From Measles to Media: Our Populist Crisis

Populist attitudes to science are putting us all at risk.

Posted May 07, 2019

Unicef recently announced that cases of the measles worldwide rose 300% from January to March this year by contrast with 2018. Over a hundred thousand unvaccinated people, mostly children, died from the disease in 2017.

The recent crisis in the US over the spread of measles was due to parental refusal to vaccinate children, confounding the public-health achievements of decades that had seen the disease stamped out thanks to vaccinations. That manufactured crisis, borne of anti-science, has brought the nation’s chaotic mistrust of expertise over the last few years into sharp focus.

Such mistrust is part of a developing international trend: populism. Populism can take many forms, from both the left and the right sides of politics. But it generally involves a demagogic manipulation of the public that takes off from already-existing, widespread disillusion with technocracy, elections, bureaucracy, diplomacy, the law, journalism, science, and other state activity and cultural or intellectual knowledge. It has become commonplace to connect that rise to the changing structure and conduct of the media industries in the digital era.

Populism is not new. Nor is the attempt by politicians of many stripes to take advantage of anti-statist appeals to people who feel disenfranchised. Those appeals are typically couched in opposition to politics by demagogues posing as ‘outsiders’ who are actually insiders or wish to become so. But wholesale disaffection with the very nature of democracy, to the point of deriding houses of review, the judiciary, policy analysis, scholarly knowledge, public service, and the press corps as similarly tarnished with accusations of special pleading, corruption, and incompetence, is suddenly seen as a normal component of the social and political landscape. Even existing systems of checks and balances, like federally-mandated food inspections, are deemed problematic. Ironically in this context, the media are variously regarded either as one of the tools of what is increasingly seen as an attack on democracy or as the last bastion of its defence.

A new international survey of more than 25,000 people across the globe from the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project sheds some light on the beliefs that link populists together, especially from the right wing of politics. The sample represents close to five billion people, which is almost two-thirds of the world’s population.

Two in five populists in the survey concur that “there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.” The same proportion also believes that the US government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that we have had contact with extraterrestrial alien life, which has been secreted from the public, and that HIV proliferated because of a clandestine organisation.

In the US, about 25% of the population falls into the populist cohort, akin to the numbers in Spain, France, and Poland, and way ahead of Britain, Sweden, Japan, Denmark, and Canada. In media terms, populists are the likeliest people to get their news from Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube—homes to virtually unmodulated, unmediated conspiracy theorists.

Wherever they dwell, geographically or virtually, populists are more likely than others to believe in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and that global warming is an invention—two superstitions that together pose a frightening prospect.

Threats to public health will be exacerbated if the populist surge leads health officials and the media to ignore the range of risks to human health associated with global warming. Outdoor workers face life-threatening conditions under rising summer temperatures; flooding of sewage systems can spread gastrointestinal diseases; drought and pollution increase rates of asthma; deforestation can cause species migration and upset ecosystems that protect us from insect- and animal-borne diseases; and warming climates extend the geographical reach of tropical diseases.

It is easy to mock populist attitudes and lament their impact on public health, the environment, the status of knowledge, and the condition of political discourse.

It’s much more difficult to establish where these perspectives come from and why they take hold.

Public skepticism of institutions is easy to understand, given the historical complicity of universities with slavery; of central governments with economic inequality; of medicine with eugenics and big pharma; of the state with local and international bloodshed; and of the media with a Tweedledum-Tweedledee view of politics. That history needs a thorough excavation and reparations for the families of those affected.

But we must distinguish properly-scrutinised knowledge from casual bigotry; scholarly disagreements from superstition; rumor and innuendo from fact; climate science from corporate propaganda; and serious journalism from amateur scare-mongering.

To do so, the core institutions involved in educating the public—the media, universities, the judiciary, officials, and politicians—should engage in serious self-reflection in a very public manner that both admits past and current mistakes and debunks dangerous mythologies.

Otherwise, measles and other infectious diseases will be the harbinger of other grievous mistakes of public policy and private life to come.