Four centuries ago, Galileo caught the unwelcome attention of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1616, his conviction that the Earth went round the Sun, contrary to the geocentric view of the universe, simply irritated theologians; by 1633, the astronomer was under house arrest and forbidden from propagating his beliefs, a situation that prevailed until his death in 1642. It might have been worse for a heretic: he could have been burnt at the stake.
Scientists may well feel the heat from those in power once again. Donald Trump, US president-elect, established his anti-science credentials by declaring climate change a Chinese hoax. In Mike Pence, he chose a running mate who seems not to believe in evolution. One science blogger said Mr Trump’s cabinet looked as if his team had “made a list of all 300m Americans, ordered them by competency . . . and then skipped straight down to the bottom”.
Now Mr Trump has the chance to turn election threats into political action. The Environmental Protection Agency and Nasa are among the organisations in the line of fire. He is not the only populist politician to riff on an anti-science melody: in his victory speech, Paul Nuttall, the new leader of the UK Independence party, ridiculed climate change as a symbol of elitist concern.
Facts and the search for objective truth make up the essence of science; a disregard for the same is not only a hallmark of the new politics but a badge of honour. As populist parties rise up, we should brace ourselves for a renewed assault on scientific thought and a retreat to unreason.
Why is science under siege? One possible explanation is that it favours objective evidence over subjective experience. In other words, your lived experience does not necessarily correspond to my facts. If a party builds an ideology around people’s first-hand experience, such as a dislike of immigration, it is unlikely to embrace contrary statistics that flag immigration as beneficial to an economy.
Populist parties portray themselves in opposition to elites. Scientists, alas, embody the definition of an elite: “A select group that is superior in terms of abilities or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” Science is also a global profession. Leading researchers are thus part of that modern scourge, the global elite, shuttling between such gilded havens as Ivy League universities, Silicon Valley and Big Pharma, or working in international agencies such as Cern and the World Health Organisation, which operate like diplomatic enclaves.
The resurgence of religion in politics — a trend noted in Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, published this year — militates against a scientific way of thinking. Populists across Europe focus on Islamisation as a threat to European civilisation, a stance that requires the reclamation of the continent’s Christian heritage. Religion offers a fundamentally different worldview from science: it is largely about preserving cherished wisdoms, while science seeks to overturn them.
Academic research has, for example, altered our thinking on smoking, alcohol and pollutants. Such research also renders scholars vulnerable to shoot-the-messenger attacks by those who believe regulations stifle liberalism and economic dynamism.
For those struggling with poverty and joblessness, it is understandable that climate change might seem a frivolous addition to a hierarchy of concerns. But do not be hoodwinked into thinking science is the villain. Scientific thought, and the technology it begets, has enriched society. It has given us cleaner air, safer water, better healthcare and longer, less miserable lives. That so many no longer appreciate this is a perverse mark of its success.
The writer is a science commentator
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