/ HAS MAGAZINE
COVID-19 and the exhibition of science
Étienne Klein
Philosopher of science
Although the virus did not appear to school us nor punish us, Etienne Klein provides three lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In dialogue with the works
Coller Couper and Le Vertige
by Florence Pierre

Florence Pierre – Le Vertige – oil on canvas – 2019

Half-knowledge triumphs more easily than full knowledge: it sees things as simpler than they are, and thus gives a more comprehensible and convincing idea.

Friedrich Nietzsche

A virus has no agenda, no intention—aside, perhaps, from finding hosts in order to multiply, since it cannot do so on its own. Contrary to what we may have read or heard, COVID-19 did not arise with the purpose of lecturing us, much less punishing us. It may not be here to school us, but that shouldn’t keep us from learning a few lessons from it, by analyzing what it has shown us and observing the effects it has had on us, especially in the ways in which we talk about science. There are three lessons that seem to emerge.

First, we are more aware than ever that the pandemics to come will be “zoonoses”—infectious diseases that break the interspecies barrier, spreading from animals to humans—the propagation of which will be aided by the ecological upheavals induced by human activity. It is therefore high time we take note of the fact that we will not be able to separate ourselves from the world as we please. In no way is humanity in an autonomous bubble. As an inherent part of nature, we cannot radically emancipate ourselves from it. An ironic twist of fate, is it not? Just as a number of techno-prophets had begun to predict our imminent liberation from the strains of the physical body by virtue of technology, here we are, cruelly and brutally pulled back into our “biological foundation” and, instead of becoming ever more “the masters and possessors of nature,” we have had to settle for staying at home for weeks at a time, confining ourselves in our homes as our ancestors did.

Second, the ongoing COVID pandemic and its consecutive confinement phases has offered a perfect illustration of the ambivalence of digital technologies. Many people have been able to (Covido ergo Zoom!) carry on with their jobs thanks to telework, to receive healthcare thanks to telemedicine, to stay in school thanks to remote learning, and to stay in touch with their loved ones without any risk of contagion, thanks to digital tools of communication. At the same time, however, the pandemic has exposed the negative effects of an over-virtualized society. We already knew this, of course, but have now been able to verify it on a large scale: Human contact and physical presence are essential to both the democratic fabric and the sense of belonging to a common world. As impressive as they may be, our digital marvels are of no help in this regard. The educational quality of remote learning, for instance, is inferior to what is now (dreadfully) called “face-to-face” education.

It has also become clear that each of us is now entirely capable of picking and choosing our own information, and therefore our own “truths.” In short, digital technology has brought about a new condition for the contemporary individual: As soon as we are connected, we can shape our access to the world and, in return, be shaped by the constant stream of content we receive from social networks. We build a kind of customized world—an “ideological home”—by selecting the digital communities that best suit us. In this way, we find ourselves establishing what de Tocqueville would have called “small societies,” built out of homogeneous thoughts and convictions, with each society fighting for its own interests. In such a world, we may very well never be faced with contradictory positions, since we only encounter confirmation bias. As a result, we become quick to state that the ideas we like are true, while claiming to… like the truth!

Lastly, we are beginning to sense that, in the end, it is research that will have the final word, or at least we can hope it will. Indeed, it is ultimately only through research that we can uncover the facts behind any given topic, having previously, through haste and restlessness, struck heated (although mostly sterile) controversy. Let us, for instance, consider vaccines, which seem likely to get us out of our current situation, or at least be more likely to do so than any of the other drugs previously (and ill-advisedly) promoted. The voices of the dedicated researchers responsible for conceiving and developing the successful vaccines have hardly been heard in the media—a sign, no doubt, that competence and expertise rarely seek the spotlight.

Intelligence is the best distributed thing among humans, because, no matter how much they have, they always feel that they have enough, because that is what they judge with.

Coluche

A historic opportunity to explain research

There are other lessons to be drawn from the way the media have covered the scientific aspects of the pandemic. We were handed a near-historic opportunity to explain scientific methodology to the general public, in real time and day-by-day—its trials and errors, its breakthroughs, its multiple biases, its accomplishments, its concepts such as double-blind testing, randomized trials, the placebo effect, the correct use of statistics, the difference between correlation and cause and effect, and so on. But instead of seizing this unprecedented opportunity, we chose to stage an unending rat race between often enlarged egos. Some of them, settling staggeringly complex questions out of hand, having granted high credit to their “gut feelings,” all the while admitting (for the more honourable among them at least) that they had no real knowledge of the matter (“I’m not a doctor but I…”).

