Intellectual Integrity II – The virtues of science in the fight against populist programs

It is sometimes quite banal experiences, conversations or incidents that open our eyes to the drama of social developments. A professionally esteemed colleague at work who doubts the theory of evolution („There must be a grand plan behind all the beauty and majesty of nature“), internet bloggers who loudly proclaim that Einstein’s theory of relativity cannot be correct („It’s all illogical what Einstein said“), the mother-in-law, who vehemently fights against the vaccination of her grandchildren („The poor children are poisoned, they will become autistic“) or the friend who unexpectedly presents himself as a climate skeptic („Yes, the climate may change, but climate fluctuations have always existed, this has nothing to do with human actions“). A cautious objection that in all these respects science makes unambiguous statements and that the experts agree to 99% is then wiped away with the reference „Oh, the scientists, they don’t know any better. They do not agree 100%“ or even „They are paid to make these statements“.

It becomes even more alarming when people in high positions of power publicly denounce the scientific consensus. For example, US Vice President Mike Pence does not believe in the theory of evolution. He believes it is a fundamental truth that God created the heavens, the earth and the oceans – and mankind as well. Hardly any sensible, enlightened person today still doubts evolution. In the 160 years since Charles Darwin formulated his theory, scientists have pieced together from countless pieces of mosaic a consistent picture of the origin of species. And yet not a few people tinker with their own truths – and are then elected to positions of enormous power. And the nonsense does not stop with Adam and Eve. Physicists may find it hard to believe, but there is an extremely vocal community of opponents to the theory of relativity, even though it is empirically even far better proven than the theory of evolution – in combination with quantum physics it is the best proven theory in the whole of science. But what is contrary to common sense cannot be true, so the tenor of this group, which is then passionately articulated in corresponding internet forums and floods serious science blogs with completely crazy and nonsensical comments.  Climate change is also denied particularly vehemently (sometimes even in the same forums). Despite an ever broader consensus among climate researchers, i.e. among those who know most about it, ever hotter summers in Europe, the melting of glaciers in the Alps, Iceland and Greenland, the particularly heavy monsoon rains in India, destructive hurricanes in North America and typhoons in Asia and, last but not least, despite the immense cost estimates of economic experts, the canon of many a reactionary political actor is: „We reject climate change“. Perhaps they will also want to „reject“ the gravitational force? A particularly frightening example: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as a member of the Pentecostal movement, prefers to pray for rain in his country’s fire crisis, a manifestation of climate change for climate researchers, rather than listen to science.

The real problem

How can that be? Surely the belief of these people in the results of scientific knowledge has hardly diminished. Even for climate sceptics, critics of the theories of evolution and relativity, vaccination opponents, Trump or AfD supporters and other declared opponents of the scientific method, it is without question to protect their homes from thunderstorms with lightning conductors instead of making sacrifices to gods. They too use GPS systems to get to their destination, swallow antibiotics when they have a bacterial infection and use their computers and the internet to communicate with friends and business colleagues as well as to spread their populist polemics. In the general population, there is hardly any evidence of an increase in skepticism towards science. In representative surveys in 2019, for example, only 8% of people in Germany stated that they „tend not to“ or „don’t“ trust science (according to the „Science Barometer“ published by Wissenschaftim Dialog – an initiative of the German science community – and the Robert Bosch association), compared with 7% in 2018 and 12% in 2017. Furthermore, the scientific and science-methodological education in schools and universities is more extensive than ever before, that trend has been rising for three hundred years.

However, according to the Science Barometer, most people doubt that science is independent. More than 60% of those surveyed thought that the influence of business on science is „too great“ or „very great“, and when it comes to the influence of politics, this numbers also stands at over 50%. People are suspicious of the excessive dependence of science on money, as Karl Popper already stated way in 1990:

I am an avid supporter of science. Physics and biology are great sciences for me, and I think most physicists and biologists are very clever and conscientious. But: They are under pressure. This pressure has only existed since World War II, since so much money is being dpent on science.[1]

It seems contradictory: people trust science in principle, but also associate it with strong conflicts of interest. „Scientists are paid“, they say, often with the appendix “ by the government“. But what is supposed to sound scandalous on closer inspection turns out to be a banality: Should researchers perhaps work for free? The fact that most research institutions, and thus financial sponsors, are government institutions has proven to be very helpful for society. For it is precisely the increasing dependence of science on commercial interests that should concern us. For all the positive developmental dynamics of the interaction of entrepreneurial spirit and scientific creativity that have triggered the enormous increase in economic prosperity over the last 200 years, it seems rather uncanny to most people to let the profit motives of technology investors, the ideology of the Silicon Valley transhumanists or, more generally, the capitalist (or military) logic of exploitation decide on our all future[2]. And the example of China shows us what we will encounter when an all-powerful state outside democratic structures controls scientific and technological progress.

