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What does it mean to “trust science”?

“The cacophony of ‘science experts’ has done a lot of harm”

Clément Boulle, Executive director of Polytechnique Insights
On June 23rd, 2021 |
4 min reading time
mathias girel
Mathias Girel
Philosopher, Lecturer at ENS-PSL and Director of CAPHES
Key takeaways
  • Contrary to what one might think, scientists don’t necessarily fit into the elitist image that we may have of them and therefore is not responsible for the mistrust.
  • Rather suspicion around science is in more likely fuelled by other perceptions of science, reinforced by the health crisis.
  • Scientists' role in the implementation of measures to combat the coronavirus has exacerbated the criticism directed at it as an institution, by consolidating science with a political function.
  • There is also confusion in the media created by “science experts” giving their opinion on issues that do not necessarily fall within their field of expertise, which undermines the credibility of the scientific community and its image.

There are count­less pro­grams, sym­po­siums or arti­cles ded­i­cat­ed to an alleged rise of sus­pi­cion towards sci­ence. What is your view?

It is indeed a fre­quent theme. How­ev­er, opin­ion polls show a more nuanced real­i­ty. When the ques­tion is more gener­ic (“Do you trust researchers from pub­lic insti­tu­tions to tell the truth about their research top­ics?”), two thirds of respon­dents answer ‘yes’. Even though, in some cas­es, the out­look can be much dark­er – par­tic­u­lar­ly with regards to med­ical top­ics1. Yet, the fact remains that, in gen­er­al, there is more con­fi­dence in sci­ence than in politi­cians. I do not think how­ev­er that there is a feel­ing of mis­trust towards sci­ence across the board, so we need to exam­ine each case carefully. 

Tell us more!

I see two prob­lems linked to the issue of mistrust. 

The first is that it is a vague notion. We some­times dis­tin­guish ‘mis­trust’, a dif­fuse feel­ing, from ‘sus­pi­cion’, a struc­tured atti­tude based on either good or bad rea­sons. The rea­sons for which should be inves­ti­gat­ed because there are oth­er close notions with dif­fer­ent impli­ca­tions; ‘hes­i­ta­tion’, for exam­ple. It is wide­ly stud­ied in regard to vac­cines, but it is not the same as mis­trust or sus­pi­cion. I also think about ‘con­fu­sion’, which can have the same effects as sus­pi­cion, in terms of dis­missal. How­ev­er, it reflects the absence of reli­able points of ref­er­ence, or the dif­fi­cul­ty to dif­fer­en­ti­ate seem­ing­ly close real­i­ties. In the lat­ter sit­u­a­tion, the cacoph­o­ny between the exper­tise of agen­cies and experts on TV shows for exam­ple has cre­at­ed a great deal of con­fu­sion. In a much broad­er sense, it is at the heart of the “info­dem­ic” con­cept revived by the World Health Organ­i­sa­tion (WHO) since Feb­ru­ary 2020. 

A dis­tinc­tion is some­times made between dis­trust, which is a dif­fuse atti­tude, and mis­trust, which is an atti­tude struc­tured by reasons.

The sec­ond prob­lem is that objec­ti­fy­ing this defi­ance, if it exists, and tak­ing it for grant­ed a lit­tle too fast, can have an effect on the demo­c­ra­t­ic debate. What is the use of try­ing to con­vince peo­ple of the valid­i­ty of a mea­sure if a large part of the pop­u­la­tion is con­sid­ered to be opposed to it as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple? Last autumn, there was much talk about an impor­tant and rel­a­tive­ly recent form of mis­trust from French peo­ple towards vac­cines. Even though at the time no Covid-19 vac­cine was avail­able yet, which made any dec­la­ra­tion high­ly abstract. In addi­tion, the begin­ning of the Covid-19 vac­ci­na­tion cam­paign showed a wide­spread desire to have access to vac­ci­na­tion as soon as pos­si­ble (the hes­i­ta­tion towards the AstraZeneca vac­cine being a sep­a­rate case). In this par­tic­u­lar case, the behav­iour­al cri­te­ri­on – how will peo­ple con­cerned behave? – seems more rel­e­vant to me than statements.

Some researchers speak of com­mu­ni­ty phe­nom­e­na. In oth­er words, where sci­en­tists form part of an elite. As such, the work­ing class can’t iden­ti­fy with them lead­ing to mis­trust towards them.  What is your opinion? 

