Science in exile in the political world

As climatologists ring the alarm bell so relentlessly, hands bleed and the bell rings deafeningly, the political world shows a calm worthy of the greatest Stoics, even as it stands in the face of the crisis. When it comes to improving Quebec’s transportation infrastructure, the Minister of the Environment himself states that no environmental study can prevent the construction of a third link. So why do these studies and research be done if so often they seem to fall on deaf ears? The politician seems so often willing to put aside the facts to keep his agenda, that he is left wondering what is the meaning of stubbornness in scientific approaches. Three professors at Laval University give us their views on the relationship between science and politics in order to clarify the phenomenon, but opinions differ.

By Ludovic Dufour, director of the company

For Patrick Provost, a professor in the department of microbiology-infectology and immunology, the answer is simple. Governments simply do not listen to science except when it supports their position. Worse, it is often used to justify itself, meaning that rather than making decisions based on scientific consensus first, we take the right scientific elements to legitimize decisions.

The professor points out that scientific fields with positive economic influences are more likely to be considered by politicians and, conversely, those with harmful effects will be ignored and even underfunded. He explains this trend by the disproportionate influence that different lobbies have on governments. He cites as an example the case of rising nickel standards in the air that “completely forgets the people of Limoilou” in favor of economic interests.

Jean Dubé, an associate professor at the École Supérieure d’Aménagement du Territoire et de Développement Régional, also mentions this tendency of politicians to use science to justify themselves instead of starting to consult scientists. However, he perceives that the social sciences are more affected than the pure sciences. While the latter have a certain prestige and are better

received by politicians, the social sciences are too often seen as mere opinions when their approach is no less scientific. He blames the polarization of the debates as responsible for this devaluation of expertise.

He also mentions that politicians have the advantage of having a direct forum with the population. It is much more difficult to know the advances and positions of scientists than the latest political debates. Mr. Dubé believes that this is a way to explore so that science is more present in the public debate. Popularization is not highly valued by academia, “but it is of paramount importance. We probably don’t get enough of this place, “he added. Therefore, if the scientist wants to be heard, he must also make a place for himself.

The head of the political science department, Jean-Frédéric Morin, however, has a more nuanced point of view than his two colleagues. Indeed, he opposes the linear model of the relationship between scientists and politicians who would like the former to be examples of rationality, free from all external influence, dispensing the truth and the latter are supposed to hear these truths, and if they did not . , would be guilty. This model “is a bit of a caricature that needs to be nuanced and made more complex in several respects.”

First of all, Mr. Morin reminds us that most scientists do not address politicians and that their studies are not aimed at them. This research does not directly generate benefits of interest to governments or the private sector. However, this research “is essential for the practical advances” that will come later. Experts share their knowledge and findings with other scientists.

He then mentions that science is mostly a process, not a real distributor. This approach, which “works a little way, a little blindly”, also includes uncertainties and debates. In this context, it is easy for the political world to look for the scientific elements that suit it best to justify its positions. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, science does not automatically depolarize a debate. For example, a study of U.S. Congress debates on acid rain concluded that “members of Congress interpreted each of these interventions according to their default preferences. The slightest nuance expressed by a scientist was amplified by members. of Congress to support their point of view ”(Morin and Orsini, 2015).

Mr. Morin also explains that this tendency to retain scientific arguments in line with our position is not only among politicians, but also among the population. In fact, people with a good scientific culture, contrary to what one might think, are not the ones who most adopt the scientific consensus. Rather, studies show that these individuals are the most polarized and will also tend to retain only the information that supports their point of view.

Science is not free of bias either, the professor reminds us. Although they are difficult to discern, they are present, because scientists are also products of their society and are influenced by the values ​​that are transmitted to them. In fact, we can demonstrate this phenomenon by observing that the origins of scientists have an impact on their way of prioritizing and defining environmental problems (Pavé et al., 1998). In fact, there is even some power play at the international level, as Western countries produce more research, which stifles other scientific opinions. “The dominant scientific discourses and practices are no more universal than politically neutral,” writes Mr. Morin. “Some perspectives, usually those of the weakest actors, are systematically marginalized or ignored,” he adds (Morin and Orsini, 2015).

For him, science must listen to politics in the same way that politics must listen to science. Not to mention manipulation, scientific research has yet to be framed by certain standards. However, these standards cannot be determined by the scientific approach and it is rather the political world that plays this role. “In short, science is as steeped in politics as science politics. One structure and determines the possibilities of action of the other ”(Morin and Orsini, 2015). In this sense, he does not necessarily want science to have a greater role or influence in the political sphere, but rather that the dialogues between the two be more numerous. He also points out that a better understanding of science by the population could help depolarize the debates.

This point is received by Mr. Dubé claims that polarization is detrimental to debates, but also believes that politicians already have enough influence over scientists, who in turn have less influence on politicians. To make up for this shortcoming, he suggests that scientists take up more space in the public domain and make efforts to be heard more by the population.

For his part, Mr. Provost is wary of the rapprochement between science and politics, fearing that lobbies will also influence research. He prefers, instead, that independent scientific bodies advise the government and that these decisions be based on the latest studies. It also encourages politicians to communicate more about the scientific nature of their decision so that they are better understood by the population.

While I wanted to clarify a debate, present solutions, and, I must admit, find another excuse to punish politicians, I think this little presentation does nothing about it. On the one hand, we criticize the manipulation of science by the government and the capitalist economy, on the other we accuse the polarization and lack of seriousness given to the humanities, and finally we say get rid of our linear vision of the relationship. between science and politics and foster collaboration between the two. As things are often more complex than they may seem, and this is perhaps what we need to remember from these few pages: Problems and their solutions are never that simple.

J. Morin & A. Orsini (2015). Chapter 1. Science, politics and political science. A:, J. Morin & A. Orsini (Eds), International environmental policy (pp. 27-48). Paris: Sciences Po Press.

Pave, J. Courtet, C. and Volatier, J. (1998) Environment: How the scientific community sees problems, INRA Environmental Mail, (pp. 109-114). Paris: National Institute for Agricultural Research.

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