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Science in a time of fear: U of T expert looks at why scientists are under attack

"There are a number of places around the world where scientists are becoming lightning rods for people’s anger and frustration, much of it stirred up by populist rhetoric," says Marc Cadotte, a professor at U of T Scarborough (photo by Ken Jones)

While anti-science movements are not new, direct attacks on the personal credibility of scientists are being fuelled by populist political movements around the world.

Scientists are often targeted and painted as elitist by special interest groups when they present evidence that these groups find inconvenient. But as the rhetoric ramps up, is the threat to the public safety of scientists also on the rise?

Marc Cadotte is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at U of T Scarborough and editor of the Journal of Applied Ecology. The journal recently published an opinion piece exploring disturbing global political trends around the world and how they are contributing to a rise in anti-science movements.

Writer Don Campbell spoke to Cadotte about the rise of populism, pseudo-science and the climate of fear under which many scientists are operating.

Why do you think the current political climate is creating conditions where science is being threatened? 

It’s well-documented that the rise of populism and pseudo-science around the world are threatening knowledge and understanding. Climate change and vaccine denialism are two common examples. But an important dimension, one people often don’t think about, is the potential threat to individual scientists. This is something we really wanted to focus on.

So it’s not just science as an institution that’s under threat, but also individual scientists?

There are a number of places around the world where scientists are becoming lightning rods for people’s anger and frustration, much of it stirred up by populist rhetoric. We mapped out notable examples of how governments around the world have compromised scientific influence, academic freedom and personal freedoms.

In one example, nine conservationists in Iran were jailed for using camera traps to record a rare cheetah in the wild. One of them has since died in jail. They were imprisoned falsely as spies, but in reality are being used in a squabble between political and religious elites in the country.

Why did you feel it was an important time to raise these issues now?

I think populist movements have been emboldened lately, and this creates environments that threaten personal and academic freedom. Our journal covers applied ecology, and ecologists are particularly vulnerable because they travel a lot for research and field work. We look at this as a first step in raising awareness and encouraging debate, but also to let ecologists know that there are others in the field who may have similar experiences. If you are travelling to parts of the world where you may feel your safety is in jeopardy because of your skin colour, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, we don’t want you to feel like you’re alone.

At the same time, we view ourselves as one small part of the larger institution of science that’s under threat. We are a part of a global conversation that’s taking place, and we want to help shed a light on some of the issues that affect our field. The fact that the voices of lobbyists for the oil and gas industry are given equal weight to those who study climate chemistry and modelling is nonsense. There is no equivalent authority on the issue.

You point out that the rise of populism and authoritarianism, even in traditionally democratic countries, is a big part of the problem?

In most cases science often gets portrayed as “the other” or elitist by populist politicians and political groups, or that we’re standing in the way of economic progress. They also direct people’s anger and frustration toward an imagined enemy, like the press or institutions of learning, which get painted as elitist.

And there are countless examples where ecologists fall into this. A classic one is there may be a rare endangered species of fish in a river and an industry will want to use those public waterways for an industrial purpose. So it sets up a conflict, and often in ecology circles it involves land and natural resources. Often in these situations ecologists are accused of creating a false crisis in order to curb economic growth. But the problem with pitting the environment against economics is that if economics keeps winning, at some point it stops winning. You end up with a diminished capacity for future economic growth. Most ecologists would argue they are not the enemies of growth, but rather are in favour of strategies more conducive to longer-term economic growth.

Is there ever a fear of crossing a professional line, from being viewed as an impartial scientist to being more of a political activist?    

There are times when it’s not appropriate for us to weigh in on political issues – elections being a prime example. But when it comes to attacks against science and the safety of our constituents, there’s an opportunity to be proactive.  

My personal feeling is that I was trained by the public and I’m largely paid by the public so it’s my duty to offer my expertise, even when it may be inconvenient for some. I also think that scientists generally can’t afford to sit on the sidelines anymore or feel like engaging with the public or offering their expertise is a waste of time. The rise of pseudo-science and fringe political movements needs to be confronted with evidence, knowledge and expertise.