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What does it mean to “trust science”?

Mistrust of science represents our discomfort with democracy

Agnès Vernet, Science journalist
On June 23rd, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
Mistrust of science represents our discomfort with democracy
Luc Rouban
Luc Rouban
CNRS Research director at Cevipof
Key takeaways
  • 81% of French people trust science, according to the Political Trust Barometer published in May 2021.
  • However, this figure drops to 68% when it comes to scientific experts advising the government, and to 42% for the government alone.
  • According to Luc Rouban (Sciences Po), distrust of science is mainly due to citizens’ distrust of political institutions.
  • This mistrust is particularly prevalent among voters of populist parties. 66% of the voters of the Rassemblement National surveyed, for example, believe that “common sense is often more useful than scientific knowledge”.

Sci­ence has retained its credibility…

The Cen­tre de recherch­es poli­tiques de Sci­ences Po (CEVIPOF) has been run­ning the Polit­i­cal Trust Barom­e­ter, since 2009. This aca­d­e­m­ic sur­vey exam­ines trust as a socio-polit­i­cal issue. It is used to assess con­fi­dence of the pub­lic in polit­i­cal and social insti­tu­tions – such as sci­ence – par­tic­u­lar­ly in the con­text of the Covid-19 out­break. The rela­tion­ship between sci­ence and pol­i­tics, in the broad sense, helps us to ques­tion pub­lic opin­ion through the lens of social struc­tures, cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions or polit­i­cal anthropology.

Sci­ence is a social insti­tu­tion, just like fam­i­ly, edu­ca­tion, the law or the mil­i­tary. But, in France, it is also linked to repub­li­can­ism. The idea of the Repub­lic rests on a pos­i­tivist phi­los­o­phy, mean­ing a world of pub­lic action and polit­i­cal debate steeped in sci­ence. The aim is to lead a rea­soned debate, on the basis of exper­i­men­ta­tion or, at the very least, sci­en­tif­ic rea­son­ing. Due to this approach, the French Repub­lic dif­fers from oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes, such as the US democ­ra­cy, which revolves more around com­mu­ni­ty val­ues. The French Repub­lic is intend­ed to be uni­ver­sal in nature, and to that end it draws on sci­en­tif­ic ratio­nal­i­ty. There­fore, the issue of sci­ence is fundamental. 

The health cri­sis illus­trat­ed this fact very well. Sci­en­tif­ic dis­course is borne by dif­fer­ent actors: sci­en­tists, experts who pass on sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge in a reg­u­la­to­ry and polit­i­cal con­text, sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tors and broad­cast­ers (social net­works, news chan­nels). It also involves dif­fer­ent sources of infor­ma­tion, includ­ing sta­tis­ti­cal indi­ca­tors pro­vid­ed by the gov­ern­ment, sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions, and oth­er sci­en­tif­ic content.

…except when it is asso­ci­at­ed with power

The lat­est waves1 of the Barom­e­ter show that pure sci­ence remains a very trust­wor­thy insti­tu­tion, with a glob­al trust rate of 81%, sec­ond only to hos­pi­tals (83%) and before the mil­i­tary (78%) or the police (73%). How­ev­er, when you get into specifics it appears that the more a sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tion gets clos­er to the gov­ern­ment the more trust declines. For sources of infor­ma­tion on the health sit­u­a­tion, trust placed in doc­tors is 91%. It decreas­es to 68% for sci­en­tif­ic experts advis­ing the gov­ern­ment and drops to 42% for the gov­ern­ment alone. 

Sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ties are taint­ed by the feel­ing of mis­trust towards the gov­ern­ment. Lack of con­fi­dence in the offi­cial mes­sage also affects experts and offi­cial sta­tis­tics. A demo­c­ra­t­ic malaise leads to scep­ti­cism towards any speech relat­ed to the Covid-19 out­break, includ­ing its evo­lu­tion, pre­ven­tive mea­sures, or vac­ci­na­tion policy. 

