Be it of the right or of the left, populism invariably creates a mythology of the common man, who is assigned superior moral values and sense of reality, which is invoked to justify policies, decisions or general frameworks. This text investigates the problematic frontier between populism, technocracy and the scientific consensus, so notorious in contemporary societies.
Several studies have reported a correlation between populist movements —inside or outside of governments— and a discourse that denies the reality of climate change. Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, UKIP in the United Kingdom and the AfD in Germany are just a few examples. In other cases a relationship has been observed between populism and skepticism toward vaccines (as in Mateo Salvini’s Italy) and the theory of evolution (as in Erdogan’s Turkey). Even though practically all these examples correspond to right-wing populisms, in the case of left-populisms, antiscientific discourse has grown up around transgenic technology. The relevant question from political philosophy is whether this correlation between populism and denial of the scientific consensus is merely contingent and/or instrumental, or whether there is something like a “natural alliance” between both phenomena.
Let’s begin with some conceptual clarifications. By populism I understand a moralizing discursive structure that divides the political spectrum between a virtuous people and a corrupt elite. By this definition, populists are those political actors who consider themselves the voice of the former against the latter. By science denial, in general, I refer to the systematic rejection of the established consensus of the relevant scientific community, whatever be the argument used. Not all science denial has populist roots. Some reject the scientific consensus because it hurts their economic or electoral interests, like politicians influenced by the tobacco industry did in the nineties. And while Donald Trump’s climate denialism, as we shall see, is defended with populist arguments, it also explained by his electoral needs in areas which have been economically depressed due to the closure of polluting job sources. In parallel, a tendency to deny the scientific consensus has been observed in libertarian circles, inasmuch as they interpret said consensus as an imposition of official truth that must be resisted. Here, however, I will only examine that political discourse that denies scientifically established facts using populist-style objections. These are, speaking broadly, the moral objection, the democratic objection and the epistemic objection.
“By populism, I understand a moralizing, discursive structure that divides the political spectrum between a virtuous people and a corrupt elite. By science denial, in general, I refer to the systematic rejection of the established consensus of the relevant scientific community, whatever be the argument used”.
The Moral Objection
The discursive structure of populism, according to the dominant literature on the subject, is not enough in itself to articulate a political program. It is a partial, fragmentary, or “slender” ideology, that combines with other, traditional ideological approaches to acquire its final form and then aspire to power. For that reason there are populisms of the right and the left, as the recent history of Latin America demonstrates. The first wave of populism in the region —identified with the figures of Juan Domingo Perón and Getulio Vargas— promoted industrialization to replace imports and built an anti-imperialist narrative. The second wave, associated with the figures of Menem in Argentina, Collor de Mello in Brazil and Fujimori in Peru, was branded as neoliberal, for promoting privization and the opening-up of markets. The third wave turned again to the left under the auspices of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and the Kirchners in Argentina. As it was not a strictly Marxist block, the international press dubbed it “the pink tide”.
A good proxy to use in order to decipher the ideological coordinates of populism is the vilified elite. Populisms of the right tend to attack liberal elites embedded in the press, backroom politics and international organizations—as done by Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Nigel Farage in England, and José Antonio Kast in Chile. Populisms of the left, on the other hand, rail against big business and global financial institutions— as Podemos has done in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Beyond these categories, it is increasingly common that the vilified elite corresponds to intellectuals and experts in general. That is, those who believe they know more than the rest because of their studies and academic diplomas. Scientists also fall into the same category, at times presented as an overeducated and arrogant caste that lives in universities and laboratories far from the experiences of the common citizen.
“A good proxy to use in order to decipher the ideological coordinates of populism is the vilified elite. Populisms of the right tend to attack liberal elites embedded in the press, backroom politics and international organizations. Populisms of the left, on the other hand, take on big business and global financial institutions”.
Populism’s moral objection, therefore, is not aimed directly against a given scientific theory but rather against scientists as members of the corrupt elite. In football jargon, this objection doesn’t go for the ball, but the player. With the player lying on the reputational ground, his theories lose force. In this sense, populists do not reject conventional science as a method, but accuse the scientists of doing bad science for interests which have not been transparent. Climate scientists, for example, are accused of participating in a conspiracy called-for by foreign interests to reduce the competitiveness of national economies. Climate change is paradigmatic of the conspiracy mentality of populism: on the one hand, its effects are hard to appreciate in daily life, which opens up a space for suspicion from the man in the street; on the other, it is the cosmopolitan challenge par excellence, in that it requires national sovereignty to be subordinated to global considerations. But the conspiracy mentality is also operative in the case of “anti-vaxxers” who suspect pharmaceutical companies of playing a dirty game, or the anti-GMO movement that confuses the economic interests of agrochemical multinationals with the safety of biotechnology for human health. In some Muslim countries, for their part, Darwin’s theory is not questioned for any scientific fragility but because it is a Western importation.
