The War on Facts – Why Science Loses Against Populism

Aydurmus, Didem | April 11, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Solar panels in Bulgaria by Margita Noethlichs

At first sight the idea of a War on Facts may appear too strong. However, the consequences of denying climate change –and of questioning the worth of science in more general terms– are devastating. More than ever, we need to understand what is happening. There are various ways to approach the problem.

First, we should define what science actually is and what it is not. Among the wisdom to be found in Terry Pratchett is an explanation what science is:

“Science is not about building a body of known ‘facts’. It is a method for asking awkward questions and subjecting them to a reality check, thus avoiding the human tendency to believe whatever makes us feel good”.[1]

This could be the problem. Science is a confrontation with reality. Typically, it does not make us feel good. Who likes awkward questions? In regard to climate change, science shows us a grim reality, suggests that we should make sacrifices, and insists that unless we do the future will be worse. Except for a few masochists, maybe, no one likes facing the reality of environmental destruction. This goes so far that even climate scientists are often climate change deniers when it comes to their daily life.  At least Bruno Latour says they are in his eloquent lectures Facing Gaia.  A new enquiry into Natural Religion. The severity of reality also means that a whole guild of scientists is suffering from a exceedingly dark view of the future. In sum, looking at our life support systems is ‘too’ depressing.

An additional problem facing scientists –beyond our resistance to discomfort– is that everyday language and scientific language diverge from one another. There are huge barriers to communication. Populists frequently manage to negate the difference between beliefs and facts. The term ‘alternative facts’, for instance, is an excellent example of such denial. And while the populist claims to know stuff with absolute certainty, the scientist uses caution. Often the populist points at the importance of HIS opinion.

Yet, opinions do not matter in science. Earth does not care what we think. Things are happening, even if we do not want to believe in them.

Scientists are not always the most effective or entertaining speakers, and science does not appeal to enough people. The populist knows how to use language to make the crowd feel good about themselves, while the scientist might even make people feel worse. Again, who prefers awkward questions over great illusion? Facts about climate change surely make me sad. Populism is much sexier. It is not complicated, nor sad for its perpetrator.

It does not help that while populists are feeding off of crowds, scientists often find themselves disconnected from the public. Science can take place far away from the public eye. It may happen in a laboratory. The scientist might not be actively engaged with the public and might even think advocacy work is somehow ‘dirty’. Scientists might enjoy their subjects, but informing the public about dire predictions is anything but fun. The biblical figure Jeremiah, for instance, attempted to inform others of the consequences of sins. Instead of listening and changing, people continued and catastrophe followed. The scientist is amongst the many tragic prophets. We need to engage: listen and act. That is our only hope.

Finally, repetition is an important factor for belief.[2] This means that science can only stand a chance if it is constantly repeated. Everyone needs to be vocal about facts. Trump understands the mechanism. The silencing of the EPA is only one way that he can curtail ‘science’s agency’.

Humanity is driving environmental destruction, this is a fact. Yet populism is effective at disregarding facts by capitalizing on our resistance to discomfort, negating the difference between beliefs and facts, using language that feeds into what the public wants to hear, and shamelessly repeating it all. We need to recognize and learn from these tools perfected by the art of populism.  Maybe some of them can even be turned around to champion science.  The stakes are too high not to consider it.

We need to keep asking awkward questions loudly.

[1] Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen 2014. The Science of Discworld: A Novel. Anchor, p. 90.

[2] Lewandowsky, S. et al. 2012. Misinformation and its correction continued influence and  successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13(3):106-131.


Didem Aydurmus earned a PhD in Political Science from the Graduate School of Social Sciences of Istanbul Bilgi University. Aydurmus’s recently published dissertation Survival despite the People: Democratic Destruction or Sustainable Meritocracyis available through the MAHB Library.


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/war-on-facts/


The MAHB has shared additional resources considering how to confront the antagonism facing facts and science including:

How scientists should confront the antagonists | Robyn Williams with ABC Radio National’s The Science Show reports on comments by Gretchen Goldman, John Holdren, and Jane Lubchenco at the American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

Average people can make a difference on global challenges, says researcher | Caroline Newman with UVA Today speaks with Thomas Batemen to discuss the recent article Batemen published with Michael E. Mann in Nature Climate Change entitled The supply of climate leaders must grow. 

What does the way forward look like for scientists? | An open thread for you to share your thoughts and experiences as advocates for science. You are encouraged to join the conversation!

And don’t forget to mark your calendars for the March for Science on April 22nd!

