Science-related populism: Conceptualization, empirical investigation, and implications for science communication


Populist and anti-intellectual sentiments pose a considerable challenge to science and science communication in many countries worldwide. One proliferating variant of such sentiments can be conceived as science-related populism. Science-related populism criticizes that scientists, scholars, and experts supposedly determine how society produces ‘true knowledge’ and communicates about it, because they are seen as members of an academic elite which allegedly applies unreliable methods, is ideologically biased – and ignores that the common sense of ordinary people ought to be superior to scientific knowledge. Accordingly, science-related populism assumes that the ordinary people, and not academic elites, should be in charge for the production and communication of ‘true knowledge’. Scholarly and journalistic accounts suggested that science-related populism can have negative implications for the legitimacy of scientific expertise in society and societal discourse about science. However, there has been neither a conceptual framework nor empirical methods and evidence to evaluate these accounts. This cumulative dissertation addresses this deficit. It includes five articles that present a conceptualization of science-related populism (Article I), a survey scale to measure science-related populist attitudes (Article II), empirical findings on these attitudes and related perceptions (Article II, Article III, and Article IV), and a discussion of populist demands toward science communication (Article V). The synopsis scrutinizes the arguments and results published in these articles in three ways. First, it discusses further theoretical considerations on science-related populism, advantages and challenges of its measurement, and broader contexts of empirical evidence on it. Second, it describes implications of science-related populism for communication and discourse about science, and proposes ways in which these implications can be addressed in science communication practice. Third, it considers how scholarship of science-related populism can advance social-scientific research on populism and anti-scientific resentments and could develop in the future.

Cumulative Thesis
Niels G. Mede
Niels G. Mede
Science Communication Researcher

I am a Senior Research and Teaching Associate at the Department of Communication and Media Research (IKMZ) of the University of Zurich, where I also completed a PhD in communication studies. My work focuses on science communication, public opinion, populism, digital media, climate change communication, and survey methodology. In 2022 and 2023, I was a visiting researcher at the Department of Life Sciences Communication of the University of Wisconsin—Madison and the Oxford Internet Institute. In June 2024, I will join the Digital Media Research Centre of the Queensland University of Technology as a visiting scholar.