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Scholar sheds light on science-related populism

CHEN YUTONG | 2020-08-19
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Mike S. Sch fer is a professor of science communication, director of the Center for Higher Education and Science Studies at the University of Zurich, and president of the AGORA Commission of the Swiss National Science Fund. He specializes in science communication, climate change communication and online communication. In his research he looks at media representations and public perception of climate change and at the impact that media has on science. Photo: UNIVERSITY OF ZURICH

In an interview with CSST, Mike S. Sch?fer, professor of science communication at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, talked about the science-related populism that is on the rise, and what academia can do to eliminate it.
CSST: Why is science-related populism wrong? 
S: The problem with “science-related populism” is that it tries to replace the scientific epistemology—the established, systematic way in which science produces knowledge, its methods, ways of quality control via peer review etc.—with something that is presented as common sense but is not evidence- or expertise-based and also not open to external, critical scrutiny. Instead, the common sense that is demanded by populists is one that is a belief rather than knowledge, and based on ideology instead of facts. It’s no accident that these beliefs are pushed by political populists like Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, or Bolsonaro in Brazil. 
CSST: What areas are frequently attacked by  populists?
S: Science-related populism, and other forms of critique towards science, have frequently attacked STEM sciences and natural scientific research, such as medical research, especially vaccination for COVID-19, measles vaccines etc. Other examples from the natural sciences include climate science or evolutionary theory. In many countries, social scientific fields like gender studies have also come under attack, because they are seen as more ideological than scientific. Arts are often criticized as well; often they are portrayed as a waste of taxpayers’ money. 
CSST: How does social media influence science-related populism?
S: The rise of social media has profoundly changed the relation of science and society. They have enabled many more people, including those with little or no scientific expertise and people with anti-scientific agendas, to have a say on many matters including on science-related topics. In addition, social media platforms have re-routed advertisement revenue away from science journalism, thus weakening it considerably in many countries. And they have essentially replaced journalistic gatekeeping with algorithmic curation and social recommendation. 
These are all substantial challenges with no easy, ready-made answers. We need to think about alternative sources of funding for reliable science journalism, in a way that allows it to remain editorially independent. We need accountable social media platforms, with content moderation that does not simply distribute problematic content like conspiracy theories because it generates traffic. We also need a scientific community that engages in these media and in public debates. Not every scientist has to do it, of course—but more should do it than do so currently. And if they do it, they should do it well. This means we need to enhance communication training in science curricula, incentives within science and scientific organizations that reward communicating scholars, and also social, psychological and if necessary legal protection for those scientists that do communicate and come under attack. 
edited by WENG RONG