The weakness of this moral objection is its selectivity, and, thus its inconsistency. It is only directed at those scientists who back theories which represent political problems for the populist movements and leaders. For the same reason, in these cases, populism responds by magnifying the virtues of dissident scientists. To the vast sea of scientific theories that have no importance for their agenda, populist don’t have much to say. In other words, it is an opportunistic objection: science is fine as long as it doesn’t cross paths with populism. If it does, the populist strategy is to delegitimize the consensus-holding scientists as if they were part of a conspiracy against the genuine interests of the people.
The Democratic Objection
Specialists suggest that populism’s nemesis is technocracy. While populist leaders aspire to govern following the will of the people, technocrats seek to govern according to technical and objective criteria, which are indifferent to the popular will. Nevertheless, populism and technocracy resemble each other in one thing: both want to spare themselves the process of mediation and deliberation offered by parties and formal representative institutions. Even so, the majority of contemporary populist movements have insisted on the necessity of removing specialists and experts from control of political decisions. In this sense, the populist crusade could be interpreted as a call for the re-politicization of certain debates which were removed from popular evaluation. This has become, for the most part, a critique of unelected entities that influence or determine the course of public policies.
“Populism and technocracy resemble each other in one thing: both want to spare themselves the process of mediation and deliberation offered by parties and formal representative institutions”.
The democratic objection, therefore, is based on the premise that our institutions are governed by technocrats that usurp the sovereign power of the people. Technocracies appeal to scientific knowledge that admits no argument against it. The facts established by science, observed Hannah Arendt with her habitual clarity, are despotic and dominant, in that they are what they are no matter whether people disagree. But the possibility of admitting counterarguments is the essence of politics, Arendt insists. From that perspective, science and democracy represent ideas in tension. Science is not democratic. If populism is the exacerbation of the democratic spirit, it is not surprising that it has a problem with science.
There is a very meritorious dimension to the democratic objection. Although we can recognize the epistemic authority of specialists and experts, including scientists, said authority is not political. Paraphrasing David Estlund: an expert might know a lot, but nobody would make him the boss. The last word in democracy is the people’s, through their tools of participation and self-government. However, the democratic objection misses the mark when it assumes that science has technocratic aspirations. Populism has a plausible case against what has been called the “linear model”, when a technical evaluation that experts or scientists make regarding a given matter automatically becomes the political decision taken with respect to that matter. But, in principle, science is not normative.It fulfills its role in the political process by providing quality input—describing factual reality in the most precise manner possible— so that democratically legitimized actors can decide what course of action to take. This decision is taken with the input of science, but not exclusively based on that input. In the political process, many competing considerations must be taken into account. For example, science can stress the urgency of closing thermoelectric plants in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, but this does not mechanically determine the relevant political decision, which must also take into account other aspects, like the effect on employment and the social life of the surrounding community.
In this sense, it’s worth keeping in mind that not even the liberal ideal of public reason is vulnerable to this populist objection. Even if political liberalism of the Rawlsian type includes the methods and conclusions of science within a select group of reasons that political actors can offer up for public deliberation, this inclusion constitutes a condition of admissibility to said deliberation, and does not mean that science has the last word. Even if political liberalism demands that coercive provisions be justified through public reason, at the time of adjudication or decision on a given controversy several public reasons can compete. Science is only one of them. Liberalism, from this point of view, cannot be accused of technocracy or scientism.
Populism’s democratic objection, in conclusion, is valid against technocracy. But it is not valid against the scientific consensus proper, because it erroneously presumes that that this involves a normative project. That is, it rests on a distorted vision of science.
The Epistemic Objection
This is, in my opinion, the most interesting of populism’s three objections to the scientific consensus. Unlike the moral objection, it is directed not against scientists, but against the scientific method itself. Unlike the democratic objection, it is not built on a critique of the privileged status of science in decision making, rather it seeks to take advantage of this status through an alternative epistemology. In brief, the epistemic objection holds that people’s common sense is a more trustworthy cognitive mechanism than scientific reasoning when it comes to offering solutions to public problems. Science not only unnecessarily complicates things —which according to the populists are much simpler than the experts think— but said complexity ends up producing a distortion in the task of correctly describing factual reality. Plebeian knowledge is not only more inclusive than patrician knowledge, but superior as a standard of epistemic sufficiency in order to justify political decisions.
