I wrote about a major five-year project by Cambridge University on Conspiracy Theories and Democracy, financed by the Leverhulme Trust, here and here, noting how scepticism about the official version of climate science figured prominently in their research on conspiracy theorising. In another article I noted the existence of two other research groups based at British universities researching conspiracy theorising, one financed by the British government and one by the European Union. Both of these also singled out climate scepticism as a conspiracy theory which threatened the fabric of democracy.
I pointed out that identifying climate scepticism (and also suspicion about the harmful effect of vaccines) as conspiracy theories is a stretch. There are a thousand ways of criticising current climate science and the political and media hysteria surrounding it. Of course, there are conspiracies in the vast fetid swamp of climate science, as when Professors Jones, Mann and others conspired to hide data, distort the science, and destroy emails which would have revealed how they had broken the rules of the IPCC; but that’s not the main complaint of climate sceptics. The main complaint is they’re wrong about the science. Whether they conspired to be wrong or came to the wrong conclusions independently is of secondary interest.
What these three academic organisations are doing, (either, separately, or in cahoots) is redefining what a conspiracy is. Take any controversial subject X, and replace, in an opinion poll, the statement “I don’t believe X” or “I’m doubtful about X” with the statement that “A small group of influential people are trying to hide the truth about X,” and you have a conspiracy theory.
Imagine that you believe strongly in Brexit, and are annoyed at the failure to deliver it, and someone phones you up and asks you whether you believe that there’s an establishment plot to overturn the Brexit decision. Are you going to say “No. That doesn’t quite capture the nuances of my opinion”? No, you’re not. You’re going to accept the conspiratorial wording of the question in order to express your underlying sentiment. So when someone assents to the statement that “climate change is a hoax” they may be agreeing with Trump’s garbled belief that the whole climate change fuss is a plot to tilt energy policy in favour of China and the developing countries, or, more likely, they’re simply expressing their scepticism in the only way open to them.
The CRASSH research project on Conspiracy and Democracy has been wound up, and a report will be published later. Now another conspiracy research project, also based at Cambridge, has take its place, and it’s also getting exclusive coverage in the Guardian.
The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project is a new survey conducted annually in 23 of the world’s biggest countries, exploring populism, globalisation and attitudes on topics ranging from food, travel and technology to immigration, cultural beliefs and the environment. The Guardian helped YouGov pollsters and University of Cambridge academics at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy to design the survey, and is exclusively releasing the findings.
The 2019 project surveyed 25,325 people in February and March across Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. This year’s findings are being published in association with the Guardian’s The new populism series.
Why academics at one of the world’s most prestigious universities should need the help of Guardian hacks to design a survey questionnaire is a question for another day. Let’s look at what they found, which is revealed in a second Guardian article.
Populists across the world are significantly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about vaccinations, global warming and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to a landmark global survey shared exclusively with the Guardian.
The YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project sheds new light on a section of the world population that appears to have limited faith in scientific experts and representative democracy.
There’s a graphic in the article which shows how much more likely “populists” are than the general population to believe a number of conspiracy theories. The results are:
Global warming is a hoax – 120% more likely
Aids invented by CIA – 95% more likely
Harm from vaccines hidden from public – 85% more likely
US government involved in 9/11 attacks – 80% more likely
Secret group of people who rule the world – 52% more likely
Alien contact hidden from public – 50% more likely
Official account of Holocaust exaggerated – 25% more likely
(Percentages are my estimates reading a crappy bar chart with no figures.) But what’s interesting is not the “percentage more likely” figures but the fact that the survey manages to link climate sceptics with Holocaust deniers and believers in an alien invasion, in a scientific study conducted at Cambridge University. Which is the whole point of the research.
Nowhere do the three Guardian articles on the subject link to actual results of the survey. For that you have to go to Yougov and click on “Which conspiracy theories do populists believe?” where you will find that the figures in the Guardian graph are false. But who cares? They’re blobs on a graph, not figures, anyway, and the Guardian has never understood that“120% of” and “20% more than” are the same thing, because they’re thick that way. It’s not just statistics they’re bad at, it’s the English language.
Yougov is reporting that results of the survey will be published 7th May. So far, they haven’t. I’ll be commenting there as soon as I’ve posted this article.
Next stop, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. They reported on 7thMay that:
YouGov, the international research and data analytics group headquartered in London, has released a new study on globalisation and populism in partnership with the Guardian and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University… The first set of findings have been published in the Guardian.
