Åsa Wikforss | Champion of Democracy

Photo: Roger Turesson
This interview with Åsa Wikforss was conducted in February 2024 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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About Åsa Wikforss
Åsa Wikforss, born in 1961, is an award-winning and well-renowned Swedish author, philosopher, and debater. Wikforss earned her Ph.D. in 1996 from Columbia University in the USA and subsequently joined Stockholm University as an associate professor in theoretical philosophy. In 2008, she and Kathrin Glüer became the first two female professors in the field. In 2018, she was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and in 2019 to the Swedish Academy. Over the past decade, Wikforss has actively participated in debates and popular science events, where she has shared her views on topics including knowledge and resistance to knowledge, facts, and science. Her book Alternative Facts: About Knowledge and Its Enemies (2017, Fri Tanke) was well-received and garnered significant media attention. Since then, Wikforss has also written the books Why Democracy: About Knowledge and Government (2021, Fri Tanke) together with Mårten Wikforss and Philosophical Clarifications – in Troubled Times (2023, Fri Tanke).

Three books by Åsa Wikforss, all three concerns democracy.
Åsa Wikforss’ three lasyest books..
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Tolerance, populism & demoractic values

The first thing I want to talk to you about is tolerance. You write in your books that in a democracy, one must be able to tolerate differences. But how tolerant should we really be towards intolerance? For example, consider groups that want to dismantle and abolish democracy. Should we tolerate them, or should we draw a line there to protect the survival of democracy?
– This is often described as the paradox of democracy. What do you do when someone wants to exploit the freedoms and rights that democracy offers in order to harm and dismantle democracy itself? It is actually a situation we are facing now where propaganda actors are using the extensive freedom of speech. What then? Is it so that democracy must simply lay flat and accept that if it goes under, then it does? I think democracy is allowed to protect itself, even though it is always a balance. After World War II, discussions arose about the freedom of demonstration – should the Nazis be allowed to demonstrate after the complete world catastrophe they had caused? It varied in different parts of the world, where some were much stricter than others. Now, in Germany, there is a discussion about whether to completely ban far-right parties. My view is that one might consider making some restrictions to protect democracy, but clearly, it can go too far. It’s not reasonable to dismantle the rights and freedoms of democracy with the aim of protecting it. That becomes totally paradoxical.

– Regarding freedom of speech, it can be observed that there is no country where it is unlimited. That’s just a myth. Not even in the USA, where it is described as perhaps the most fundamental right. Even there, it is limited. There are laws against defamation and against hate speech. We have variants of this in all countries. Germany has gone a bit further in terms of banning Holocaust denial. Some such measures must be possible to protect democracy, but it is crucial that a completely open and knowledge-based debate is held before such a decision is taken. It must be clear and understandable to everyone what is being done, why it is being done, what risks are involved, and what it is trying to protect. It should never be like in an autocracy, where citizens suddenly have less freedom of speech one day. When it works as it should, the best arguments can emerge.

“The majority cannot do whatever it wants, so it is wrong to say that democracy is the same as majority will.”

In light of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, there has arisen a discussion about what should happen when the war ends, and how to conduct open democratic elections to choose a new government. A central issue is whether to exclude Hamas and similar organizations from participating in such an election. If they are excluded, can it then be classified as a free, democratic election? What do you think?
– The same discussion is also currently taking place in Germany, regarding whether an extremist group that does not share democratic values should be allowed to participate or not. In the case of Hamas, no speculation is needed – they were democratically elected and then shut down the democracy. Perhaps it is acceptable to exclude extreme actors from democratic elections. I saw a survey conducted in Gaza on October 6th showing that support for Hamas among the population was no more than 25%. Therefore, they would not have won if there had been free, open elections. Naturally, they hold no elections because they do not want to risk losing their power. With hindsight, I think they have disqualified themselves from being part of the democratic system.

