Can we trust science?
Etienne Klein : There are several ways to understand the question asked. Trusting the science is
Believe what the scientists say ? Is to believe
Relevance of the scientific approach ? Or is it to be believed that science will be able to do so
Do you accept the challenge that are available to us, such as climate change? The answers to these three questions, considered separately, would probably not be identical.
However, if we look at the public’s trust in science and scientists in all countries of Europe,
he remained extremely strongabout
90% during this Covid-19 pandemic.
Except in France, where he lost 18 points*. The reasons are varied. One of them is undoubtedly that we have overly personalized the debates. We had a historic opportunity to do
Scientific Pedagogy. Instead, we preferred to stage controversies that were often premature. Which raises the question of what a debate should be.
Cynthia Fleury : Yes, how is organized
speech in a
debate ? What are the modes of
Truth**, that is, the ways to tell the truth? In democracy there are a multitude of modes, which are also hierarchical. Take, for example, the debate at a café counter or in Parliament. The former is crucial, especially for freedom of expression. The second will also have to present a decision. It reacts to other criteria of legitimacy and necessarily obeys a normativity, especially one based on rationality and often on the burden of proof. However, for several years we have observed an increase in the confusion of these modes, for example by passing a
public controversy for scientific controversies
and vice versa.
Etienne Klein : There is another confusion that can explain the distrust: we have too many
confused science and research. Science is a body of knowledge that can only be challenged by scientific arguments. Research, on the other hand, is driven by questions to which we do not yet have the answers. Its engine is
the doubt. But when science and research are lumped together, the idea of doubt that is constitutive of research colonizes science itself. And then we come to that unfortunate abbreviation, according to which science is essentially doubt. If so, why should their results be considered?
Cynthia Fleury : This distrust is part of a broader French context related to the
tropism of populism. This is based on various forms of insecurity (socio-economic, political, cultural) and distrust, especially of institutions, which today even extends to science. The latter has also experienced bankruptcies, embodied in different moments of our history: Hiroshima, Auschwitz, etc. There has even been talk of a “disaster of the Enlightenment”, because in the Age of Enlightenment there was a convergence of goals, with the idea that the more scientific we are , the more moral we are, the more we could live together, the more we would understand each other, etc. The XXand Century brought this convergence.
How does the current functioning of our societies (education, lifestyle, customs, etc.) help perpetuate this distrust?
Etienne Klein : As the English philosopher Bernard Williams explains, two currents of thought coexist in our society today, which contradict each other but strangely reinforce each other. On the one hand there is
a “desire for truthfulness” : We are educated, informed and do not want to be fooled by institutional or media discourses. But at the same time, this perfectly legitimate desire for truthfulness triggers
general critical thinking which shatters the notion that there would be any established truths. This weakens the desire for truthfulness
the idea of truthespecially when said by institutions.
Cynthia Fleury : We are also experiencing in France a
masterful humiliation in mathematics and science, revealed the PISA ranking. However, there is a very clear association between confidence in science and high levels of science and mathematics. I add to that
role of social mediawith their algorithms and economic model that do not value the quality of the content but a certain type of vocabulary that favors hate speech,
ad hominem denoting, conspiracy, etc.
Etienne Klein : By the way, why a fake news is shared seven times more than real information? Why do our brains tend to accept the ideas they like as true, even when they are false? The matter is all the more delicate as it has happened that science is wrong. In the past, scientific “truths” have ultimately been proven wrong; others, like the round (but not perfectly spherical) shape of the Earth, are now almost unquestionable; some, in turn, need to be revised to take account of the evolution of knowledge. When science produces knowledge, it also produces uncertainty, but a very special uncertainty: it doesn’t tell us what to do with the possibilities it offers us. Decisions have to be made. But according to what criteria?
How can trust in science be restored?
Cynthia Fleury : We have reached such levels of distrust, denial, resentment, violence against elites and institutions … Reestablishing or building a climate of trust with rational arguments will not be easy. As with any paranoid delusion, whatever is given as an argument is returned as confirmation bias. The challenge is to allow ourselves to develop and refine our critique of science (which is its corollary) while keeping this in mind
Science remains a more sophisticated verification protocol than others. But in order to gain access to a democratic debate, we need to better understand this science. However, we have not revolutionized our entire training. The role of science education in our system of governance is essential and this is being organised. This requires “civil time” to be spent to understand, to participate, even to decide… We would thus increase the level of free exercise of public rationality.
Etienne Klein : Science is indeed republican in the sense that it is essentially a “public affair”. However, if trust has been damaged, it may be because we have failed to invent forums to discuss together what kind of society we would like to have with new technologies.
Cynthia Fleury : Work on expert opinion writing, scientific integrity, conflicts of interest, lobby mapping are also essential. It is all the more necessary to restore trust in science
two metachanges: the digital and the anthropocene, accompanied by a speed race. The digital world is a permanent world of acceleration, in contrast to human reflexivity; there is a fight going on. If politics does not interfere, if there is no debate, we move towards a delegation of understanding and decision-making to the machine.
Etienne Klein : However, I note good news: the arrogance of the other has gradually lost a tone. It is
the manifestation of the so-called “Dunning-Kruger” effect, which is articulated in a double paradox: on the one hand, one must be … competent in order to measure one’s own incompetence; on the other hand, ignorance makes safer than knowledge. As we became better informed during the pandemic, we found the case to be more complex than we had anticipated. Suddenly, arrogance is faring a little less well than it was a few months ago, except on networks or sites specifically designed to lend a hand.
*The French in times of Covid-19: economy and society in the face of health risks, Yann Algana and Daniel Cohen, Communication from the Council for Economic Analysis, No. 66, October 2021.
**Term of the philosopher Michel Foucault.
This article is taken from CEA Challenges #248