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • There’s an old and basic distinction in democratic thinking between citizens who want to be led, untroubled by controversy and those who want to participate in controversy. The former provide the audience for lies and simplicity. The latter want the complex truth. The thing is a speaker has to decide which to address because addressing both is simply not possible. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/?frame-nonce=63c8b8d06a

    • Sadly, that’s probably true, and in any case environmental issues often appear distant and lack urgency and most people have no time for such things among their everyday concerns. I said below we should ‘try to strike a balance around simplification’, and I have read claims that scientific messages should be targeted at the elite as that’s who most people follow (whether they know it or not). I don’t agree with all the political conclusions in your blog and suspect that sometimes simple solution are correct (the ‘populism’ of Syriza made economic and social sense, it was that the ECB prevented it).

      This relates to the suggestion that we should ‘recognize and learn from these tools perfected by the art of populism’ while retaining honesty: Obama was clearly a good orator but failed to take the entire US population with him on climate. A wide range of trusted figures explaining what needs to be done as a moral imperative might help, and personal figureheads like Leonardo di Caprio can try to make it matter to a new audience. However, Climate Outreach points out that framing climate change as something poor people particularly suffer from and ‘climate justice’ doesn’t appeal to those who do their moral reasoning based more on tradition, purity, loyalty and liberty.

      The messaging in most mass media and on the internet is such that it generates the idea of false controversy (see US polls suggesting people think scientists are split on climate risks). Somehow just persuading people to get their facts on scientific issues from the scientific press rather than political comment (or specialist contrarian blogs such as WUWT, Jo Nova or No Tricks Zone) seems to be critical.

      I just used Google to look for more research like “Elevated Indoor Carbon Dioxide Impairs Decision-Making Performance” (2012) and “Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide” (2016), stupidly searched for ‘carbon dioxide confusion’, which turned up a 1975 paper on climate by Stephen Schneider plus some of the most horrendous contrarian rot pretending to explain the lack of a threat. So selectivity sources clearly adds to the natural effects of confirmation bias.

      This all emphasises the need to speak up on climate and ecology and tip the balance.

  • I’d like to thank Didem Aydurmus, regardless of whether he adequately explained populism, for explaining science and the role of the individual.

    “Everyone needs to be vocal about facts… The scientist is amongst the many tragic prophets. We need to engage: listen and act. That is our only hope… [we] need to keep asking awkward questions loudly”.

    To me, this seems exactly the role those of us blessed with understanding should take: continue to inform ourselves, be sceptical of all positions until we are satisfied in our understanding, associate with others, and, if we can, take both related personal and political action. A rallying call indeed.

    A problem clearly exists at the science-policy interface. The nuanced, qualified, but well supported scientific understandings get lost in a politically and morally charged environment – it’s as though science and policy are two optical media with very different refractive indices (see my illustration). This can be seen in representatives on committees in the UK as well as the US. In order to get anything accepted in a political environment, sadly it frequently seems necessary to give it a normative, moral value, which people can only do as informed citizens, not scientifically. Many scientists do take on this role, needing to be mindful to clarify their objective and their personal responses, but it’s not something every professional scientist is suited or willing to do. There are so many misunderstandings out there that research scientists alone are insufficient to counter every re-occurrence, and so we as citizens must amplify the science by disseminating knowledge. We can also as citizens, where necessary, move the framing on to explain our view of the policy implications. At all times, this should be honest and so far as possible polite and even friendly (admittedly parodying a position in good humour can be an underused way of communicating).

    What I say following concerns climate change, but it could equally refer to pollution and run-off, habitat fragmentation and loss, overpopulation, palm oil and so on. It’s just that climate change is (a) the most conflicted, (b) a key threat because of thermal inertia, infrastructure and investment inertia and political inertia – I think if we can crack that, we can crack other ecological imbalances.

    Whenever trying to correct scientific misunderstandings about climate change and its effects (for example on the Great Barrier Reef), I come across strong political beliefs rejecting the perceived policy implications of the science, with the same people disputing scientific knowledge. I look into these claims, and if they are unfounded, will try to explain what the real situation actually is. For those of us with the luxury of time to spend interpreting research findings to strangers, this can be a dispiriting exercise when people come back with more, quite separate, half-understood objections and confusions they have found on contrarian blogs. Fortunately there are repositories of explanations out there like Skeptical Science and Real Climate that explain research in fairly everyday language and save us having to explain misunderstandings at length (specialised scientific and statistical language is indeed a barrier: some suggest translating ‘error’ and ‘uncertainty’ into ‘range of values’ and ‘risk’).