If the support had been greater and a majority of the population had wanted Hamas in power, would that change the situation? Because real democracy still means that the will of the people should prevail, right?
– Yes, democracy is based on the people, but it does not merely represent pure popular will, especially not in the context of Western liberal democracy. There are always limitations on the power of the majority in the form of rights and freedoms. The majority cannot do whatever it wants, so it is wrong to say that democracy is the same as majority will. Populists view the will of the people as something fixed, almost metaphysical, but what people want depends on the information they receive. This means that society must be open for people to gain the knowledge necessary to make well-informed decisions. If it is not, one can question whether what people want is indeed the true will of the people, that is, what they would want if they had relevant knowledge.

Photo of Åsa Wikforss by Roger Turesson.
Photo: Roger Turesson

Can you explain what populism really is?
– The term populism is used in many different ways, which has caused confusion in the debate. It might seem like it means a bit of everything, from being opportunistic to being popular. However, from the perspective of political science, populism is considered a thin-centered ideology. It can be combined with both right- and left-wing politics and follows a few central ideas. One such central idea is that of the true popular will. This metaphysical will of the people was something both the fascists and Nazis talked about extensively. Another core aspect of populism is antagonism. It involves a fundamental conflict between the “authentic” people and the elite. In left-wing populism, the elite often refers to the economic elite, and in right-wing populism, it is the intellectual or academic elite who are depicted as the enemy, that is, journalists, researchers, and politicians. The third central part of populism is the view that the opposition’s claim to power is illegitimate. We have seen several populist politicians who do not accept election results, for example, Trump and Bolsonaro. They argue that the election results do not reflect the true will of the people.

Something that is often mentioned is that populists try to offer simple solutions to complex problems?
– Yes, and this is connected to the “true will of the people.” Populists often advocate for more direct democracy with referendums instead of representative democracy. They want to eliminate all intermediaries between political decisions and the people. As a result, they do not want experts or knowledge bases for decisions, leading to simplistic solutions. We know that simple solutions seldom exist, and therefore, populism often leads to dysfunctional politics. It is the politics of pure emotion, rather than the knowledge-based, liberal democracy. The strongest core of liberal democracy is precisely its way of acquiring knowledge so that we can make good decisions, both as individuals and collectively. However, populism opposes this.

The use of so-called troll factories in politics and opinion shaping is something that is increasingly being discussed. What do you think about the connection between populism and this type of propaganda?
– There is a very direct connection. The techniques of troll factories are in opposition to what characterizes the open society. It is impossible to determine who the sender is, and this undermines all source criticism. With the help of a large number of anonymous accounts, they create the impression that this comes from many different sources. They paint a sort of false “popular will,” which is an effective tool of influence. They also engage in stirring up mobs against those they view as their enemies—journalists, researchers, and politicians from other parties. Instead of a knowledge-based debate with openness, they thus spread skewed and misleading content in secret, actively undermining trust in reliable sources of knowledge and fueling hatred against political opponents. Nothing could be further from the liberal democratic ideal of an enlightened understanding as a foundation.

“But blasphemy laws are the last thing we should have.”

In Philosophical Clarifications, you point out that certain political proposals to curb crime, such as frisk zones and secret coercive measures, undermine human rights. You write that we need to address the prevailing gang crime within the framework of liberal democracy, without dismantling fundamental freedoms and rights. But isn’t crime fighting always a balance of this kind? We accept that law enforcement intervenes to guarantee safety, for example, by searching us at the airport or measuring our alcohol level in traffic controls. Society seems to accept that our freedom sometimes has to be sacrificed for safety. What is the difference in the case of frisk zones and secret coercive measures?
– I believe that this is precisely the discussion we need to have, but many pretend as if nothing is wrong. The proposals put forward must be knowledge-based, and there has been criticism that the proposed measures will not achieve their goals. If they do not achieve their goals but only lead to a more repressive society, why should we implement them? Then it is just the repression itself that we are after. As I understand the research status regarding search zones, the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.

