sienceEtDefiance_TriBonMuavais doute
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What does it mean to “trust science”?

How to filter good doubt from bad

Agnès Vernet, Science journalist
On June 23rd, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
6
How to filter good doubt from bad
Jean-Gabriel Ganascia
Jean-Gabriel Ganascia
Professor of computer science at Sorbonne University and Philosopher
Key takeaways
  • Doubt is an essential element of science, and in the scientific community, the absence of consensus is the norm.
  • But in the face of this inherent mistrust in scientists, society is currently crossed by another form of doubt: a general skepticism questioning the results of science.
  • Nevertheless, doubt must be part of the scientific process. For Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, it is therefore essential to give science, and particularly the scientific method, a central place in education.

Sci­ence with­out suspicion

Sci­ence with­out con­science is but the ruin of the soul”, Rabelais once said. We could also mis­quote by say­ing “Sci­ence with­out sus­pi­cion is but the ruin of the soul”, giv­en that scep­ti­cism is an essen­tial dri­ving force of sci­ence. With­out it, knowl­edge would remain absolute. Sci­ence involves ques­tion­ing the most obvi­ous truths. A sci­en­tist is nat­u­ral­ly trou­bled. He is will­ing to ques­tion every­thing, and to that end, he nur­tures a “good” form of doubt, one that is con­struc­tive and methodical.

Because of the sci­en­tists’ nat­ur­al scep­ti­cism, soci­ety is rid­dled with anoth­er form of doubt: wide­spread scep­ti­cism, chal­leng­ing the results of sci­ence. When both phe­nom­e­na meet, sci­en­tists become hostages of their own doubt. 

In the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, absence of con­sen­sus is nat­ur­al. Sci­ence moves for­ward through con­tro­ver­sial debates which end up being resolved. A result or an exper­i­ment takes into con­sid­er­a­tion two or three dif­fer­ent views, new ques­tions emerge, and nov­el con­tro­ver­sies are formed. How­ev­er, in the pub­lic sphere sci­en­tists only crit­i­cise to offer counter-argu­ments, not to advance the under­stand­ing of a phe­nom­e­non. This stance has noth­ing to do with sci­en­tif­ic doubt.

As long as sci­en­tists worked on the fringes of the pub­lic sphere, con­tro­ver­sies were con­fined to the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. Nowa­days, thanks to open access pub­li­ca­tions and oth­er forms of knowl­edge dis­sem­i­na­tion, the cir­cu­la­tion of sci­ence has opened up. On one hand, this shar­ing of knowl­edge is an oppor­tu­ni­ty, but on the oth­er, it is met by a col­lec­tive form of mis­trust. The first months of the Covid-19 out­break in 2020 are a strik­ing exam­ple of this phe­nom­e­non. Researchers and doc­tors in France who nat­u­ral­ly con­front­ed their hypothe­ses faced “60 mil­lion virol­o­gists”. A clash between scep­ti­cism and mistrust.

The method­ol­o­gy of defiance

When a sci­en­tist doubts, he does not do so with­out method. If he ques­tions a fact, some­times just to explore in greater depth an ele­ment in a giv­en issue, in return, he accepts that his ques­tion can be rebutted. Where­as in pub­lic opin­ion, objec­tion is com­plete. Crit­i­cism is not intend­ed to solve prob­lems, it is an assertive stance, a com­mit­ment. In some debates, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the media, we thus wit­ness the con­fronta­tion between con­vic­tions and hypothe­ses. A mix of gen­res that sows con­fu­sion and rat­tles more than one scientist.