    More recently, there are doubts about the ‘deficit’ model of climate communication, with Dan Kahan’s ‘cultural cognition’ project finding that professing incoherent contrarian beliefs is often an expression of belonging (but also that scientific curiosity and scepticism is associated with increased willingness to accept the reality of climate threats). However, while I accept much of the psychological explanation of climate contrarianism and inaction, as explained by Climate Outreach, and that we need to establish common cause with an apparently unsympathetic audience, the facts obviously do matter. The media and citizen scientists should distinguish objective and normative statements, (as clarified in a University of Edinburgh lecture by Dr Richard Milne on Critical Thinking about Climate Change available on YouTube), try to strike a balance around simplification, and maintain the values of objectivity in place of false balance. It sometimes feels like we are entering a new Dark Age, but as Aung San Suu Kyi said ‘Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.’

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/de4bcc96ad921891d18654d50e549ef02324480b5c33bdbe3b014ae9f5cbbd35.png

  • Dan Costello
    • I’m a little confused by this response (I’m also not sure why Disqus would detect the text as spam), as it seems off-topic to me. I suppose you’re supporting some kind of movement you perceive as ‘anti-elite’, but I’m baffled why you think knowledge is part of the elite.

      Science isn’t elitist – it requires a little study to understand, and hard work collecting data, but basically all you need is to be motivated by curiosity. Scientists are the naturally curious, who are employed by society to challenge received wisdom, as Didem Aydurmus says, in the interests of telling us what is true. So I don’t see why, say someone working in developmental biology, or astrophysics, or inorganic chemistry should be more concerned with massacres of Christians by Boko Haram or other Islamist groups – as citizens, I see no reason to suppose that academics would not condemn religiously-motivated violence just as strongly as you (I’m not going to go there other than to briefly reflect that Christians sometimes kill Muslims, and Western Civilisation owes a huge amount to Islamic culture, the number system being perhaps the most famous example). But that has nothing to do with the cellular differentiation, or the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, or the reaction energy of oxidising carbon monoxide.

      It seems you feel strongly about being manipulated by people in power, which is understandable, although it’s not clear from what you write what you base your own beliefs on about who is doing this and why. The truth remains true regardless of what the political debates are. To get a bit too philosophical (I’d rather write about loving nature), your suggestion that knowledge serves the elite recalls post-modernists like Derrida and Foucault who are sometimes supposed to have simultaneously held that ‘knowledge is power’ and ‘there is no truth’. But no one stands in the middle of a street and says ‘that car is not real’, or says it to someone else in the middle of the street.

      We should always try to tell the truth, even if it is inconvenient to us (no pun or allusion intended) – to avoid error and allow challenge we should also explain how we reached our conclusions, double-check and search for any biases we might have. This is exactly what science does, and how civilisation has got us here. Science tells us, among other things, how to make nitrate fertiliser, how that simultaneously increases crop yields, and how that fertiliser can enter rivers and seas and cause eutrophication and algal blooms, and how that can disrupt ecosystems and also harm us. Science tells us that carbon dioxide, water and methane absorb longwave infra-red radiation (heat), and are greenhouse gases, and that the amount of carbon dioxide, CO₂ has been rising from burning fossil fuels. The truth is out there.

  • Dan Costello

    Agree with meditor, post-Trump win, I witnessed my first hate crime, a Facebook follower of an American science teaching group extorting people to kill all Christians. There is already a physical genocide of Christians across MENA and it is not climate change that is to blame. It is Islamic terrorism. Yet the current crop of scientists, NGOs and researchers along with media seek to pretend it’s not happening. As with many other leftists, many of your climate scientists have failed to stifle freedom of speech or thought and it irritates your polities immensely. Many of you who seek the death of Christians or genocided whites in South Africa appear to have inordinately benefited from the Marxist-socialist financing of your research through Soros or other DNC aligned sources. These among you will again blame non-scientists for the failure of your community to communicate effectively to those you need to win over in a 4th generation information war. You can’t force people to do your will, that is not the democratic society you live in and you can only generate many more enemies than you already have by attempting to redistribute wealth rather than address practical, inexpensive, scalable solutions which appeal to the general sense of learned helplessness of many consumers. I read a lot of scientific literature, laterally across disciplines and demand scientific method from researchers that I review for the Academy of International Business. This is the same academy that appears to apply similar identity politics, in group bias, cognitive dissonance and group think in perception of populism. Such outdated elitist methods of influence over people with the heavy hand of government, do not represent the will of the people. Until they take their policies and projects from a grassroots approach, my methods of engagement on this topic will continue to be undermined by those who prefer autocratic or totalitarian means or force the hands of others rather than work their own hands upon the land. Look no further than your own aversion to popular opinion which prevents the advancement of my simple ideas, my shared thoughts, my individually chosen directions of research, my practical and tested voice for ecologically sound business practices to divert your waste stream and/or combine your technologies into new usabilities. While I am willing to use science to do, I won’t be used by science. For example, unless you are trained in research project management and collaboration rather than elitist competition, then I cannot help you. Elitists, your understanding of politics being as childish as it appears, is undermining the values of western civilization, a Christian one, to pursue a climate science vision of utopia? What do you imagine will destroy society sooner, as surely as habitat collapse, earlier in fact according to many theories of complexity. Please wish upon another star and cut the puppet strings. Christians for example, are unwilling to be treated with expediency.

