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“Our desire for truthfulness makes us suspicious of institutions”

Etienne Klein
Etienne Klein
Philosopher of science and Professor of Physics at CEA

You have pre­vi­ous­ly spo­ken a lot about the impor­tance of good sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Was it a missed opportunity? 

Eti­enne Klein. In a way, yes. Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, we heard many sci­en­tists talk, but we heard very lit­tle from “sci­ence”. We missed a his­toric oppor­tu­ni­ty to edu­cate the pub­lic about sci­ence. On a dai­ly basis, we could have shown how researchers work, the bias­es they fight against, their pro­to­cols, their mis­takes, their suc­cess­es. We could also have tak­en the time to explain cer­tain impor­tant con­cepts like what a “dou­ble-blind tri­al” is, sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis, expo­nen­tial func­tions or how dis­tin­guish between cor­re­la­tion and causal­i­ty? Unfor­tu­nate­ly, instead of doing this, we pre­ferred to stage con­tro­ver­sial debate between pub­lic personalities. 

For many months, the dis­tinc­tion between sci­ence and research were con­fused; they are two dif­fer­ent things, even if they are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. A sci­en­tist is some­one who can say: “we know that” and “we won­der if”. The first half of this sen­tence refers to sci­ence, the sec­ond to research. Sci­ence rep­re­sents a body of knowl­edge that has been duly test­ed and that there is no rea­son – until fur­ther notice! – to ques­tion: the Earth is round not flat, the atom exists, the observ­able uni­verse is expand­ing, etc. But this knowl­edge, by its very incom­plete­ness, rais­es ques­tions about things that are not yet known to sci­en­tists (or to any­one else). 

Answer­ing such ques­tions is the goal of research. By its very nature, there­fore, research involves doubt, where­as sci­ence is made up of a set of givens that are dif­fi­cult to ques­tion with­out extreme­ly sol­id argu­ments. But when this dis­tinc­tion is not made, the image of the sci­ences, mis­tak­en­ly con­fused with research, becomes blurred and degrad­ed: they give the impres­sion of a per­ma­nent bat­tle between experts who can nev­er agree, which just isn’t the case. From the out­side, it is obvi­ous­ly a bit dif­fi­cult to follow… 

Is there cur­rent­ly much mis­trust in sci­ence by the public? 

The pan­dem­ic revealed some­thing that already exist­ed: the sys­tem­at­ic sus­pi­cion of insti­tu­tion­al dis­course. The philoso­pher Bernard Williams observed two cur­rents of thought in post­mod­ern soci­eties such as ours that are both con­tra­dic­to­ry and asso­ci­at­ed. On the one hand, there is an intense attach­ment to truth­ful­ness: we have a desire to avoid being deceived giv­ing us the deter­mi­na­tion to break through appear­ances in the search of pos­si­ble ulte­ri­or motives hid­den behind insti­tu­tion­al mes­sag­ing. And, along­side this per­fect­ly legit­i­mate refusal to be fooled, there is an equal­ly great dis­trust of truth itself: does it real­ly exist? If so, how could it be oth­er than rel­a­tive, sub­jec­tive, tem­po­rary, local, instru­men­talised, cul­tur­al, cor­po­ratist, con­tex­tu­al, fake? 

Curi­ous­ly, these two oppo­site atti­tudes, which should in all log­ic be mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, turn out in prac­tice to be quite com­pat­i­ble. They are even mechan­i­cal­ly linked: the desire for truth­ful­ness sets off a gen­er­alised crit­i­cal process with­in soci­ety, which makes peo­ple doubt that there can be, if not acces­si­ble truths, at least proven untruths. All this weak­ens the cred­it giv­en to the word of sci­en­tists and to any form of insti­tu­tion­al expression. 

Allow me a per­son­al anec­dote. When I explain fun­da­men­tal physics phe­nom­e­na such as the Hig­gs boson, no one sus­pects that my belong­ing to the CEA (French Cen­tre for Atom­ic Ener­gy) could influ­ence my com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But if I talk about radioac­tiv­i­ty, then peo­ple often think that I am much more influ­enced by an insti­tu­tion­al bias to CEA… 

But how do you mark the dif­fer­ence between what you know and what you don’t know? 