– I am therefore against the fact that this balance is not discussed enough. Some claim it is hysterical to say that the government’s cooperation with the Sweden Democrats is a threat to democracy. But no, there is nothing hysterical about it, because it is a fact that populism poses a threat to democracy, and these types of measures can significantly weaken a democracy. Then we cannot just implement them and pretend nothing is wrong. Firstly, it must be explicit that there is a conflict of goals where we intend to limit democracy to combat crime. Secondly, it must also be shown that it is worth it. That there are reasons and belief that these measures will solve the problems. Otherwise, you have just limited democracy. Without strong evidence, it just becomes a political tool to appear tough, and that is the worst kind of populism. It is pursuing the politics of emotion rather than acting knowledge-based.

In Sweden, a conflict surface has emerged in recent years, between freedom of speech and protection against blasphemy. The conflict has become evident in, for example Quran burnings, Mohammed caricatures, and the Ecce Homo exhibition. Is it right to describe this as a conflict between different values?
– In a way, but it is possible to uphold the right to criticize religion without undermining the religion. What is important is that we have religious freedom and tolerance. That one can believe what one wants and practice one’s religion. Religious freedom is fundamental, and the tolerance it is based on is the great legacy of the Enlightenment. We tolerate people having different views on religious matters, which is reasonable since you cannot prove anything within religion. Then, of course, people can also criticize religion, which freedom of speech allows. One must accept this since one can be secure in the practice of one’s religion, and moreover, one can argue back against the criticism if one wishes, or ignore it if one chooses. But blasphemy laws are the last thing we should have.

Image of a praying man and an artist to depict the value conflict between the sacred in religion and the freedom of art and expression in a liberal demoracy.
Is there a conflict of values between the sacred in religion and free art?

– Then there’s another discussion regarding incitement to hatred against groups. This isn’t about blasphemy but really inciting hatred against specific groups. There was a case where someone burned the Quran and threw bacon on it, right outside a mosque. I argue that this is incitement to hatred against groups because it’s not just about burning a book; it targets a specific group of people. In other words, I think that can be handled within the framework of liberal democracy’s freedoms and rights. However, blasphemy laws simply cannot exist in a liberal democracy, as they are too great an infringement on freedom of expression.

You write in a section that in a liberal democracy, one cannot expect a homogeneous majority culture because everyone must be free to live as they wish. At the same time, it sounds like you’re asserting that everyone must have a common foundation of values?
– In a democracy, there is value pluralism. This means we have different ideas about the good life, how we want to dress, whom we want to marry, and so on. However, there are some foundational values in democracy, and if someone seriously threatens them, the democratic society will not tolerate it. These values are so fundamental that they are compatible with all kinds of ways of living, so it’s not an impossible equation. It’s important that democracy does not pretend to be value-neutral because it isn’t. The equal worth of all people is one such value, and it is expressed by everyone having the same right to vote in political elections, for example. But within the framework of these very basic values, there are significant freedoms to shape one’s life as one wishes. This is how the solution looks in liberal democracy, and as far as I can judge, it’s the best solution the world has come up with so far, to peacefully handle the fact that we think differently, have different values, are different kinds of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests. We must try to live together despite this, and then democracy with the idea of institutionalized debate, tolerance, and compromise is the best way to handle it.

“It’s important that democracy does not pretend to be value-neutral because it isn’t.

Democracy support and Public service

It has been shown that support for democracy is steadily declining among young people. What do you think about that?
– I actually participated in a podcast this morning about just that. The latest Youth Barometer survey showed that 20% of young men between the ages of 15-24 think it would be better to live in a non-democratic state with a strong leader. It makes you wonder what they know about the world! Do they know what it’s like to live in an authoritarian state where they can’t choose how to live their life? Where the authoritarian state, for example, bans certain sexual orientations? Do they know about all the empirical benefits that democracy brings in terms of happiness, life expectancy, health, and gender equality? It’s astonishing! The latest World Value Survey showed that 24% of Germans think a dictator would be a good idea, 25% of Britons, around 30% of French, and 37% of Americans. Then something has gone wrong in how we talk about democracy. What do people know if they think it would be better with a strong leader?