I’m afraid that a portion of the general public has been deceived in this way, and is now under the impression that science is a mere matter of conflicting opinions which can never converge—even more so now that the tendency for disseminating uninformed opinions about everything seems to be gaining ground thanks to social media. In its wake, this tendency promotes the idea that science is but one belief amongst others, a kind of church publishing papal-bull-type statements that non-believers are free not only to challenge but to lambast with rash remarks.

Do not misunderstand me—I am perfectly aware that we all live in a morass of bias and prejudice, and that scientists, whether they voice their opinion publicly or not, are no exception. If they manage to rid themselves of bias within their work field, it isn’t through purifying their minds, practicing selflessness, or polishing their discourse, but rather by collectively adopting a critical method for solving problems and putting every theory to the test of considerable conjecture and rebuttal. As a basic rule, a “scientific” truth can only be declared as such if it is the result of an open, dialectical debate and, if possible, one ending in a consensus. I am certainly not denying the fact that there are grey areas and ambiguous situations in which a sometimes hesitant, even plural, truth is up for debate. However, such cases call for the utmost caution and modesty. At least theoretically.

I am also not oblivious to the fact that scientists are not exempt from the flaws of the human race—bad faith, arrogance, stupidity, greed, hastiness, blindness, madness.  Just like the rest of us, they are liable to make mistakes, to be influenced by ideologies or lobbies, even to cheat sometimes, and because of this, their statements regarding the veracity of this or that should never be taken simply on trust. Nevertheless, in general, and by virtue of the collective work within the scientific field, such transgressions are usually exposed and reported.

When cognitive biases exhibit themselves on a large scale

There are several well-known biases which affect our judgment, four of which prospered during the crisis.

First: the tendency to grant more credit to hypotheses we like than to those we dislike. Without much scrutiny, we spontaneously subscribe to “truths” that match our desires, rejecting all others. Ruled as we are by our emotions, by our gut feelings, we conflate our desires with reality, regardless of the facts or arguments that might demonstrate otherwise.

Second: what is sometimes amusingly called ipsedixitism. “Once the master has spoken (ipse dixit), there is nothing more to discuss.” The authority we grant to person X or Y pushes us to consider all their statements as true, thus excusing us from having to use critical thinking. This impressibility to arguments based on authority is the result of a “guru effect” of sorts. In its more pernicious form, it can lead us to believe something solely because we read or heard someone say it.

Third: another devilish neologism, ultracrepidarianism, rooted in a Latin expression, Sutor, ne supra crepidam (“The shoemaker must stop at the tip of the shoe”). This indicates the widely-seen habit of expressing oneself assuredly on topics one knows nothing about.

Fourth: the so-called “Dunning-Kruger” effect. Confidently asserting something of which we are not knowledgeable is the manifestation of a cognitive bias which has long been identified—Aristotle refers to it—and which was empirically researched in 1999 by two American psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The effect is two-fold: On one hand, in order to measure one’s incompetence, one must be… competent; on the other, ignorance makes for more confidence than knowledge. Indeed, the deeper we dig into a question by properly researching and investigating it, the more it appears far more complex than we had initially imagined. As a result, we lose confidence, only to regain it little by little as we—now endowed with caution and modesty—gain further knowledge about it.  During the pandemic, we witnessed the unfolding of this kind of dynamic in real time—the more informed we became, the more we researched and investigated, the clearer it became that the matter was far more complex than what we had initially thought. Currently, it seems to me that (almost) everyone has reached the understanding that this pandemic is a terribly complex subject. As such, we have been seeing less arrogance than we did in previous months, though of course with the exception of the media specifically designed to support it.

That being said, the citizens’ right to question, inquire, investigate, challenge, and voice opinions against both scientists and political leaders remains inalienable. And it is vital that citizens’ inquiries be answered in the most truthful way possible. But having an opinion does not amount to knowing to what degree a scientific statement is true or false. Scientific publications are certainly far from perfect—they are not immune to publishing articles containing erroneous information, or putting forward biased conclusions—but neither Twitter nor Facebook are fit to compete with Nature, much less fill its place, as they have lately tended to do.