Loss of truth

In addition, there is a second development within the sciences that accommodates its populist opponents. Beginning with modern physics at the beginning of the 20th century, it increasingly abandoned any belief in the possibility of absolute certainty. Thus, Newton’s idea of absolute space or absolute time had to be replaced by the relational space-time of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which for non-physicists is barely comprehensible. Even more drastic was the realization that a quantum object is both wave and particle at the same time and that the laws that apply in the microcosm are completely different to those of our macrocosm. The scientists had to learn to live with complementary truths, i.e. not A or B is true, but A and B can both be true at the same time. The final deathblow for the philosophical claim for ultimate and substantiating truths was the new concept of objects in quantum physics: Following that time is no longer absolute, physicists claim further that in the microcosm there should no longer be any real and independently existing objects, no objective reality and thus no absolute certainty. It is a paradox: The more knowledge we gained, the less we could hope that there is an ultimate truth. Thus, the price for our knowledge gain is high – we now have nothing left to hold on to. In a process lasting over three centuries, mankind has gradually robbed itself of all its laboriously built up certainties.

  • With Copernicus we lost our central position in the universe.
  • Darwin showed us that we are also not at the center of creation, but rather the result of a process that animals and plants went through equally.
  • According to Freud, we are not even masters in our own house of mind, the space of our subjective sensations and thoughts.
  • Finally, relativity and quantum theory tell us that no point of view is more important and more „right“ than any other, and that there are no real and independently existing („substantial“) objects.

We have lost the absolute and eternal truth. This is a good thing, because that is not the way the world works. All the more important are the scientific truths, they help us to find our way in our world. These truths are not dogmas, because they are constantly put to the test, for example through experiments and rational discourse with colleagues; they can be rejected and reformulated at any time, depending on the facts. As already Galilei recognized, this is the great strength of science.

Fighting populist psychology

All these losses of truths have consequences for the human psyche. Unique truths, clear spiritual foundations and unshakable principles are obviously important for us to find our way in the world. The vacuum left by the loss of old certainties creates a deep insecurity within us. Thus, in view of the complexity of social, political, economic and scientific issues, for many people an escape route leads to the past, where everything was supposedly easier and better. Slogans like „The theory of relativity is illogical. Newton was right“ are more attractive than struggling through the mathematical complexity of modern physics, just as „Make America Great Again“ or „There is no man-made climate change“ sounds better to many ears than the discussion about complex international trade relations or non-linear global meteorological effects caused by the warming of our atmosphere.

These two points, the quite real danger of an exclusively capitalist logic of exploitation of new scientific knowledge and the flight into simple „truths“, play into the hands of today’s populists, simplifiers and opponents of science. Their success lies in the distorting simplification of intellectually demanding social and scientific contexts and the conspiratorial reference to the belief that scientists only follow their own interests.

But who says that populists, relativity critics, opponents of evolution and climate change deniers are not allowed to „know“ what they want with the same claim as scientists? What is the difference between scientific truth and populist truth? The difference lies in the motivation of those involved. Scientists want to increase their knowledge in a world full of uncertainties – unconstrained, sincere, rational and methodical. To achieve this, they have powerful virtues of science at their disposal:

  • Renunciation of dogmas and an uncompromisingly reflective attitude towards one’s own knowledge,
  • Curiosity and trust in one’s own observations as well as an honest commitment to facts and their empirical verification
  • Trust in incorruptible mathematics,
  • Application of scientific knowledge in the form of technology for the benefit of people.

The populists, on the other hand, are not concerned with increasing knowledge, but with affirming faith. They presuppose clear, unquestionable truths; what does not correspond to „their truth“ is fought with the means of power, not with those of argument or fact. This is literally a step back into the early Middle Ages, when there was no self-referential attitude towards one’s own knowledge. At that time, knowledge served a foreign purpose, mostly that of confirming particular believes. Only from the 12th century onwards did knowledge begin to become „self-referential“. And this is exactly what the populists are now trying to turn around. Once again, we must counter this fatal trend!


[1]Interview with the German journal DIE WELT from the 29th of January 1990 (published in 1991 in German by Ullstein entitled Ich weiß, daß ich nichtsweiß – und kaum das)

[2] For more on this see (in German): L Jaeger, MehrZukunftwagen, GütersloherVerlagshaus, Gütersloh (2019)

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