“The epistemic objection holds that the people’s common sense is a more trustworthy cognitive mechanism than scientific reasoning when it comes to offering solutions to public problems. Science not only unnecessarily complicates things —which according to the populists are much simpler than the experts think— but said complexity ends up producing a distortion in the task of correctly describing factual reality”.
Therefore, populist leaders and movements are not intimidated by their poor comprehension of the scientific consensus. On the contrary, this characteristic is presented as a virtue, in that it represents an affirmation of epistemic autonomy. Facing the arrogance of the experts, populists respond with the “arrogance of ignorance”. Neither academic studies nor specialized articles have any value against what real people think about an issue.
On this point, it comes in handy to remember Donald Trump’s traditional tweets each winter. In December 2017 he wrote:
“In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”
Later, in January 2019:
“In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”
Although the first tweet has a bit of the moral objection (the idea that scientists who attest to climate change want to undermine the USA), in both of them one can clearly perceive the epistemic objection. The use of the antiquated concept of “global warming” rather than “climate change” allows the American president to convey the idea that scientists were simply wrong in their prognosis: the Earth cannot be warming if we are about to face the coldest winter; the common sense of ordinary people —suffering from freezing temperatures— perceives the situation with much more clarity than scientists do in their laboratories. In this way, Trump takes advantage of one of modern sciences’s weak points: many of its discoveries are counterintuitive.
Before Darwin, for example, William Paley’s watch argument prevailed: if we find a watch abandoned on a deserted beach, no reasonable person would think that it was assembled by magic. On the contrary, common sense would suggest that it was carefully designed and later put together piece by piece by an intelligence capable following a predetermined design. The universe is like a watch, observed Paley, and so needs a designer. Darwin came to the inverse conclusion. Paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, he discovered that the watchmaker is blind, because he doesn’t know what he is doing. The results of his work obey no predetermined plan. This “teleological coup de grace” —as Marx and Engels dubbed it— was difficult to imagine not only for religious reasons, but because it was a profoundly counterintuitive “inversion of reasoning”. As one of his critics commented ironically, it turned out that now, in order to make a perfect and beautiful watch, it is not necessary to have any idea how to do so. If we are speaking about common sense, the theory of intelligent design is more persuasive than Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not to mention quantum mechanics, which challenge the simplicity and apparent clarity of our perceptions.
Populism erupts into this context with a call to value the understanding of the common people above that of the experts. In the case of tension or collision between both types of understanding, public policy and law should be guided by common sense This was precisely the narrative pushed by the leaders of Brexit. Confronted with the data that practically all think tanks warned about the pernicious economic consequences that leaving the European Union would bring, the conservative Michael Gove stated that “Britain has had enough of experts”. In this same line, UKIP leader Nigel Farage concluded that the Brexit result was a triumph for common and ordinary people. With a similar argument, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has declined to participate in scheduled debates in the last two elections. In his vision, the right policies are those dictated by common sense. “It’s obvious what must be done”, he has said, “and anyway no debate is needed to evaluate empirical evidence”. Thus a contrast appears between the radicalism of the political action prosed by the populists, on one side, and the criticality of intellectual and scientific reflection, on the other. The first is quick, simple, and emotional. The second takes time, is complex and appeals to reason. Electorally speaking, the first has an advantage.
The intuitions which underlie populism’s epistemic objection to science were anticipated by Rousseau in his Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750). Just as civilization spoils a naturally good humanity, Rousseau reflected, individuals have an innate good sense that is corrupted by complex educational processes. In his view, there is no learning superior to that obtained by a candid and direct appreciation of reality, without recourse to the methods and categories of science. Scientific reasoning obscures genuine understanding of phenomena, for which introspection and common sense are enough. Some have drawn parallels between the Rousseau’s theories and Trump’s rhetoric. While Isaiah Berlin dubbed Rousseau “the greatest militant plebeian in history”, Trump has declared that he “loves the uneducated”. According to this comparison, both believe that true wisdom belongs to the common people, and thus any attempt to sophisticate the intelligence of the people through science will only ever pervert it.
