554   Individual paper

Populism towards science: What it is and how it can be measured

Author: Niels G. Mede
University of Zurich, Switzerland

Populism, which perceives society as a fundamental struggle between an allegedly virtuous people and allegedly corrupt elites, is on the rise in many countries. Its anti-elitist sentiment often targets politicians, but also other members of the societal establishment—such as scientists and experts. Prominent examples are Donald Trump suggesting his “natural instinct” to be superior to scientific evidence and Michael Gove claiming that the British people “have had enough of experts”. We understand such ideas as science-related populism.

But so far, there is neither a theoretical conceptualization nor a survey measure for science-related populism. In our paper, we present both: First, we conceptualize science-related populism as the idea that society is pervaded by a conflict between a virtuous people and an immoral academic elite. According to science-related populism, this conflict is due to the academic elite ignoring the common will and common sense of the people when deciding on research agendas, aims, and methods and when determining what can be considered ‘true knowledge’. Second, we present a survey instrument to measure people’s endorsement of science-related populism, i.e., people’s science-related populist attitudes. To develop the scale, we tested 17 survey items in two representative surveys. Then, we used factor analysis and Item Response Theory to find those 8 items that are most indicative of science-related populist attitudes, perform best in three different languages (German, French, Italian) – and can thus be combined to a reliable scale: the SciPop scale.

Our paper offers a double contribution: First, the conceptualization of science-related populism can be used to describe how science-society relations are currently transforming against the backdrop of publics that increasingly endorse ‘alternative truths’ and criticize epistemic authorities. Second, the SciPop scale allows for empirical insights into such transformations – insights valuable for both science communication researchers and practitioners.

Co-author: Mike S. Schäfer
University of Zurich, Switzerland

Co-author: Tobias Fuchslin
University of Zurich, Switzerland

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