Why pseudoscience is hitching a ride on populism

A global shift towards populism and the growth of what’s been euphemistically labelled the ‘alt-right’ has come packaged with consistent appeals to pseudosciences like climate denial and vaccine health scares. It’s mysterious, because these concepts don’t tick any boxes for the unsatisfied masses looking to claw at the entrenched establishment.

Conspiracy theories and people-hurting pseudosciences hitching a ride on populist movements gives us an important insight into their reliance on reality-denial and the idea that you don’t need to work hard to obtain facts- you can derive them from visceral reactions to information.

Barely seconds after having woken from my slumber on Sunday morning, I was met immediately with this phenomenon, on an ABC’s Insiders interview with Senator Pauline Hanson, the leader of Australia’s One Nation party:

Host: Another topic. Vaccination programs, you have spoken about that and talked about a link with autism and possibly cancer. Have you reflected on that comment and do you understand how dangerous that could potentially be?

Hanson: Barry, I haven’t put a link to cancer. I don’t know where you got that from [ed note – she said it in 2016

Host: Possibly cancer at the time but you certainly said there could be a link with autism. You said you would think very carefully about it.

Hanson: Yes. That’s exactly right. Because what I’ve heard from parents and their concerns about it and what I have said is I advise parents to go out and do their own research with regards to this. I think…

Host: How could they be better equipped than the medical people to make that kind of judgement? Vaccinations save lives, clearly save lives, if you are promoting an anti vaccination campaign, they lost lives.

Hanson: Like all the drugs we have had over the years that have destroyed people’s lives as well. Barry, look. There is enough information out there. No-one is going to care any more about the child than the parents themselves. Make an informed decision. What I don’t like about it is the blackmailing that’s happening with the government. Don’t do that to people. That’s a dictatorship. I think people have a right to investigate themselves. If having vaccinations and measles vaccinations is actually going to, you know, stop these diseases, fine, no problems. But there is also a case..

Host: It could be dangerous, though, recommending that.

Hanson: Some of these – parents are saying – vaccinations have an effect on some children. Have your tests first. You can have a test on your child first and make sure that’s not going to have a reaction on your child.

Host: Take advice from the doctor.

Hanson: Have a test and see if you don’t have a reaction to it first. Then you can have the vaccination. I hear from so many parents, where are their rights? Why aren’t you prepared to listen to them? Why does it have to be one way?

Host: It is the rights of the children and they can’t protect themselves.

Populist movements come packaged with bad science

As I’ve linked above, Hanson has made these claims before, on both autism and cancer, on Channel Seven’s Sunrise last year. The One Nation party officially rejects climate science too – something extending well before their recent political success:

“What’s really behind all the global warming hoopla,” One Nation’s website asks. “Power. It’s the same old Marxist/Communist/Fascist collectivist shtick, dressed up in new clothes. Global warming is all about a power grab by a wealthy elite and their collectivist sycophants — using the (United Nations) as a cover and tool.”

In fact, One Nation has a senator whose primary focus is on rejecting the science underpinning climate change. Hyper-skepticism, rather than, say, hyper-credulity about alternative medicines.

It’s replicated across the world. US President Donald Trump’s tweets are a neatly summarised catalogue of vaccine denial and climate denial (there was also a recent suggestion he’s due to pick a vaccine denier to lead a safety review):

Elsewhere, the UK Independence Party champions precisely the same mode of thinking on climate change science:

Fringe pseudoscience isn’t loved by the masses

This is all quite strange. ‘Populism‘ seems to be a term used regularly to describe these nationalist, anti-establishment groups. But an important feature of these pseudoscientific concepts is that they alienate many people. To illustrate the public perception of these ideas:

Acceptance of climate change science in Australia (Essential) remains strong:

Climate acceptance.jpg

Support for compulsory vaccination is (surprisingly) strong. A more recent poll from Science in Public found that 92% of Australian parents allow their children to be fully vaccinated. The anti-vaccination lobby has definitively failed, in Australia.


Pew’s regular and detailed polling of climate change science in the United Stats paints a similar picture to Australia (though interestingly, the total percentage of respondents accepting climate science is lower):

Modest fluctuations in public beliefs about climate change over time

Ditto for vaccines in the US – similarly high levels of acceptance:


Offshoots from anti-reality sentiment capture

Appealing to deeply unpopular and blatantly dangerous modes of pseudoscience doesn’t gel with the idea of populism – a style of politics that priorities the views and priorities of the dissatisfied masses, rather than some privileged elite.

My bet: alt-right pseudoscience isn’t a planned stratagem to reach out to the angered and dissatisfied masses – more likely, it’s a vestigial offshoot of an attitude ingrained in these movements.

This attitude is the idea that experts have no more authority on describing the nature of reality than the average citizen. This is the outright rejection of the core reason the scientific method exists: that we can use time, effort and money to cancel out cognitive biases that mislead us in our efforts to understand the nature of the real world.

The terminology of science is still used – ‘research’, ‘facts’,’investigate’ – but the core principle is simply that something can be classified as true if it feels right. Hence, Hanson’s plea to ‘do your own research‘.

It’s a useful attitude when seizing on the pure sentiment of millions of angry people, but the offshoot is that the fever swamps of conspiracy theorists, fantasists and pseudoscientists hitch a ride on your movement.

The rejection of reality has mass appeal when it’s applied to pre-existing sentiment. In Australia, for instance, we greatly overestimate the population of Muslims, in conjunction with a generalised fear of adherents to the religion, and playing on false statistics and generalised fear brings ill-gotten rewards.

When it comes to vaccination and climate science, most people don’t harbour any pre-existing antagonism towards either field of inquiry. There’s no fertile ground for these two modes of pseudoscience, but they’re carried along as vestigial and emergent accidents – off-shoots hitching a ride on the prerequisite rejection of reality that is key in a movement fuelled by sentiment and fury.

Header image – the Observer

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