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Mistrust of science or distrust in democracy?

Luc Rouban
Luc Rouban
CNRS Research director at Cevipof
Key takeaways
  • 82% of French people trust science, according to the Political Trust Barometer published in January 2022.
  • However, this figure drops to 68% when it comes to scientific experts advising the government, and to 42% for the government alone.
  • According to the conclusions of these results published by SciencesPo, 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 82%, sec­ond only to hos­pi­tals (83%) and before the mil­i­tary (76%) or the police (72%). 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 alone2

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 sup­port­ed 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 pre­vi­ous 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.

Interview by Agnès Vernet


Luc Rouban

Luc Rouban

CNRS Research director at Cevipof

Luc Rouban's work falls within the framework of political sociology and his research focuses more specifically on democracy, notably political and social elites. He recently published "La matière noire de la démocratie", Presses de Sciences Po, 2019 and "Quel avenir pour les maires?", La Documentation française, 2020.

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