But their link goes here which is simply the Guardian’s populism page. So that’s three reports at the Guardian, one at Yougov, and one at the Cambridge Bennet Institute announcing results for the beginning of May – but no results that I can find, simply comments on the results.
But what is a populist, anyway?
According to a third Guardian article on the research:
The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as a thin-centred ideology that separates society into two antagonistic groups – “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” – and that insists politics should be an expression of the general will of the people.
Working with academic advisers, the Guardian used this definition, which is widely used in political science, to identify a cohort of survey respondents with strong populist views.This populist cohort included all the respondents who answered “strongly agree” to both of the following statements:
My country is divided between ordinary people and the corrupt elites who exploit them.
The will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics.
Think about this for a moment. It’s difficult to see who would disagree with the second statement: “The will of the people should be the highest principle in this country’s politics,” except perhaps the King of Saudi Arabia and the Sultan of Brunei. I agree with it, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini would have agreed with it, and it’s enshrined in the Constitutions of the USA and France and no doubt most other countries.
The first statement is a supposed statement of fact, which should, in any reasonable research project, be divided into two statements: 1) “My country is divided between ordinary people and the elites” and 2) “The élites are corrupt and exploit the ordinary people.” The first part, I would suggest, is true for absolutely any society on the planet, and the second is more or less true depending on where you live. The Guardian adds:
China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were not included in the populism analysis because YouGov conducts only certain kinds of research in those countries.
By which they mean that they were banned from asking the questions in those countries. (Fair enough. I’m all for Saudi Arabia banning YouGov from conducting their weasel-worded propaganda in the Kingdom, just as long as they don’t crucify the interviewers.)
So who, according to YouGov and the Guardian, is not a populist? Answer: those who believe either that the will of the people should not be the highest principle in this country’s politics; or, that their country is not divided between ordinary people and the corrupt élites who exploit them.
You can hum and haw about the last one. But, importantly, you can more easily hum and haw in a country where the corrupt élite is not likely to send someone knocking at the door at midnight. Personally, I’d hesitate long before answering. My response would depend on how I was feeling on the day, probably. What’s clear is that the definition includes among the non-populists only those who believe that there is no division between élite and the people, or who are satisfied with the way the élite is treating them; and that the populists include everyone who is not satisfied.
In defining populists as democrats who are dissatisfied with the behaviour of the elites which govern them, researchers have unwittingly defined non-populists as basically either the sheep, or the élitists who are leading them.–It’s Us versus Them, as scientifically defined by Cas Mudde.
[So who is this Cas Mudde, whose definition of populism has been adopted by the Guardian, YouGov, and Cambridge University’s Bennet Institute? According to Wikipaedia:
He was a visiting scholar at the Janet Brindle Institute for Ethics and visiting associate professor in the political science department at De Pauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. From 1999 to 2002 he was Assistant Professor at the University of Edinburgh, and from 2002 to 2010 he was Assistant and later Associate Professor at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Since 2010, he has been teaching a first year seminar on the Radical Right movement in Europe at De Pauw University. He is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Georgia‘s School of Public and International Affairs.
I’m the last person to pooh pooh an academic’s CV, but, let’s face it, someone who puts his first year seminar subjects on his Wikipaedia page is not exactly Bertrand Russell.]
So there you have it. You’re either Us or Them; either happy with the world the way it is (at least in terms of the relations between the people in it, which doesn’t preclude dissatisfaction with the relation between people and the planet) or you’re a populist (or possibly the Sultan of Brunei.)
“Us” is YouGov, the Guardian, and the University of Cambridge. “Them” is climate deniers, holocaust deniers, and (to quote from an interview in the Guardian by Tim Adams with Guy Verhofstadt)
“.. the stormtroopers of the Brexit party, and those who get their news from a bloke in his underpants in a bedsit in Northampton or a troll factory in Nizhny Novgorod.”
I’m with the bloke in his underpants, and the citizens of Northampton sneered at by the Guardian. And I’ll go on bleating on about this Orwellian conspiracy to associate us with Holocaust deniers and any other brand of nasties the clever dicks at the Guardian, and YouGov and Cambridge University care to put in their survey, right up to the day of judgement, when the Great Speaker in the Parliament of Historical Truth finally announces:
“The underpants have it.”