Populism and political polarisation
Donald Trump’s dismissal of climate change as a “hoax” is widely seen as symptomatic of a post-truth era, where science and facts can be dismissed in favour of illfounded partisan views. And former UK education secretary Michael Gove’s remark during the Brexit campaign that the British public had had enough of experts (in this case, economic experts) has rung many alarm bells in British universities.
So does the rise of populism and political polarisation endanger modern science? Our Nobel laureates think so. Some 40 per cent call these twin phenomena a “grave threat” to scientific progress, while
30 per cent say that they are a “serious threat”. Just 5 per cent (two respondents) are entirely unconcerned, while 25 per cent perceive a “moderate threat”.
“Today, facts seem to be questioned by many people who prefer to believe rumours rather than well-established scientific facts,” says Jean-Pierre Sauvage, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. “Education is the only answer.”
Meanwhile, one US-based laureate notes that “it is a disaster when people start believing things that are false and, even worse,
when governments induce them to believe facts that are evidently wrong and ignore all evidencebased, scientifically proven data”.
Another laureate notes that “any measures that inhibit the sharing of ideas are detrimental to science”, while a Japan-based laureate calls on the scientific community to “unite worldwide… against any unacceptable movement that denies definite, natural truth”.
The “intellectual arrogance” of some political leaders is criticised by several laureates, although only one directly refers to Trump. But depicting Trumpstyle doubts over climate change as wilfully ignorant and misguided is, according to Nasa’s Mather, a “truly bad strategy”.
“The results indicating climate change are extremely clear, but what is less clear is what to do about it,” he says. “People are beginning to understand that simply complaining about other people is not working.” Arguing for more investment in energyefficient technology would be more productive, Mather believes.
Several laureates do not see populism as an immediate threat to scientific progress, but they express concern about where it may lead. One New York-based researcher explains that “populism is not a danger to science as long as it does not develop into nationalism”.
For one US-based laureate, it is not populism but “demagoguery”, defined as “an appeal to the fears of the people”, that would “result in reducing funds for research in favour of either tax cuts or attention to more ‘immediate’ problems’. If [that] results in anti-intellectualism, it represents real danger.”
Some respondents, however, are more hopeful.
“Despite a large and vocal minority, it seems that over the course of my lifetime the world has become increasingly aware of the role of science and technology in improving human welfare,” one notes. “The slope remains positive.”