Do you think they genuinely feel that way, or is it more about how the question is phrased? Don’t you get different results if you ask if people want a strong leader versus a dictator, for example?
– Certainly, how the question is asked matters. There are several difficulties with opinion polls. When 70-75% of Trump voters answer yes to whether they believe the 2020 election was stolen, you can’t be sure how many do it just because they support Trump and how many actually believe it. It could also be a general expression of dissatisfaction. We don’t know for sure, but it’s worth considering that this occurs against a backdrop of a number of propaganda actors, both state and others, driving narratives about the failure of democracy and repeating that democracy is weak. So it doesn’t come from nowhere.

Public service also seems to have had a tougher time regarding public trust. Is there anything they themselves could do, concretely, to reverse the trend?
– It’s not unique to Sweden. The total trust is actually quite stable in Sweden, but we’ve seen a party polarization in trust. The farther out on the right you go, the lower the trust. This is not surprising given how much propaganda against public service is spread. For example, the leader of the Sweden Democrats called the public service “left-liberal trash.” This borders on being a conspiracy theory, where journalists within the public service are conspiring against the people.

Photo of Åsa Wikforss by Roger Turesson.
Photo: Roger Turesson

– There is a fundamental mission that public service cannot compromise on, namely that they have a democracy mission that includes being objective. For instance, when they present facts about climate change and report on it objectively, the supporters of the Sweden Democrats perceive them as non-objective because they do not want to hear that fact. Additionally, their mission includes standing up for the fundamental democratic values, which these groups generally do not like, hence perceiving public service as biased and losing trust. It’s an insoluble problem. You can’t meet the critics halfway by becoming less objective, producing fewer facts about climate change, or ceasing to uphold democratic values.

The news service Ground News specializes in clarifying news reporting biases on a left-right scale. One can easily see if a news item is predominantly published by media from one political side. Can such increased transparency increase trust?
– That’s really interesting! Journalists do make selections, but it’s crucial that it is done in a manner that is not clearly agenda-driven. Journalists are people, just like researchers, but they have a profession. They have a foundation of education and are part of institutions that have mechanisms to prevent them from becoming too human. The role of institutions is something I’ve been harping on for many years now. Researchers have biases and they can be as ambitious and greedy as any person. But to keep them honest, you need a well-functioning institution. When the institution doesn’t function, scandals can occur, such as the Macchiarini scandal at Karolinska. In that case, journalistic scrutiny played a significant role. Generally, it is extremely important to keep institutions functioning well; otherwise, things can go very wrong!

“If democracy is institutionalized debate, then research is institutionalized doubt.”

Doubt and conspiracy theories

Sowing doubt among people is a method you discuss that is frequently used by figures such as Donald Trump and climate change deniers. Sarah Haider, co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America, has highlighted that sowing doubt is the most important tool in combating religious extremism. She argues that only a person who is one hundred percent convinced in their religious faith could be willing to become a suicide bomber or murder apostates. Thus, even the slightest doubt can make a difference between life and death. Her stated strategy is precisely to sow doubt. It seems that this can be used for both good and evil?
– One should always doubt. But the important thing is that it is done on solid grounds; that is the difference. If democracy is institutionalized debate, then research is institutionalized doubt. Research involves constantly questioning results. We have peer review, seminars, and oppositions that systematically work to scrutinize and find objections to ensure that nothing has gone wrong.

