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Can Coronavirus Alter Confidence in Science?

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The Covid-19 pandemic led to an explosion in demands on scientists, who had to respond to the concerns of the French while advising politicians. If the confidence indicator seems to be looking good, the relations between science and society are much more complex than it seems. Decryption with sociologist Michel Dubois.

“A principle guides us to define our actions (…): it is confidence in science”. This sentence, pronounced by Emmanuel Macron in a recent address to the French, raises an interesting question: what impact can the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic have on how the French perceive science and technology? It’s an opportunity to challenge some misconceptions and highlight the importance of investigating recent transformations in science and scientific expertise.

Trust in principle

Faced with the risks and uncertainties associated with the pandemic, all eyes are turned to researchers: virologists, epidemiologists, infectiologists, immunologists, sociologists, etc., intervene in a loop on television sets, on the radio, in the press or on Internet. They have to answer sometimes expected questions: what is an emerging disease? A zoonosis? How is the coronaviridae family different from other viruses? But also to sometimes more unexpected questions: was the coronavirus invented by the Institut Pasteur? Is there a relationship between the spread of the coronavirus and the deployment of 5G? etc. Rumors and false information have always accompanied epidemics. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is no exception to the fake news rule. Researchers therefore carry out a dual task of information and correction in real time. What is sometimes called in English debunking.

The public circulation of this scientific word hardly encounters obstacles. It is fueled by the concerns generated by the pandemic, by a long-standing interest of the general public in biomedical research, but also, and contrary to what we sometimes hear, including in the scientific community, a confidence in principle granted in France to the Scientific Institution.

We must pay tribute to the perseverance of Daniel Boy, political scientist and research director emeritus at the National Political Science Foundation: we are the only country to have had since the early 1970s a series of surveys on public image science (the next national edition will be made public in 2021). Even a quick reading of these surveys invalidates the received idea of ​​a so-called distrust of the French. Even the scientific-technical crises which have periodically dominated the news since the 1970s have never lastingly damaged their confidence. In 2011, in the aftermath of the H1N1 crisis, 87% of French respondents said they had “very” or “rather” confidence in science, far before the media (29%) or the government (27%). During the summer of 2019, as the Ebola virus spreads in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a similar study by Harris Interactive estimated this general level of confidence at 91%. A record…

An ambivalence with regard to uses

If the confidence indicator is looking good, why then wonder about the impact of the coronavirus crisis? For at least three reasons. First of all because this narrow framework in terms of trust, without being totally useless (we will come back to this below), leaves in the shade a significant part of the complexity of the relations between science and society. To take just one example, in 2011, even though 87% of French people expressed their confidence, a majority (52%) also expressed a shared opinion when asked if they generally “The impression that science brings more good than bad to man, more bad than good or about as much good as bad?” ” The figure below shows the evolution of the answers obtained for the same question between 1972 and 2011.

This simplistic question gives a good overview of the ambivalence that is found in most European opinion polls and which is expressed with regard, not to science as such, but of its uses.

Take the example of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. Thanks to these technical and instrumental advances, researchers disseminate and analyze an ever-increasing mass of genomic, clinical and epidemiological data accessible to everyone on online platforms, as is the case today with the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data. This widespread pooling of data – open science – appears to be the virtuous side of globalization. But these advances are also in the service of public authorities in a hurry to stem the spread of the virus as quickly as possible and sometimes more concerned with controlling populations than with respect for privacy and individual freedoms.

Which of these two uses of AI and big data will get the most public attention? With what type of variations according to the countries considered? It is here that large-scale survey work is essential to establish a world map of the public image of science, and more broadly of scientific culture. A dedicated international project, led by Michel Claessens (Université libre de Bruxelles) with Martin Bauer (London School of Economics, United Kingdom) and Ren Fujun (National Academy of Innovation Strategy, China) has been under development since 2019.

The scientific community under pressure

The second reason is the pressure on the scientific community. Research is developing at the confluence of multiple temporalities, but the time of crisis is always that of acceleration. In its March 17, 2020 edition, The Scientist noted that coronavirus experts were literally “overwhelmed” by the wave of requests for manuscript review. This energizing of peer review is neither without risk to scientific integrity, nor truly unprecedented since this problem arises with each health crisis.

The novelty comes more from the transformations, since the beginning of the 2010s, of the collective work of evaluation of research results. The development of open peer review and peer review post-publication platforms such as F1000, Publons or PubPeer is behind many retractions, including in the most prestigious journals. We have had the opportunity to report on the upheavals caused by PubPeer in the field of RNA interference, but the controversy which is developing today around hydroxychloroquine is no less interesting.

Science journalists and the public are completely ignorant of the reasons why the evaluators, like the editors of the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, accepted for publication on March 17 a manuscript submitted on March 16 entitled: “Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a treatment of COVID-19: results of an open-label non-randomized clinical trial ”. They also know nothing of the reasons why one of the co-authors of this publication quickly withdrew from one of the scientific councils set up by the government to “enlighten the public decision in the management of the related health situation with coronavirus “. They can, however, access peer-to-peer exchanges on online platforms and see doubts and questions accumulating that remain unanswered.

Journalists therefore only have to seize it to expose them a little more in broad daylight: “on PubPeer, write Hervé Morin, Sandrine Cabut and Nathaniel Herzberg, a site intended to point out methodological weaknesses in the scientific production, the article by the Marseille team concentrates (…) a series of questions. Contacted by Le Monde to clarify these various points, (one of the co-authors did not follow up on these requests ”(Le Monde, March 24). Clearly, open peer review, peer review post-publication platforms, scientific information sites and blogs today form a Watchdogs ecosystem of science that makes institutional management of the public image of the scientific community more complex than it could be before.

The delicate position of the experts

Finally, the third reason is of course the metamorphosis that generally accompanies health crises, that of the scientist into expert mandated by the public authorities to assess risks and formulate recommendations. All sociologists know this, especially those interested in the difficulty of carrying out coercive vaccination policies: when it comes to the estimation of risks linked to health and the environment, the expression of trust depends on the perceived distance between scientist and politician.

To take our example, if it is true that in 2011, 87% of French respondents said they generally trust science, they were only 48% to trust “government agencies” responsible for controlling risks related to health and the environment. Editorial writers have repeatedly stressed the political weight given by the government to its two scientific councils, one chaired by Jean-François Delfraissy, the other by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. They perceive less clearly the complexity of the positioning of these experts who, aware of their high public exposure, must both be part of political choices while staying away from politics.

In a beautiful work entitled The Honest Broker (Cambridge University Press, 2007), Roger Pielke distinguishes four figures of the expert who are as many ways of thinking about the relationship between science and politics: the Pure Scientist delivers the state knowledge without considering its political use, the Arbitrator (Science Arbiter) factually answers the questions asked by the authorities without revealing his preferences, the Advocate (Issue Advocate) defends a precise line and tries to influence the choices accordingly authorities, the Honest Broker seeks to make the variety of alternatives visible so that politicians can make their choice based on their preferences and values.

There is no doubt that the more or less lasting impact of the current coronavirus crisis on the image of scientific expertise will also play a role in the ability of members of scientific advice to decide between these different models.

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