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Corona and the gulf between citizens and experts

Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker will retire on 8 February. If there’s one theme running through his career, it’s the links between the University and society. In this series of pre-retirement discussions, Stolker will talk one last time with people from within and outside the University. On this occasion, he talks with two political science specialists about the gap between citizens and experts.

‘I’ve got exactly an hour; then I have to get on,’ Rozemarijn Lubbe gives the impression of being in something of a rush when she signs into Microsoft Teams on Friday 15 January at three in the afternoon. And that’s hardly surprising: barely two hours before, the Rutte III cabinet announced its resignation, following the debacle of the ‘benefits affair’ within the Dutch Tax Authority. As one of the lead researchers on the EenVandaag opinion panel, Lubbe has a long evening ahead of her. What do the Dutch think of the fall of the cabinet? And can Rutte stay on as leader of the VVD party? These are the kinds of questions she wants answers to as quickly as possible. 

But, the discussion does take place, although with the urgency of current events breathing down their necks. As an alumna of Political Science at Leiden University, Lubbe is keen to exchange views with Carel Stolker before he ceases to be Rector Magnificus and President on 8 February. She also has a good working relationship with the third person at this virtual table: Tom Louwerse, Professor of Political Science and former chair of Young Academy Leiden. They both share the same passion for opinion polls.  

Clockwise from the top: Rozemarijn Lubbe, Tom Louwerse and Carel Stolker.

Gulf between citizens and institutions

On this hectic Friday afternoon, the three discuss a very pressing issue: the gap between citizens and institutions. Even a cursory glance at a newspaper or the television will show that this gap has widened and that there is now a gaping chasm between citizens on the one side, and the media and the scientific world on the other. Social media is full of reports that the NOS broadcaster is spreading fake news and that coronavirus is a conspiracy. Stolker – himself a self-confessed avid viewer of Dutch current affairs programme EenVandaag – wants to know: just how big is that gulf? And can the scientific world play a role in closing it? 

Louwerse is the first to speak, and is quick to bring some perspective to the issue. Yes, certainly, there is a gap, but it is no greater than it has been in the past. ‘There has always been a group of around 20 to 25% of the population that is very dissatisfied with the political situation at any point in time, but the long-term trends show that confidence in politicians is more or less stable, so we’re not seeing any real growth in this group.’  

Not only that, Lubbe adds, trust in the scientific world is remarkably high. ‘In a recent study we found that no less than 85% of respondents had confidence in science. By contrast, the media and the House of Representatives scored 66 and 50 percent respectively. Personally, I’m convinced that scientists and academics can use this trust to reduce the gulf. Just look at Diederik Gommers, for example, chairman of the Dutch Association for Intensive Care: he is an expert who is more than capable of building a bridge with society.’ 

Rozemarijn Lubbe: ‘I’m convinced that scientists can use this trust to reduce the gulf.’

‘Golden time’ for scientists

‘Actually, these are golden times for scientists. Evening after evening they’re on EenVandaag talking about coronavirus. Do you think the scientific world is doing enough to keep citizens involved?’ 

Lubbe has her doubts. She agrees that Diederik Gommers is a skilled bridge-builder, but apart from being invited to talk about coronavirus, very few scientists appear on talk shows. ‘Climate change, for example, is a pressing issue, but I would have difficulty naming any Dutch expert in that field. Obviously, the media itself plays a role in finding the right people, but you can also question whether universities themselves shouldn’t be doing more to make their experts better known in the public domain.’ 

‘Interesting point,’ says Stolker. ‘Maybe we should think about whether we can find a more systematic way of plugging our scientists who are experts on major contemporary issues, such as the UN’s sustainable development goals.’ 

Louwerse adds: ‘That’s OK, as long as we don’t make it an obligation. Not every scientist needs to be willing or able to do this at this level. It’s something I do like doing, but with young children in a lockdown situation, it’s not easy. Another point is that I’m often asked by the media to explain some current political issue, but that doesn’t necessarily tie in with my expertise as a political scientist. I’m not a political journalist.’ 

No criticism from the sidelines

This brings the discussion back to a subject that is close to the hearts of both Lubbe and Louwerse: opinion polls. They like nothing better than to debate the beauty of the perfect survey question, the margins of error of statistical significance and the ultimate weighted sample. Lubbe does research on a daily basis for the EenVandaag opinion panel and Louwerse is the driving force behind Peilingwijzer, a summation of the polls carried out by I&O Research, Ipsos/EenVandaag and Kantar.

Lubbe and Louwerse are in regular contact. They know one another from their time in Leiden. ‘I finished my Research Master’s in Political Science in 2012, and Tom was second reader of my thesis,’ Lubbe says. ‘Since then, the contacts with the department have always been good. So, if I have any doubts about the methodology of our research, I get in touch. I can almost always talk to someone on the phone or by mail, which is a great bonus for a journalist. It’s something I really appreciate.’ 

Carel Stolker: ‘Actually, these are golden times for scientists. Evening after evening they’re on EenVandaag talking about corona.’

Louwerse adds: ‘Obviously, there’s sometimes room for improvement in research, but I don’t want to be one of those scientists who just stands on the sidelines, pointing out the errors. I think we should be better and more constructive critics. If something isn't quite right, how can we correct it? That’s what my colleagues do, too. Two of them, Joop van Holsteijn and Jelke Bethlehem - both professors in Leiden - are on the supervisory board of the EenVandaag  opinion panel. 

From intern to lead researcher

Stolker is interested to hear what this means for the University. Does this approach also benefit Louwerse? ‘Definitely,’ is his immediate response. ‘Many Leiden Political Science students do internships with EenVandaag, and sometimes research questions put forward by students reach the EenVandaag opinion panel. The question is put to a panel of 50,000 Dutch people. That’s really exciting.’

‘I started at EenVandaag as an intern,’ Lubbe adds, laughing. ‘It just shows what an internship can lead to.’

The very next day the EenVandaag opinion panel presents the first results: around 58 percent of the panel members think it is good that the Rutte III cabinet has resigned. Incidentally, Mark Rutte himself does not seem to be particularly phased by this: he may well become Prime Minister again, in the opinion of most people who vote for a coalition party.

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Illustrations: Pirmin Rengers

Podcast: Carel Stolker on coronavirus, vlogging and the void

In a few weeks’ time Carel Stolker will be retiring as Rector Magnificus. In a double episode of the Science Shots podcast, we take stock: what were the key lessons, how has the coronavirus crisis been and of course, what will he do to avoid the post-retirement void? Stolker shares his experiences in a candid interview (in Dutch).

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