– Sowing doubt is a very specific method, and it was invented by the tobacco companies. When research unequivocally showed that cigarette smoking caused cancer, the companies panicked. How could they prevent people from embracing this knowledge? They tried to create the impression that the research was uncertain and that it was unclear whether there really was such a connection. How do you achieve that? You simply finance a number of researchers who do a bit of cherry-picking of data. Then you exploit journalists who believe there are two sides and report on it. The consequence is the impression that there are two equally reasonable viewpoints, a so-called false balance. At that point, it is rational for ordinary people to assume that researchers do not really know what is going on.

– The specific method I am referring to is the one where doubt is introduced when there really are no good grounds for it. Doubting itself is part of the pursuit of knowledge and is obviously correct in dealing with a fanatic. In research, questioning happens over and over until the conclusions are so convincing that we can justifiably say we have knowledge. The central insight of science is that we can be wrong. This means that if someone comes up with serious objections, we must always investigate them. However, it should be added that we cannot waste time on frivolous objections. Arguments that the earth is flat, for instance, cannot waste scientific research funds; we must filter them out.

“However, what characterizes these problematic conspiracy theories, which turn society upside down, is that they do not allow themselves to be falsified.”

Regarding the idea that the Earth is flat, conspiracy theories are something you write about in your books. Can you explain what distinguishes conspiracy theorists from skeptics of research?
– They can’t be wrong! A neutral definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory that posits a group of people conspiring to achieve a certain agenda. Such a theory can be true, as conspiracies have occurred throughout history. However, what characterizes these problematic conspiracy theories, which turn society upside down, is that they do not allow themselves to be falsified. No matter what evidence is presented against the theory, it is only used as proof that the conspiracy is even larger. The anti-vax theory claims a conspiracy within Big Pharma. If you point to other independent research showing that vaccines work, then suddenly those researchers are part of the conspiracy. If you point to journalists who have published evidence of good effects, they are also involved. This is called evidential self-insulation and is a hallmark of conspiracy theories. They can’t be wrong.

Conspiracy theories, like the flat earth theory, can not be falsified and therefor they can turn the society of a liberal democracy upside down.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the theory of a lab leak was quickly dismissed as a conspiracy theory, and it practically became taboo to mention it. Later, however, the theory began to be investigated seriously. Were we too quick to dismiss it?
– My view is that the conspiracy theory that was dismissed posited that a Chinese lab had intentionally created and released the virus. The intentionality is crucial here. The possibility of a lab leak caused by a mistake is a different kind of theory that hasn’t been dismissed. It doesn’t have the same conspiratorial elements, and I found it strange that people couldn’t distinguish between these two in the debate.


In your books, you make a clear distinction between value questions and fact questions. American author Sam Harris argues that if the terms good and evil are to have any relevant meaning at all, they must be tied to well-being and suffering. Actions that increase well-being and reduce suffering are morally good, while those that increase suffering are morally evil, he claims. This makes moral questions empirical and scientific questions. Whether something leads to more well-being or suffering can be empirically determined. What do you think of this reasoning?
– He is correct that whether something leads to more well-being is an empirical question. But the claim that what leads to more well-being is morally good is not an empirical question; it is a philosophical statement akin to utilitarianism. Many philosophers take that stance, so it is not unique. Then, every moral question will have a large empirical component, namely does this lead to more well-being or not? If one is a Kantian, that is, a deontologist, one doesn’t need to look at the consequences, which makes it easier in a way. I personally believe that you must consider the consequences to make a moral evaluation of anything. But whether well-being is the only consequence that counts or not is up for debate.

“But it’s clear that when people say that morality is just what one thinks, they know nothing about moral philosophy.”

Is it a mistake to claim that science has nothing to say about moral questions, and that it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves?
– There’s a position in the history of moral philosophy with David Hues suggesting that it all comes down to feelings and preferences, asserting that reason has nothing to do with morality. I am more optimistic and believe that it’s possible to engage in moral reasoning and have moral positions that are more or less substantiated. You could say I lean towards moral cognitivism, which means I believe there is moral knowledge. This is a controversial philosophical issue where philosophers really don’t agree. But it’s clear that when people say that morality is just what one thinks, they know nothing about moral philosophy. Looking at historical milestones in moral development, such as the equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery, these occurred after argumentation and appeals to reason.

