a critique of science: The Yellow Vests, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, climate-skeptics, anti-vaxxers, etc. All these constitute a single movement – a counter-truth movement. It turns out that the old Thatcherite slogan of ultra-liberalism is always in effect: There Is No Alternative.

6 Responses

  1. *** The text quoted is basically a sound analysis of an ideological theme very active in our polyarchies.
    *** But we must add that in France there are two big opinion phenomena in relationship to scientific consensus.
    *** First a global distrust of scientific consensus, seen as pure power play by the scientific elites. It is related to anti-elitist attitudes, and therefore may be found especially among people of populist leaning – and in some people of ortho-democratic dispositions (for referenda, for sortition). Even if some other people with the same political dispositions have a more advanced attitude.
    *** Another phenomenon is found in the oligarchizing fraction of the culture and media elite. They claim for the function and the power of distinguishing the scientific consensuses of a pure kind and the scientific consensuses of the impure kind, result of subservience to financial interests or (bad) ideological lobbies. They may issue valid criticisms, but rarely clear institutional or epistemic proposals. Actually, they want to be allowed to pick among the scientific consensus those they like, and discard those they dislike, intimidating the scientists by attacks. The scientific elites must accept the hegemony of the global culture and media elite (they are a very specific part of it) and the power of its oligarchizing fraction.
    *** These two phenomena are grounded in very different circles, and if the first is mainly on Internet, the second is mainly strong in the big media.
    *** But it is easily understood that these two different phenomena may have a cumulative « anti-scientist » effect.
    *** The discourse lambasted in the text is quite real, and strong among the polyarchic elites of every kind. But the culture and media elites are not for all that « scientist ». They don’t like the objectivity potential of science, as the former clerical elites did not like it.
    *** As for the relationship between true dêmokratia (ortho-democracy) and science, in France there is few thinking about the subject, even in the groups of ortho-democratic leaning, at least as far as I know, and the positive proposals I heard are not very convincing. Note that the subject of the relationship between sovereignty and science is difficult for any sovereign, not only the sovereign dêmos.

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  2. Andre,

    > But the culture and media elites are not for all that « scientist ». They don’t like the objectivity potential of science, as the former clerical elites did not like it.

    I don’t see how objectivity threatens the culture and media elites, or indeed the clerical elites. In the case of the clerics, there was certainly a competition between different types of rhetoric, each claiming to be authoritative. In a much more limited fashion, similar competition could be taking place between culture/media people and academics, but in either case I don’t see how this competition is revolving around the issue of objectivity.

    > Note that the subject of the relationship between sovereignty and science is difficult for any sovereign, not only the sovereign dêmos.

    I don’t see why there should be an inherent difficulty. It is only when sovereignty is in question and when the powerful are trying to misrepresent reality in order to justify their power that science could become part of this area of contention.

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  3. *** Yoram Gat writes : “It is only when sovereignty is in question and when the powerful are trying to misrepresent reality in order to justify their power that science could become part of this area of contention. »
    *** Any sovereign, even politically above any threat, may be manipulated through the use of scientific consensuses which actually are the result of elite conformism and / or ideological pressures. In many fields of political debates we see injunctions grounded on real or supposed scientific consensus: climatology, epidemiology, psychology, sociology, economics etc. The problem for the sovereign is to distinguish which can be trusted.
    *** The anti-scientist solution is “don’t consider science; look to the orators without any special hearing for the scientific experts”. But I am afraid this solution could induce the sovereign – for instance the sovereign dêmos of a modern dêmokratia – to neglect the problem of scientific institutions; and to make easier manipulations, as actually a part of the citizens will anyway be sensitive to the scientific consensuses.
    *** Whatever the strength of various scientophobic mental dispositions, the successful technical results of modern science did convince many people that modern science gives better ways towards objective truth; that modern chemistry is better than ancient alchemies, for instance.This trust is not stupid; but it can be used to cover ideological leanings.

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  4. […] This is part 2 of a translation of an op-ed by Camille Ferey in BibliObs. Part 1 is here. […]

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  5. Andre,

    Ok – I think I understand your point now. You are talking about the agency problem: the sovereign wants to utilize the supposed wisdom of advisors but needs to take into account that the interests of those advisors may not be aligned with those of the sovereign. Yes – this is surely an important issue.

    In fact, the entire problem of mass democracy largely revolves around this matter.

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  6. The other problem is that very few people in government or the media have a scientific background (or science education beyond high school). In the UK I can’t offhand think of anybody at all — the contrast with the CCP (where many senior party members are engineers) is stark.

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