Photo © Carnegie Mellon University
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Science rhymes naturally with trust, so much so that “science without trust” seems incongruous, even guilty, and gives rise to the idea of “science without conscience”, which according to François Rabelais would be the “ruin of the soul”. Even though science should lead to trust, it is not only that. If we had complete trust in the evidence our senses provide, we wouldn’t need science. The search engine, the quest for understanding the world that lies at the origin of science, is just a form of mistrust of our immediate intuitions. At the premise of all research lies doubt, unrest, the desire to push back the boundaries of ignorance and increase our trust. Science therefore starts with mistrust and tries to instil trust, i.e. a firm belief.
Yet, while science tries to eliminate doubt and increase our trust through the precision of its measurements and its doggedness in tracking down sources of error and approximation, and through the accumulation of observations, tests and experiments, it gives rise to mistrust, and increasingly so. There are multiple causes. Some blame the applications of the results of research, for example the disastrous ecological effects of chemical or CO2 pollution that cause global warming, new ever-more lethal weapons systems or the prospect of mass unemployment, a consequence of industrial automation. Indubitably, these harmful effects lead to perplexity and tarnish the image of science. Moreover, cheating by certain scientists undermines the consideration accorded to scientists and their results by the general public. Furthermore, fake news as the Americans call it or so-called alternative information, introduced by political, economic or religious stakeholders, discredit some conclusions. They argue for scientific controversy to glean baseless news which they feed with more or less invented facts.
Faced with this mistrust, scientists need to react. This requires a reflection on the applications of science, to anticipate and prevent as far as possible, nefarious uses. This is the role of ethics committees. It also means sanctioning unscientific behaviour, all the more inadmissible as it betrays the lack of faith some scientists have in the scientific process. The formation last October of the French Office for Scientitic Integrity (UFIS) and the appointment of spokespersons for scientific integrity in each research establishment should contribute. Finally, it requires unceasing work to explain the scientific approach and recall its fundamental principles.
This is the most sensitive issue, as the path is narrow. On the one hand, as Paul Valéry said in Monsieur Teste, “the first hypothesis of any science, the required idea of any scientist? It is that the world is poorly understood.[...] Nothing is evident. There are only holes, acts of faith, uncertainties”. On the other hand, any questioning of knowledge not backed up by tangible proof and not accepting to submit to criticisms formulated by other scientists is inadmissible. This is the category in which the fake news proponents should be classified, who pretend to engage in public debate on issues such as climate change, vaccination or the theory of evolution, and unilaterally affirm one point of view, alleging a few singular facts as proof, but refusing to accept the controversy of their own theories.
The only antidote to the systematic doubt of the scientist is in fact doubt itself! Even though the sciences arise from a movement of concerned suspicion, trust could not exist without the sciences and the systematic mistrust that powers them.
Artificial intelligence researcher
Jean-Gabriel Ganascia is a professor of IT at the Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University (Paris 6). He chairs the CNRS ethical committee (Comets).