Truth relativism

The postmodern truth relativism has gained momentum over the last decade. Philosopher David Detmer, who wrote the book Challenging Postmodernism (2003, Humanity Books), has described how it’s becoming increasingly difficult each year to get students to agree that two factual statements that contradict each other cannot both be true at the same time. It has become trendy to claim that everyone has “their truth,” and thereby no objective truth exists. What is attractive about this approach?
– This goes back to the 1980s’ postmodernism, which broke through in the Swedish school curriculum in the 1990s in a very unfortunate way. It opposed the idea of knowledge transfer from teacher to student. I mean, what are we doing in a school if knowledge cannot be transferred? It’s a completely bizarre idea. Then it has spread to the public to some extent, even though I don’t think the general public has read Derrida. Perhaps it interacts with a fragmented media landscape where every issue has countless perspectives, even many that are contradictory. I don’t know how widespread the postmodern mindset is now, but it certainly exists. Creating the feeling that there is nothing that is true, just different perspectives, is also a propaganda technique. It’s a way to make citizens passive.

Photo of Åsa Wikforss by Roger Turesson, author of the book Därför Demokrati, Therefore Democracy in English.
Photo: Roger Turesson

– Unfortunately, people often confuse truth with certainty, which makes the whole issue philosophically messy. If one states that there is objective truth, the counterargument is that one can never know anything for sure. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that objective truth can’t exist. On the contrary, because there is objective truth, it’s possible to be wrong. Objective truth is independent of what we believe. The fact that we often are unsure and disagree does not mean that there is no objectivity. Another thing people confuse is objective truth and objective investigations. When conducting studies, various subjective elements come into play, such as the choice of subject, sampling, and perspective. This means we are rarely objective, but again, this does not mean that there is no objective truth; it’s something else. The question of objective truth is metaphysical, while objectivity in investigations is more about epistemology. I believe that at its core, there is a bit of philosophical confusion, unfortunately reinforced by some postmodern texts. But it’s nothing that a little basic philosophy can’t clear up.

In “Philosophical Clarifications,” you use fashion as an example. You write that fashion isn’t objective because there are no exact criteria for what is fashionable. At the same time, it’s not completely subjective, since it’s not enough for one to think one’s clothes are fashionable for them to be so. Instead, it’s related to the judgments of other people. This sounded to me exactly like the question of identity and whether one can choose it oneself. The general debate has mainly focused on gender identity. Do you see the similarity in that it’s not enough for one to think they have a certain identity, but that it also depends on the judgments of others?
– The section in the book discusses statements that in English are called judgment-dependent. For example, skinny jeans can’t be fashionable if nobody thinks they are, even if you yourself claim they are. A few more people must agree with you, preferably some key trendsetters. So, it’s not objective in the sense that it’s independent of people’s opinions, yet it’s not entirely subjective since it’s not entirely up to me what is fashionable. Since identity is connected to one’s role in society, I would say it’s problematic to claim that it’s entirely subjective. That would require a discussion.


What do you usually read?
– Currently, various parts of my life lay claim to my reading time. I read a lot of research texts, while I also read extensively through my work with the Swedish Academy. Mostly non-fiction, but not exclusively. As the Nobel Prize approaches in the summer, I especially read a lot of literature. I have the privilege of constantly reading the finest literature through my work. For pure pleasure reading, I turn to New York Review Books.

Which book would you like to recommend?
– I’ve seen that Naomi Oreskes’ latest book “Why Trust Science?” (2021, Princeton University Press) has been translated into Swedish: “Varför ska man lita på vetenskapen?” (2021, Thales). It’s excellent, so I recommend it. It highlights the role of institutions and presents many interesting examples from the history of science.

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