In France, demo­c­ra­t­ic malaise is root­ed in the rise of pop­ulism, mean­ing the oppo­si­tion between peo­ple and elites, the lat­ter includ­ing sci­en­tists. There is mis­trust in author­i­ta­tive speech. But pop­ulism is not homoge­nous, right-wing pop­ulism is not the same as left-wing pop­ulism. If mis­trust in sci­ence increas­es with pop­ulism (only 36% of pop­ulists strong­ly sup­port sci­ence in 2020), its rea­sons are root­ed in the polit­i­cal side.

Left-wing pop­ulism is par­tic­u­lar­ly observed in peo­ple close to the polit­i­cal par­ty France Insoumise, for exam­ple. They claim to be anti-estab­lish­ment, express anti-gov­ern­ment opin­ions, but val­ue sci­ence and are in favour of edu­ca­tion and research. Trust issues arise when sci­ence is inter­twined with pri­vate inter­ests or when it is used to design dubi­ous or sus­pi­cious tech­nolo­gies. From their point of view sci­ence is taint­ed by pri­vate inter­est and corruption.

Right-wing pop­ulism most­ly involves vot­ers from the Rassem­ble­ment Nation­al. This polit­i­cal par­ty is also asso­ci­at­ed with a rejec­tion of elites and gov­ern­men­tal insti­tu­tions. But mis­trust in sci­ence is based more on affect, com­mon sense or tra­di­tion. Thus, 66% of respon­dents esti­mat­ed that “com­mon sense is often more use­ful than sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge”. Abstrac­tion, sci­en­tif­ic rea­son­ing and ratio­nal debate are thus a source of dis­trust. We observe, for exam­ple, that sta­tis­ti­cal rea­son­ing is reject­ed and replaced by the per­cep­tion of imme­di­ate real­i­ty or chance. Sci­ence is con­sid­ered to be an insti­tu­tion fab­ri­cat­ed by “savants”, which leads to an arti­fi­cial social divide.

The health cri­sis did not change this obser­va­tion. The com­par­i­son between stud­ies of 2018 and 2020 shows that demo­c­ra­t­ic malaise has been trans­posed to the field of health. The Covid-19 cri­sis mere­ly con­firms, or even ampli­fies, the frac­ture between those who adhere to sci­en­tif­ic ratio­nal­i­ty and those who reject it. And this phe­nom­e­non seems to feed con­spir­a­cy theories.

Fur­ther­more, the last wave of the Barom­e­ter shows that even the decrease in vac­cine hes­i­tan­cy is not linked to changes regard­ing trust in insti­tu­tions. The wider accep­tance of the vac­cine – which now cov­ers 65% of par­tic­i­pants – is only moti­vat­ed by the wish to return to a nor­mal life (the first answer for 45% of respon­dents favourable to vac­ci­na­tion). The pop­u­lar cat­e­gories believe that they are “pro­tect­ing them­selves” where­as upper class­es feel that they are “pro­tect­ing others”.

How­ev­er, the gov­ern­ment is unable to cap­i­talise on the rel­a­tive suc­cess of its vac­ci­na­tion strat­e­gy. The mis­trust in polit­i­cal deci­sions is deep, regard­less of accom­plish­ments. Mis­trust is spin­ning and this casts doubt on all the eval­u­a­tion mech­a­nisms of gov­ern­ment policies.

And this sit­u­a­tion is spe­cif­ic to France. Even though pop­ulism also exists in Ger­many or in the Unit­ed King­dom – coun­tries in which we led com­par­a­tive sur­veys – they are seek­ing more direct actions from their cit­i­zens in order to improve rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy. In France, they are a rejec­tion of the exist­ing polit­i­cal sys­tem. This sit­u­a­tion also explains the sig­nif­i­cant amount of absten­tion, and the greater sus­pi­cion towards sci­en­tif­ic exper­tise in France.