There is growing concern in most liberal democracies about a rising wave of attacks against the legitimacy of science and scientific methods by populist movements and parties, which consist not only of attempts to discredit individual scientists but also of far-reaching campaigns against higher education institutions, public intellectuals and experts.
Public trust in the scientific community has for a while, and even more so during the current pandemic, been put under extraordinary pressure by political leaders. Crucial areas of human activity and public policies – such as agriculture, vaccines, climate action and healthcare programmes – have been influenced by the mobilisation of raw emotions and populist political strategies, rather than being evidence-based solutions to objective problems. Moreover, data-driven methods are becoming increasingly subject to delegitimisation and denigration by populist leaders who marginalise scientists from the policy-making process and criticise them for disseminating subjective facts.
Science has traditionally and historically been the most important counterweight to false statements and manipulations, as argued by the recent book La verità al potere. The breakdown of social trust is a potential twilight of stable liberal democratic institutions. In the United States, the Post-Truth (PT) era was coined with reference to the George W. Bush presidency by Eric Alterman in his 2004 book When Presidents Lie. The term first appeared in US public debate to describe pathologies of contemporary political systems and democracies such as rumours, fake news and political lying. One of the most influential studies is Ralph Keyes’s 2004 The Post-Truth Era. The dissemination of unscrupulous information to the public, and the use of biased opinions taken as objective facts is the problem. Scientists can surely learn how to communicate more effectively, but the problem is not that their communication is faulty. Very often we hear journalists criticising scientists for not speaking with one voice. Unlike a religious sect, scientists are and will always be guided by healthy scepticism and critical analysis of facts. Trust should not be built on uncontroverted truths nor on undocumented truths, but on the approval of scientific scepticism and independent analysis.
Although public debate on the post-truth society extends to a wide range of government activities and policies, in the COVID-19 pandemic years medical science and healthcare policies specifically have taken a central role, not least amid the rise of fake health news and anti-vax movements across the globe. The success of medical treatments depends on the trust and collaboration of patients in the professional advice they obtain from their care professionals and caregivers. A decline in public trust in expert knowledge leads to an increase in self-diagnosis and the use of unproven treatments. Misinformation threatens particularly those patients who suffer from a progressive erosion of their social networks, those living with illnesses that limit their active participation in social life, or the elderly.
Populist leaders have been responsible for diminishing public trust in science. The negative effect of this ‘anti-experts’ political campaign is the slow and steady deterioration of the relationship between citizens and science particularly among vulnerable groups in society, such as the elderly and the poorly educated. This is happening despite great efforts by scientists and universities to communicate their findings to a lay audience. In fact, it is not only academics who have been proactive in reaching out to wider non-academic audiences, but many governments in liberal democracies are committed to the empowerment of societal stakeholders through participatory mechanisms and public engagement with end-users.
What policies can governments adopt to rebuild this trust? I would argue that the public engagement agenda, currently being adopted in many countries across the world, offers an opportunity to democratise science by disseminating results and engaging citizens in the process of knowledge production and decision making. Public engagement is defined as the interaction between researchers and organisations with stakeholders outside of academia for the mutually beneficial transfer of knowledge, resources and methods. The shift towards greater openness, transparency and interaction with citizens is a hard-won gain for public accountability. A recent survey revealed that the majority of European citizens think that involving non-scientists in research and innovation ensures that scientists respond better to their needs and values. Public engagement policies promoted by public organisations, such as the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, European and national governments and professional associations internationally should be encouraged further. The European Commission has been active in countering disinformation with an action plan for Tackling the spread of disinformation online.
Openness to the external world and public engagement strategies are important drivers of contemporary reforms and potential remedies to improve the relationship between science and society. The European Commission has fully embraced policies that involve citizens directly, by supporting a variety of new activities to build institutional capacity in the area of public engagement. These include the European Citizens’ Initiative to encourage participation from local schools, hospitals and communities to promote opportunities to consolidate social and cultural capital. Widening participation has become a policy goal in many areas of governmental actions. In October 2021, the European Commission launched a new Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy. This develops dedicated public space for citizen engagement and aims to design new methodologies and practices of participatory and deliberative democracy. Public trust goes hand in hand with giving citizens ownership of the decision-making process. If citizens can have a greater say in their lives, the relationship between scientists and society may thrive again.
Paola Mattei, University of Milan, Italy, is Associate Editor for the Global Social Challenges Journal.
The Global Social Challenges Journal is a new fully open access, not for profit journal which aims to facilitate thinking about opportunities, new ways of being, thinking and doing as we face up to multiple complex global societal challenges. It will be an important home for research that contributes to the creation of alternative futures that are socially and environmentally just and sustaining. Read the call for submissions here.
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