 For a description of this empirical correlation between populism and science denial, see Brown, M. (2014). “Climate Science, Populism, and the Democracy of Rejection”. In: Crow & Boykoff (eds.) Culture, Politics and Climate Change: How Information Shapes Our Common Future; Norton, A. (2016). “Climate denial and the populist right”. International Institute for Environment and Development; Meyer-Ohlendorf, N., & B. Görlach (2016). “The EU in Turbulence: What are the Implications for EU Climate and Energy Policy?”. The Ecologic Institute; Machin, A., A. Ruser and N.V. Andrian (2017). “The Climate of Post-Truth Populism: Science vs. the People”. Public Seminar; Lockwood, M. (2018). “Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages”. Environmental Politics, 27.4; Waisbord, S. (2018). “The elective affinity between post-truth communication and populist politics”. Communication Research and Practice, 4.1.;
 See Müller, J. W. (2016). What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press; Mudde, C., & C. Rovira (2017). Populism: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.
 Ver Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Vintage; Taggart, P. (2000). Populism (Concepts in the Social Sciences). Open University Press.
 On the conspiracy mentality of populism and its relation to science denial, see Taggart, P. (2000). Populism (Concepts in the Social Sciences). Open University Press; Lockwood, M. (2018). “Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages”. Environmental Politics, 27.4; Diethelm, P., & McKee, M. (2009). “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?”. The European Journal of Public Health, 19.1; Müller, J. W. (2016). What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press; Gorman, S. E., & Gorman, J. M. (2016). Denying to the grave: Why we ignore the facts that will save us. Oxford University Press.
 On the relationship between populism and technocracy, see Freeland, C. (2010). “Forget left and right. The real divide is technocrats versus populists”. Reuters, November 5; Caramani, D. (2017). “Will vs. Reason: The Populist and Technocratic Forms of Political Representation and Their Critique to Party Government”. American Political Science Review, 111.1; Bickerton, C., & Invernizzi, C. (2018). “Populism and Technocracy”. En: Rovira, Taggart, Ochoa & Ostiguy (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Populism.
 On populism as a reaction to the democratic deficit of liberal democracies see Brown, M. (2009). Science in democracy: Expertise, institutions, and representation. MIT Press.; Mudde, C. (2015). “The problem with populism”. The Guardian, February 17; Mounk, Y. (2018). The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Harvard University Press.
 See Arendt, H. (2006) . Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics.
 On the complex relationship between science and democracy see Guston, D. (1993). “The essential tension in science and democracy”. Social Epistemology 7.1.
 See Estlund, D. (2008). Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton University Press.
 On the “linear model” and its lack of democratic legitimacy see Brown, M. (2014). “Climate Science, Populism, and the Democracy of Rejection». En: Crow & Boykoff (eds.) Culture, Politics and Climate Change: How Information Shapes Our Common Future; Machin, A., A. Ruser and N.V. Andrian (2017). “The Climate of Post-Truth Populism: Science vs. the People”. Public Seminar.
 On science as public reason see Rawls, J. (2005) . Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press. For a defense, see Bellolio, C. (2018). “Science as Public Reason: A Restatement”. Res Publica, 24.4.
 See Wodak, R. (2015). The politics of fear: What right-wing populist discourses mean. Sage; Nichols, T. (2017). “How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That’s a Giant Problem”. Foreign Affairs, 96.
 See Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design. Penguin Books.
 For a history of the reception of the theories of Darwin and Marx, see Gerratana, V. (1973). “Marx and Darwin”. New Left Review, 82.
 That critic was Robert Mackenzie, who coined the expression “inversion of reasoning” as an attack on Dawin’s theory. See Dennett, D. (2009). “Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.1.
 On the opposition between solutions based on common sense and expert judgement as the trademark of populism, see Mudde, C., & C. Rovira (2017). Populism: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press; Mounk, Y. (2018). The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Harvard University Press.
 See “Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove”, Financial Times, 3 June 2016.
 See Müller, J. W. (2016). What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.
 On Rousseau’s complex relationship with science, see Brown, M. (2009). Science in democracy: Expertise, institutions, and representation. MIT Press.
 See Berlin, I. (2002) . Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. Chatto & Windus.
 See “Donald Trump loves the “uneducated”— and they love him”. USA Today, 24 February 2016.
 This parallel has been primarily established by Pankaj Mishra. See Mishra, P. (2016a). “How Rousseau Predicted Trump”. The New Yorker, August; Mishra, P. (2016b). “The Anti-Élite, Post-Fact Worlds of Trump and Rousseau”. The New Yorker, November.