I am so unbelievably pleased to announce that the Research Awards Advisory Committee at the Leverhulme Trust have granted me, Dr. Isobelle Clarke, the Leverhulme Trust’s Early Career Fellowship to conduct my research entitled “Understanding the linguistic repertoires across anti-science narratives” at Lancaster University in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences.
Science improves our everyday lives, especially science that is aimed at safeguarding and protecting public health and safety, such as by improving the air we breathe and the water we drink (Carter et al., 2019). Because of science, food is safe and plentiful, and diseases can be treated, cured, isolated and prevented from spreading (Siegel, 2017). Science also anticipates threats to the environment and natural disasters, like hurricanes and storms (Carter et al., 2019). Although scientific advancements can be misused accidentally or for ill, science nevertheless has led to the development of new technologies, which have enhanced many individuals’ quality of life to a level that could never have been expected previously (Siegel, 2017).
Despite these advances, in this modern world we live in, value judgements and personal experience can (and often do) take precedence over scientifically-accepted facts. Throughout Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency, we have witnessed an acceleration in the demonization of experts and knowledge. Throughout this COVID-19 pandemic we have heard the phrase “following the science”, but really it should be “following the science when it suits us” as our leaders ignore findings or utilise parts and not the whole to suit them (which, as many will already anticipate, will eventually lead to them pointing the finger at scientists demanding an explanation for where it all went wrong in order to demonise scientists and experts further). Making matters worse is a context of competing, manipulative and persuasive anti-science narratives, each claiming to be truth. These undermine the public’s chances of distinguishing fact from fiction. For example, after a conspiracy theory suggested the outbreak of COVID-19 was a result of 5G, many of us witnessed or read reports of the 5G masts in the West Midlands being vandalised and even burned down by members of the public. Stories such as these demonstrate that the advances in humanity’s safety and prosperity created by science are being significantly undermined and threatened by anti-science discourse and actions (Carter et al., 2019).
Anti-science views are not new. For example, the Leicester anti-vaccination movement began in the 19th century. But with limited public access to scientific sources and increasing access to non-scientific sources, especially via the internet, anti-science positions are becoming more pervasive, and include claims that i) the earth is flat; ii) a female biological mechanism exists to prevent pregnancy post-rape; iii) alternative medicines like homeopathy are effective; iv) climate change science is false v) genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous to human health; vi) stem-cell research has various pseudo-benefits; vii) autism can be cured with diet and viii) evolution theory is untrue (for further examples see Achenbach, 2015). Scientists have been asked to communicate their findings clearly and counter anti-scientism (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). But before we can begin to counter it, we first need to identify and understand its discourse. Anti-science discourse has been investigated through the optic of particular governments (Carter et al., 2019) or specific topics, such as anti-vaccination (Davis, 2019), anti-GMO (Cook et al., 2004), stem-cell research (Marcon, Murdoch and Caulfield, 2017), and climate denial discourse (Park, 2015). This research often details the development and the content of the anti-science position and discourses. However, little is known about the linguistic repertoires of contemporary anti-science discourses more generally and how they compare across topics. What are the linguistic mechanisms underpinning the persuasiveness of anti- science? Are there anti-science discourses that are shared across the topics, or does the discourse vary with the topic? How much linguistic variation do the anti-science topics display? To what degree are the anti-science communicative strategies more or less typical of particular topics? This fellowship will directly address these questions.
In this fellowship I will be developing and introducing a new methodological technique which combines corpus-assisted discourse studies (CADS) (Baker, 2006) – a methodological technique developed and used by researchers at Lancaster University to investigate the representations and discourses of social phenomena and groups – with the approach to corpus data I specialise in, Multi-Dimensional Analysis (MDA) (Biber, 1988).
I am honoured to receive this prestigious fellowship and I am truly grateful to Lancaster University in their support of me, especially my fellow colleagues in CASS.
As we all try to seek out help, advice and guidance in these unprecedented times, it has never been more important to understand how anti-science works across topics. So, wish me luck on this journey and I’ll see you at the end with my tin foil hat on.
I hope everyone is keeping safe and healthy.
My best wishes to you and your family.
Achenbach, A. (2015) Why do many reasonable people doubt science? National Geographic. Retrieved on 21/01/2020 from: https://ldld.samizdat.cc/2017/static/natgeo-Reasonable-People-Doubt-Science.pdf
Baker, P. (2006) Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum. Biber, D. (1988) Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Carter, J., Berman, E., Desikan, A., Johnson, C. and Goldman, G. (2019) The State of Science in the Trump Era: Damage Done, Lessons Learned, and a Path to Progress. Center for Science and Democracy at the UCS.
Cook, G., Pieri, E. and Robbins, P. T. (2004) ‘The scientists think and the public feels’: Expert perceptions of the discourse of GM food. Discourse and Society 15(4): 433—449.
Davis, M. (2019) ‘Globalist war against humanity shifts into high gear’: Online anti-vaccination websites and ‘anti-public’ discourse. Public Understanding of Science 28(3): 357—371.
Marcon, A. R., Murdoch, B. and Caulfield, T. (2017) Fake news portrayals of stem cells and stem cell research. Regenerative Medicine 12(7): 765—775.
Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. M. (2010) Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature 465(10): 686—687. Park, J. T. (2015) Climate change and capitalism. Consilience 14: 189—206.
Siegal, E. (2017) Humanity needs science to survive and thrive. Retrieved on 21/01/2020 from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/07/25/humanity-needs-science-to-survive-and-%20thrive/#74f409a628ce