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In the face of the unknown, science and politics must speak to each other

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François-Xavier Heynen, doctor of philosophy of science, recalls that the will to interfere with “power” in scientific communication is as old as the world. But the coronavirus crisis is new because it gives rise to conflicts between different provisional truths.

In a remarkable carte blanche, a doctor in biotechnology says he is frightened by a desire to interfere with “power” in scientific communication. This phenomenon is however as old as science. On the other hand, this coronavirus crisis is heating up, in particular because of the speed of the transmission of information, a more fundamental characteristic of science: its capacity to react in the face of the unknown. In the face of novelty, some scientists remember that Cartesian doubt is the basis of their intellectual legitimacy, others much less. So, how to be an expert on the unknown? By redefining the epistemological field, but this takes time which is hardly compatible with health and political requirements. Tensions, misunderstandings and settling of accounts appear.

Ms. Vandermeeren mentions in her carte blanche an interpretation of an interview with Mr. Bouchez. This interpretation has been criticized by the main party, but this does not affect our purpose. We will directly resume the conclusion drawn by Ms. Vandermeeren: “In this interview, he (Mr. Bouchez) recommends that scientists validate their communications by the political authorities, thereby claiming to avoid generating confusion among the population.”. Formulated in this way, the proposal is clumsy and is indeed difficult for scientists to accept. Popularization of science is a particular activity that requires both knowledge of science and that of pedagogy, this is not new. The political power does not have the ambition to ensure this specific competence.

We will postulate that the remarks relate to the current crisis and therefore to scientific communication around the coronavirus and the covid. It is on this subject, and more particularly on the basis of public reports by Sciensano, that Ms. Vandermeeren builds her analysis: in her eyes, these documents do not fall under scientific rigor alone. In other words, they were manipulated. This authorizes him to say: “We are helplessly witnessing disturbing abuses. It is dangerous to allow political interference in scientific communication. No societal argument can prevail in a state of law respecting the independence of powers and of science. It is not up to scientists to bend their conclusions to the needs of politicians ”

The unknown

However, if we limit ourselves to the coronavirus crisis, we must then take into account an essential fact: scientific knowledge is incomplete. The symptoms of the disease and especially its functioning are still poorly understood. The observations are not finished, the theories are in the draft stage. There are therefore currently conflicts between various provisional truths. And this is very holy for the future development of science.

What we are really witnessing, and perhaps for the first time in such an open way, is the live deployment of science with its mistakes, its successes, its redefinitions … Even if this process is classic for a building science, it can frighten the layman. Just as it can be frightening to present your symptoms to three doctors and get three different explanations.

These multiple provisional theories (not counting the rantings from the internet) create a feeling of uncertainty among the population. Political speech could then be a place for managing intellectual confusion. But for that, the government would have to be able to count on experts. This expertise does not yet exist. Certainly specialists can bring their precious collaboration to shed light from such and such an angle on what their paradigm perceives of the current situation. But the synthesis did not take place. It is a characteristic of modern science to have divided reality into plots to analyze. And it works well when reality bends to the cruising speed of society. Here reality is unleashed; it comes out of the chains usually launched around it by science. The scientist, like the man in the street, is faced with the Unknown. And the Unknown should lead us all to humility.

Scientists and politicians

On the one hand, that scientists take advantage of this humility to push their conceptions to their limits and, above all, it is essential to progress, that they do not lock themselves in and look a little further than their field. usual. And that they understand that their word has a political impact. In this case, to use Ms. Vandermeeren’s expression “No societal argument can prevail in a state of law respecting the independence of powers and science”, it appears today to be crying, because of the massive and viral dissemination of information, whether science, in spite of it or not, does not respect this independence. The controversy surrounding Professor Raoult is an example: the use of chloroquine quickly left the scientific framework to settle, via social networks, in the political debate. All this is not new, but the phenomenon is exacerbated by the immediacy that has become global and the sanitary nature that can potentially impact each of us. Thus virtual juries are being set up on social networks to scrutinize the words of the experts without delay or hindsight. Although incompetent, this justice is capable of detecting a basic and too frequent error: the expert who leaves his field of knowledge. This attitude risks discrediting science.

On the other hand, that politicians manage life on the basis of scientific data, this should be obvious in a modern state. But in the crisis, the politician will not wait for the final conclusion of science which may be established in a year. Politicians will manage risks, among which are scientific doubts. Indeed scientific doubts will generate reactions in the population: put on the mask or not, send the children to school, or not …

Scientific doubt is a risk that must be managed. We will then have recourse to propaganda, rarely compatible with the objectivity and complexity of science. And yet necessary to put citizens into action and make them respect instructions. This is the societal argument which justifies here the political – science interaction. Finally and on this it is necessary to be very clear: the scientist masters a working method which has already shown its effectiveness, he is therefore empowered to give his opinions and conclusions according to his criteria. Science is fallible: it is a strength, not a weakness. The method she has applied has shown its power for several centuries, but it takes time. In the meantime, our democracy is precious, even more so in this period of special powers, and we must remain vigilant: that the largely majority opposition, scientists and the media take care that the unknown health does not open the door drifting …

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