  • Meditor

    Why “populism” as a boogeyman? Populism recognizes that the average person is powerless against the global elite. There is powerful scientific evidence to supppor that.
    I think you should figure what the positions are, get your nomenclature correct and try again.

    • C Knight

      I would define ‘populism’ in this context as telling people what they want to hear, regardless of whether it is true or not, for political reasons or to boost one’s own popularity. Additional to this sometimes is telling people what your powerful allies want them to hear, or telling people what you want them to believe to pursue your allies’ interests (claims of knowledge of WMD in Iraq being one well-known example of the latter). Sometimes creating an appealing message takes over from considerations of its veracity. This obviously can lead to bad consequences, underestimation of risk, and so on.

      Enough people together are not powerless against the global elite: they can expose them and take action. Think of all progress towards civil rights – similarly people can work together to protect the ecology (as they did in the 1970s with the Great Barrier Reef – see David Ritter’s recent piece in the Guardian). What’s your “scientific” evidence that people are powerless?

      Ecologically-minded people I think are by instinct against ‘global’ forces, and it’s interesting that rebalancing tax towards discouraging environmental damage encourages local economies, culture and cohesion.

      • I maybe misunderstood your comment about nomenclature of ‘populism’. I admit I don’t know much about political science and was taking it to mean a kind of content-free pseudo-political position or tactic that attacks others as being part of the establishment without evidence, tends to focus on a leader rather than a policy and generally blames scapegoats for everything wrong. And that I think is how Didem Aydurmus was using it, and I see Jan-Werner Mueller partly describes it in an interview. In many ways, it’s not distinct from demagoguery.

        However, it now has a positive connotation about somehow giving power to the people. Most of us are against pronounced inequality for moral reasons (and science tell us it is harmful), so it’s hard to see who’s against it in that sense. What many of us want to avoid is the tyranny of the majority, too much concentration of power and abuse of the rights of minorities, because we know it happens in state structures, and that’s why constitutional and human rights safeguards exists. If the ‘power to [a subset of] the people’ erodes those, it again becomes a danger to life and liberty.

        Donald Trump seems to be described as a populist in both positive and negative connotations. I just want to note that in 2009 he signed a full-page advertisement about climate change in the New York Times
        stating “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that
        there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity
        and our planet”.

        • Meditor

          Sociologist here, those words have specific meaning.
          However, yeah, you are not to be blamed, since the global news media has concocted “populism” as a force against globalism, but casts populism as retrograde, and globalism as enlightened. It’s a misuse of the concept, and it isn’t by accident, there are reasons of profit why Hillary and others try to denigrate and separate those who doubt the globalist agenda.
          Likewise, Trump is not a populist by any stretch.
          Anyway, given the popular press, you could be said to be using the current colloquial use of the term.
          Otherwise, yes, the discussion of why more and more people mistrust science is a very pertinent one. Perhaps part of it is this: medicines that kill; food that doesn’t nourish; technologies which ravage the Earth and enslave the poor. Maybe it’s something else.
          Regarding our relationship with our environment, I’m a pantheist; we’ve been cursed by the Catholic Church as recently as 2009 for not distinguishing the godliness of humans from other animals, though I don’t support PETA’s extremist position. So, your basic theme resonates with me.
          In the long run, though, Cedric, it’s too late. There are too many people; the environment, from the ocean to the sky, is too badly denigrated; we’ve enshrined the global capitalist/consumerist model as the way to save the planet, which is madness to the extreme. If we aren’t already spraying aerosols in an attempt to cool the planet, we no doubt will, which will further disrupt the natural cycles. Genetic modification has polluted the planetary gene pool, robots are robbing jobs, even grape pickers and pot trimmers are losing their jobs. Steven Hawking now doubts we’ll see 2100, his biggest worry is AI. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists keep nudging the big hand towards midnight. The climate is certain to tip when temperatures release sufficient methane from clathrates.
          So, love your friends, spend time in the woods, smoke a little weed, eat some good food, write. If you’re young, you’ll see some “interesting times”.

          • Meditor

            Maybe Murry Bookchin’s “communalism” is what we are after.