Science versus research

There is, however, hope that by the end of this pandemic, our fellow citizens will be able to better understand that science and research are not the same thing. Sciences represent bodies of knowledgeacquired results, theories that have been duly tested and that we (so far!) have no reason to call into question: The earth is round rather than flat, the atom exists, E = mc2, the observable universe is expanding, animal species evolve, human activity is altering earth’s climate, etc. However, these bits of knowledge, through their own incompleteness, bring up questions for which we have yet to find the correct answers: How come the antimatter that was present in the primordial universe has disappeared from our current universe? Is there extra-terrestrial life? What will the precise average temperature be in 2100? Can a person, having contracted this or that virus, be infected a second time by the same virus? Answering questions for which we do not yet have the scientific answers is precisely the goal of research. In essence, therefore, research has to do with doubt, whereas science is built upon given facts that are hard to challenge without extremely solid arguments. I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say, for instance, that the matter of the earth’s shape is more or less settled. Doubt travels back and forth within the purgatory of the idea of truth for an undetermined period of time. It is research’s true motor, as well as its fuel.

However, when the distinction between science and research fails to be made, as was too often the case during the past several months, the image of science—wrongly mistaken for research—becomes blurred and deteriorates, giving the general public the impression that science is nothing more than an unending quarrel between experts who are incapable of finding common ground. It distils the idea that science should always be torn between extreme modesty and excessive arrogance, since its relationship to truth appears to be contradictory: On one hand, science confidently states being capable of achieving truth; on the other, it pledges its allegiance to systematic doubt. From an external point of view, it’s impossible to keep up.

Given that no research result simply falls from the sky (not even in therapeutics!), it must be pursued, tirelessly, through observation, analyses, measures, and calculations—by creating protocols, by tracking down uncertainties, grey areas, or mistakes hiding here and there, and sometimes, by inventing other techniques or exploring new ideas. In that case, one must then discuss the obtained results with other researchers working on similar or related matters. This all requires time—a great deal of time—contrary to what certain over-zealous characters have tried to make us believe since the onset of this pandemic, some of them prematurely publishing alleged results regarding certain drugs, venturing far beyond what reliable studies, having not yet reached completion (and for good reason!) were able to assert.

This brings us to yet another lesson we should be sure to learn: The temporality of research and that of Twitter are so unrelated that we must be wary of individual statements and self-promoting content that any single person throws out as grazing-ground to a particularly restless public. It is worth saying that in times of crisis, our collective impatience creates a demand for certainty that scrupulous researchers cannot satisfy, precisely because they themselves still do not have the answers. By way of ruthless media logics, they thus find themselves dethroned by other speakers who have no qualms about proclaiming, urbi and orbi ,over-simplified, clean-cut conclusions that are more pleasant to our ears than the sometimes clumsy, often hesitant words of research.

.

Florence Pierre – Coller Couper – 2019

.

Étienne Klein is a philosopher of science and director of research at the CEA. He is the director of the CEA’s Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Sciences de la Matière 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 the Ecole Centrale-Supélec. Every Saturday he hosts “La conversation scientifique” on France-Culture. He has recently published : Psychisme ascensionnel, Artaud, 2020; Le Goût du vrai, Gallimard, coll. Tracts, 2020; Ce qui est sans être tout à fait, essai sur le vide, Actes Sud, 2019.

Florence Pierre is graduated of Esag Penninghen in 1984. She has since worked to communicate through different creative channels. Designer, graphic designer, artistic director in advertising, she is also a painter, photographer and director. florencepierre.squarespace.com

Previous publication
Summary
Next publication
03
Truth and Belief
JUNE 2021
Author

Étienne Klein is a philosopher of science and director of research at the CEA. He is the director of the CEA’s Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Sciences de la Matière 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 the Ecole Centrale-Supélec. Every Saturday he hosts “La conversation scientifique” on France-Culture. He has recently published : Psychisme ascensionnel, Artaud, 2020; Le Goût du vrai, Gallimard, coll. Tracts, 2020; Ce qui est sans être tout à fait, essai sur le vide, Actes Sud, 2019.

Florence Pierre is graduated of Esag Penninghen in 1984. She has since worked to communicate through different creative channels. Designer, graphic designer, artistic director in advertising, she is also a painter, photographer and director. florencepierre.squarespace.com

PDF version