Pop­ulism and po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

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.”

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