It should be clar­i­fied what is meant by “elite” here. Need­less to say, the dai­ly life of researchers is rather dif­fer­ent than the lifestyle of busi­ness elites. Except in some par­tic­u­lar cas­es, they are also detached from polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing: researchers and engi­neers are far from over-rep­re­sent­ed among polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives and senators. 

It seems to me that the prob­lem is instead linked to how we per­ceive sci­ence. It cor­re­sponds to at least three real­i­ties. First, there is our knowl­edge of research, its con­di­tions, what it’s like to be a researcher. This usu­al­ly sparks inter­est, and some con­fer­ences, like the Sci­ence Fes­ti­val (Fête de la sci­ence), or well-made pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion videos, win over a wide audience. 

Sec­ond, there is the indi­vid­ual or col­lec­tive exper­tise, with­in an agency, a com­mis­sion, an organ­i­sa­tion, which is often mis­un­der­stood. Yet, gen­er­al­ly it is a pro­ce­dure that obeys very strict rules, can lead to bal­anced judg­ment, and even some­times includes a plu­ral­i­ty of views. It col­lides with the image of ‘experts’ seen on news chan­nels, or even more gen­er­al­ly, with the media image of those who feel enti­tled to give their opin­ion on oth­er sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines or issues just because they are qual­i­fied in a par­tic­u­lar field. This image of experts ‘in sci­ence’ does a lot of dam­age, and we have seen the emer­gence of many impro­vised epi­demi­ol­o­gists these past few months!

Final­ly, there is the case when sci­ence is used to jus­ti­fy a polit­i­cal deci­sion (“we fol­low sci­ence”, “sci­ence says…”). Crit­i­cism some­times falls on sci­ence when it is in fact raised against pol­i­tics. This last type of vision seems to fall under what we once called “the lin­ear mod­el”. Basi­cal­ly, only one pol­i­cy stems from sci­en­tif­ic con­clu­sions, yet this is illu­so­ry. Even on sub­jects that are per­fect­ly sta­ble from the sci­en­tif­ic point of view, whether in the field of ener­gy, health or the envi­ron­ment, there is gen­er­al­ly a plu­ral­i­ty of sce­nar­ios. Deci­sion-mak­ers can­not hide behind researchers or experts, but they can unfor­tu­nate­ly ignore them.

It is com­mon that con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries have no sci­en­tif­ic basis. Could their alleged increase be a sign of the grow­ing mis­trust in science?

There is indeed cause for con­cern. For exam­ple, the doc­u­men­tary Hold up, which was viewed mil­lions of times, mix­es ques­tions on the SARS-CoV­‑2 virus with spec­u­la­tion on the real­i­ty of the out­break, the glob­al project named “the great reset”, not to men­tion 5G, and this can have a health impact. It is pos­si­ble that social net­works increase the vis­i­bil­i­ty of this phe­nom­e­non. But, even when a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry appears on a sub­ject cov­ered by sci­en­tif­ic research as well, it is only part of the phe­nom­e­non. For instance, many of Don­ald Trump’s vot­ers are still con­vinced that the result of the last elec­tion was a plot of the Democrats. 

Even if there is a resur­gence of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries… they do not, or hard­ly ever, tar­get research as such.

It seems to me that this last con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry has severe con­se­quences, and it gives no state­ment on sci­ence. If we use the lan­guage of sus­pi­cion, such an atti­tude reflects a lack of trust in insti­tu­tions, sus­pect­ed of fol­low­ing a secret agen­da. Con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries on sci­en­tif­ic sub­jects are prob­a­bly only one aspect of this gen­er­al atti­tude, only in this case they tar­get the par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tion that is sci­ence. Per­haps it is more strik­ing because the idea that a sci­en­tif­ic state­ment could be the result of a hid­den agen­da con­flicts with the val­ues of uni­ver­sal­i­ty, truth and integri­ty pre­sup­posed by sci­ence. How­ev­er, if you look in detail, to my knowl­edge, exist­ing con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries focus more on the sec­ond and third images of sci­ence men­tioned ear­li­er. We hard­ly see any con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries on black mat­ter or string the­o­ry, for exam­ple. All this would sug­gest that even if there is an increase in con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, and even if we are right­ful­ly con­cerned about some of their man­i­fes­ta­tions and we must address them when knowl­edge is threat­ened, they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly express defi­ance towards sci­ence nor tar­get research itself.


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