The bound­ary between the two evolves over time. We have also seen the typ­i­cal dynam­ics of the so-called “Dun­ning-Kruger” effect unfold. This is a cog­ni­tive bias that has been iden­ti­fied for a long time and was stud­ied empir­i­cal­ly in 1999 by two Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gists, David Dun­ning and Justin Kruger. The effect is based on a dou­ble para­dox: on the one hand, to mea­sure one’s incom­pe­tence, one must be… com­pe­tent. On the oth­er hand, igno­rance makes peo­ple more con­fi­dent about their knowl­edge. Indeed, it is only by dig­ging into a ques­tion, by inform­ing one­self, by inves­ti­gat­ing it, that we dis­cov­er it to be more com­plex than we suspected. 

At that point, a per­son then los­es his/her self-con­fi­dence, only to regain it lit­tle by lit­tle as they become gen­uine­ly com­pe­tent in that thing – but now tread­ing with cau­tion about what they know. Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, we saw the dif­fer­ent phas­es of this effect unfold in real time: as we became more informed, as we inves­ti­gat­ed, we came to under­stand that the mat­ter was more com­plex than we had sus­pect­ed. Today, (almost) every­one, it seems to me, has under­stood that this pan­dem­ic is a dev­il­ish­ly com­pli­cat­ed affair. As a result, arro­gance is a lit­tle less wide­spread than it was a few months ago.

The Dun­ning-Kruger Effect

Is social media the culprit?

In part, because social media offers a way for each of us to choose our infor­ma­tion and, with it, ulti­mate­ly our “truths”. Dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy even allows the advent of a new con­di­tion of the con­tem­po­rary indi­vid­ual: as soon as we are con­nect­ed, we can shape our own access to the world via our smart­phone and, in return, be shaped by the con­tent we receive per­sis­tent­ly from social networks. 

Thus, each of us builds a kind of cus­tomised world, an “ide­o­log­i­cal home”, by choos­ing the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ties that best suit us. This cre­ates what Toc­queville would have called “small soci­eties”, with very homo­ge­neous con­vic­tions and thoughts, each defend­ing its own cause. In this world, we can go about life almost nev­er being con­front­ed with con­tra­dic­tion, since we only ever encounter con­fir­ma­tion bias­es… Thus, we become quick to declare the ideas we like as true to be the truth!

Do you think then that media should stop putting out “sci­en­tif­ic debates”, to avoid wrong inter­pre­ta­tion of the facts? 

I have always defend­ed the idea that sci­en­tists should express them­selves pub­licly because I have always thought that there is a link between repub­lic and knowl­edge: in a repub­lic wor­thy of its name, knowl­edge, espe­cial­ly sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, must be able to cir­cu­late with­out hin­drance. The ques­tion that I would ask is rather this: “Is the way that the media, as is cur­rent­ly struc­tured, adapt­ed to the dif­fu­sion of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge?” So-called ‘debates’ about sci­en­tif­ic top­ics do not seem to be good tools to share sci­en­tif­ic ideas. Per­haps we need to invent new forms of con­fer­ences, which give the time required to argue a point, to explain how we have come to know what we know. But this requires an amount of time that the media won’t or can’t allocate…

When I was younger, I thought that as soon as we had explained some­thing clear­ly, the job was done. But no! Because there are so many cog­ni­tive bias­es at play, which mod­u­late and dis­tort the mes­sages that are being sent out. So, it’s very com­pli­cat­ed. I start­ed com­mu­ni­cat­ing sci­ence almost thir­ty years ago, and at the time I had no idea how vast the task would be! 

We must find a way to give cred­it back to the sci­en­tif­ic con­tent (you will notice that I pre­fer to speak of cred­it rather than trust). This will undoubt­ed­ly require a return to the use of the we rather than I: when it comes to trans­mit­ting knowl­edge, I pre­fer that a researcher speaks in the name of the com­mu­ni­ty to which he belongs rather than in a per­son­al capac­i­ty. Because sci­ence is indeed a col­lec­tive endeav­our. And the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty will then have to work to invent new ways of trans­mit­ting knowledge. 

Interview by James Bowers

Contributors

Etienne Klein

Etienne Klein

Philosopher of science and Professor of Physics at CEA

Etienne Klein is the director of the Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Sciences de la Matière of CEA and a member of the Académie des Technologies. He is interested in the question of time and other subjects that are at the crossroads of physics and philosophy. He is a professor at Ecole Centrale-Supélec. He also hosts every Saturday on France-Culture "La conversation scientifique" and has recently published: "Idées de génies" with Gautier Depambour, Champ-Flammarion, 2021; "Psychisme ascensionnel", Artaud, 2020 as well as "Le Goût du vrai", Gallimard, coll. Tracts, 2020.