“With regard to science and technology, it is better to speak of disenchantment than of mistrust”

Michel Dubois is CNRS research director in the study group on sociological analysis methods at Sorbonne University. On the occasion of the international conference on scientific and technical culture “Science & You”, which the University of Lorraine took the initiative and which is being held in Metz from November 16 to 19, he comments on the results of the eighth edition of the national survey “The French and science”.

Why this survey?

When it comes to public attitudes towards science and technology, France has a little treasure in the form of an uninterrupted series of data spanning half a century. With Pauline Hervois (University of Lorraine), Martin Bauer (London School of Economics and Political Science), we directed this eighth edition which was funded by the University of Lorraine. Our job has been to extend previous investigations while taking into account the most recent events, in particular the pandemic. The completion of our questionnaire at the end of 2020 to a population of more than 3,000 people was completed by a series of interviews in the Grand-Est region. The aim is to fuel research on this topic, the importance of which has greatly increased since the start of the health crisis. But it is also about making our results known to those involved in scientific mediation and to decision-makers in charge of public policies.

Some commentators speak of public mistrust of science. What is it?

In terms of scientific culture, we must avoid allowing ourselves to be trapped in false debates. And that of the supposed mistrust of the French is one of them. Our results reveal a more complex reality. They underline a certain disenchantment with science and technology. Indeed, since the end of the 1980s, a majority of respondents, 62% in 2020, have declared that they believe that research brings “as much harm as good”. This record level of ambivalence is specific to our country. Elsewhere, especially in Northern Europe, enthusiasm is more the norm.

Our results also underline the increasingly strong questions of the public as to the capacity of researchers to maintain their independence vis-à-vis large industrial groups. The question of the links of interest of researchers has been raised a lot over the past two years, in particular by the press.

However, these two examples are not sufficient to conclude that there is a general distrust of science. When asked, the French, even the youngest, always respond very positively. They continue to place massive trust in researchers and their institutions and show a constant interest in major advances in the fields of medicine and biology, as well as renewable energies. This observation goes against the prevailing discourse which tends to over-represent “conspiratorial” opinions and irrational beliefs which are undoubtedly of a more spectacular nature. This observation does not imply an absence of problems. As we have seen, there are some to be resolved.

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“With regard to science and technology, it is better to speak of disenchantment than of mistrust”