As ear­ly as 2018, the prob­lem of sci­en­tif­ic pos­ture at the time of post-truth pol­i­tics was the sub­ject of a report direct­ed by the Eth­i­cal Comi­ty of the Cen­tre Nation­al de Recherche Sci­en­tifique (CNRS)1, to which I belong. This exer­cise reminds us that organ­ised scep­ti­cism, as advo­cat­ed by the Amer­i­can epis­te­mol­o­gist Robert King Mer­ton in its def­i­n­i­tion of an ide­al of pure sci­ence, does not chal­lenge knowl­edge. It is rather a rig­or­ous col­lec­tive process, a method­ol­o­gy to express doubt. Each step which brings a sci­en­tist clos­er to a fact gen­er­ates new hypothe­ses. The sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty then mea­sures the gap between the under­stand­ing of this phe­nom­e­non in this new the­o­ret­i­cal space and its rel­e­vance to the world. Doubt is organ­ised to bring new knowl­edge and insight.

Defi­ance in the pub­lic sphere is alto­geth­er a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Mis­trust is built on the sus­pi­cion that per­son­al inter­ests might cor­rupt research integri­ty. Yet, if out­side his lab­o­ra­to­ry a sci­en­tist may have social ambi­tions and be influ­enced by com­plex motives, sci­en­tists as a com­mu­ni­ty are only dri­ven by the search for truth.

Para­dox­i­cal­ly, this col­lec­tive dimen­sion might have been over­shad­owed by “sci­ence stud­ies”, a social sci­ences field which stud­ies how sci­en­tif­ic exper­tise works. By sug­gest­ing that pow­er issues in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty are iden­ti­cal to those in oth­er areas of soci­ety, they have over­looked the acid test that is sci­en­tif­ic expe­ri­ence. In sci­ence, truth always comes out as new facts are dis­cov­ered. We bow down before evidence.

Pub­lic mis­trust in the face of sci­ence also thrives on post-truth speech, mean­ing argu­ments imposed by force, with­out any form of evi­dence. This post-truth regime is some­times delib­er­ate, when it serves eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal or reli­gious inter­ests. It often aris­es from a sim­ple assumed indif­fer­ence in rela­tion to the facts.

Restore sci­ence edu­ca­tion to its right­ful place 

To fight mis­trust and help the pub­lic to dis­tin­guish good doubt from wide­spread sus­pi­cion, sci­en­tists only have few tools at their dis­pos­al. It is very dif­fi­cult to con­vince the gen­er­al pub­lic that all the mat­ters called into ques­tion are not legitimate.

We must first­ly remind the facts, pro­vide evi­dence. This is what dif­fer­ent media ensure with “fact check­ing”. This exer­cise has now become essen­tial. Nonethe­less, it is not enough, the amount of false infor­ma­tion cir­cu­lat­ing is still too great. Fur­ther­more, the per­ni­cious impact per­sists even though fal­la­cy has been demon­strat­ed. The pub­lic is not made of sci­en­tif­ic minds.

It is there­fore cru­cial to start explain­ing the sci­en­tif­ic approach in pri­ma­ry school. This wish­ful think­ing is how­ev­er ham­pered by the ini­tial train­ing of school teach­ers, who most­ly have a lit­er­a­ture back­ground. This ques­tion of sci­ence train­ing from a very ear­ly age remains a major lever.

In my view, it would also be use­ful to teach the his­to­ry of sci­ence. This dis­ci­pline has the mer­it of show­ing that sci­ence makes progress through tri­al and error. It shows the nature of sci­en­tif­ic con­tro­ver­sy and, com­bined with epis­te­mol­o­gy, it helps explain the way ideas are built. These approach­es are still poor­ly rep­re­sent­ed, includ­ing in aca­d­e­m­ic cours­es. They could nev­er­the­less be method­olog­i­cal allies for researchers, or even, if taught in high school, restore sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing in gen­er­al knowledge.

1https://​comite​-ethique​.cnrs​.fr/​a​v​i​s​-​d​u​-​c​o​m​e​t​s​-​q​u​e​l​l​e​s​-​n​o​u​v​e​l​l​e​s​-​r​e​s​p​o​n​s​a​b​i​l​i​t​e​s​-​p​o​u​r​-​l​e​s​-​c​h​e​r​c​h​e​u​r​s​-​a​-​l​h​e​u​r​e​-​d​e​s​-​d​e​b​a​t​s​-​s​u​r​-​l​a​-​p​o​s​t​-​v​e​rite/