From hegemony to counterpublic: Science in opposition to power

muzzled scientists

A year ago, despite a prevalent and vocal anti-climate section of the US public, it was reasonably obvious who was counter-to-the-norm, and who was representative of the hegemony on the issue of climate change. Networked publics—simultaneously the space constructed through networked technologies, and the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice—of individuals and grass-roots campaigners arose on both sides of the issue, flinging juxtaposed diatribes into the algorithmic sea. But one side—climate activists—had, and still have, the weight of scientific authority in all its forms to bolster their position, as well as a sympathetic government at the time(s). But now, in the age of Pruitt, Trump and truthiness, who can be said to be representative of authority and “norm”, and who can be imagined as a counterpublic?

Twitter, and the internet generally, has led to a fragmentation of the public sphere. Mostly unconnected publics find spaces online, from blogs to hashtags, where they might reproduce one-another’s opinions, ultimately resulting in radicalized and isolated “echo chambers.” These spaces offer sanctuary to individuals who might otherwise silence themselves through a fear of isolation as a result of their alternate views. But in an online echo-chamber, individuals can voice their opinions, exchange arguments, and form a counterpublic that is in opposition to the mainstream hegemonic public sphere, emboldened by the illusion of sect, and esperit de corps.

The traditional definition of counterpublic has guided scholars towards groups of people that are historically oppressed based on race, class, gender or sexuality—minorities often excluded from the general public sphere. This focus has generated a rich theoretical tradition that might now be expanded and applied to other identity categories that may not be so visibly subaltern. Like climate change deniers allied in their scepticism, counter to science—an icon of intellectual and institutional hegemony, ripe for a dressing-down. Although climate sceptics are usually excluded from the mainstream, they do form alliances with other groups such as conspiracy theorists, men’s rights groups, and all manner of alt-right subversions. However, with climate sceptics now in the very upper echelons of the US government, which side is now counter to the hegemony?

Counterpublics always form around scientific issues, from health, GMOs, abortion, nano-technologies. But rarely could we conceive science and its institutions and advocates as being a counter-to-the-public. However, Bricker (2014) contends that climate intellectuals (emphasis on Ozone scientists) who opposed powerful business interests regarding the issue of pollutant CFCs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, served a critical counterpublic function by opening discursive space, penetrating new rhetorical outlets and participating in multiple publics simultaneously, leading to the widespread banning of chlorofluorocarbons.

The Ozone issue demonstrates the critical importance of the environmental intellectual for convincing publics and politicians that environmental regulations are necessary when faced with grave environmental harm. Can the same widespread regulation regarding other pollutants be possible when we drop the words “climate” and “change” into the mix? The role of public intellectual played by scientists can be instrumental in winning over public opinion and informing policy. But is that possible in the era of fake-news and Trump? Twitter has given us insight into the sphere of counterpublics, and the ubiquitous denial of intellectualism and science in all its forms. Perhaps the only way to win out on the issue of science is for science to reconceptualise itself, in this context, for the time-being, as counter-to-the-norm. Counter to hegemony and what’s in charge. We already see signs of scientists activating and mobilizing as a powerful counterpublic, from the #marchforscience to powerful advocacy groups such as

Rise up and be heard, science. And show your working out!

Bricker, B. (2014). Scientific Counterpublics: In Defense of the Environmental Scientist as Public Intellectual. Topio, pp. 1-12.

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