An inquiry into populism’s relation to science

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Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a question seldom addressed in a straightforward manner by political theorists: whether populism is intrinsically anti-science. This article identifies three different ways in which populist actors worldwide have grounded their scepticism, distrust, or hostility to scientific inputs, to the extent that they are relevant for political action: (1) they raise a moral objection against scientists who have been allegedly corrupted by foreign interests, turning them into enemies of the people; (2) they present a democratic objection against the technocratic claim that scientific experts should rule regardless of the popular will; and (3) they employ an epistemic argument against scientific reasoning, which is said to be inferior to common-sense and folk wisdom, and antithetical to the immediateness of political action. While these objections have been wielded in a selective and unsystematic way, they all speak to the core feature of populism, which is the people versus elites divide: the moral objection targets scientists as members of an elite in cahoots with alien powers; the democratic objection targets an unelected elite that seeks to undermine the people’s rule; the epistemic objection questions that the standard to validate knowledge-claims is a complex and detached-from-ordinary-experience rationality.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPolitics
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • epistemology
  • pandemic
  • populism
  • science

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