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Reflections on Science and Democracy

Serge Haroche
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1Unquestionable scientific and technological advances have played a crucial role in improving humanity’s living conditions, especially over the last century – be it longer life-spans, the control of epidemics, the development of agriculture to feed a global population that has been growing exponentially for a long time, or the extraordinary evolution of means of transport, communication and information.

2Yet, despite these developments – and despite researchers’ constant endeavour to provide new solutions to the challenges of the future – responding to climate change, developing new energy technology and new therapeutics –, more than ever, science arouses the public’s suspicion, if not its mistrust.

3This stems largely from a lack of understanding of the scientific approach. Citizens seem to suspect scientists of trying to exert some kind of influence or pressure on society. Yet the aim of science is to establish facts and to describe phenomena which, in turn, allow for other facts to be foreseen or understood, thereby gradually expanding the field of knowledge and our means of acting on the world. Once this knowledge and these means have been recognized, it is not up to scientists but to society and the politicians representing it in a democracy to decide what to do with them.

4For these decisions to be informed, it is nevertheless essential that the information provided by scientific activity should be taken into account. This requires that scientific culture be shared better, and that the citizens of a democracy understand that scientific facts are established objectively, fol­lowing an approach which has been tried and tested through experimentation and observation, rather than resulting from the subjective opinions of scientists driven by ulterior motives. If citizens and their representatives are to participate more rationally and efficiently in political choices that are increasingly characterized by their scientific and technological content – energy, environment, health –, they need to be given the tools to understand this scientific approach. In this regard, the education system, from primary school onwards, must familiarize students better with the scientific approach, which gives us the freedom of choice, provided that the choice is as fully informed as possible.

5Scientists themselves must also be honest about their doubts, and ask society for more time and resources to carry out their work when the state of knowledge on a given question has not yet provided satisfactory answers. This is especially important in fields such as environmental studies, medicine and energy. Such caution should echo our societies’ growing demands for protection and security. Cautious attitudes can impede scientific progress when they are excessive, but they can also facilitate them when they lead to intelligent and appropriate normative policies.

6Finally, it is crucial for the media, be it radio, television or the press, to contribute more fully to the debate. By arousing less fear and devoting more time to scientific culture and infor­mation, they could convey a vigilant but more positive view of science. When positions on an issue diverge, science must be presented and supported with justified arguments, rather than being staged as a show consisting of sterile fight-debates. A high-quality presen­tation of science in the media is required if public debate on technological issues is to be more informed and not limited, as is all too often the case, to highlighting ill-founded or unfounded opinions.

7This year, the autumn symposium “Science and Democracy”, organized by the Collège de France, was devoted to these problems and particularly to the analysis of the increasingly conflictual relationships between science and society. We chose to illustrate this general idea, which is often presented and discussed to the point of seeming “commonplace”, through the analysis of highly concrete and topical issues. For instance, how should a democratic society address the problems of renewable energy and the replacement of fossil fuels with less polluting forms of energy, or the associated problem of global warming, or that of gene therapy, using what science teaches us as rationally as possible, so as to optimize society’s response to the challenges it faces ?

8Over the course of the two-day symposium, scientists, historians, jurists and politicians shared their points of view on the relations between science and democracy. This issue of the Collège de France Newsletter provides an overview of the symposium by publishing several excerpts from the papers presented. I will simply mention here the opening­ and concluding addresses. The former was delivered by Steven Chu, Physics Nobel Prize Laureate and Energy Secretary during President Obama’s first term. He discussed his experience as a scientist faced with the political world and how, in the United States, he sought to take up the challenge raised by climate change and the need for renewable energy sources. The last paper, by Professor Pierre Rosanvallon, addressed the crucial issue of managing long-term problems through democracy. There is an irreconcilable opposition between the short timescale of democratic election cycles and the much longer one needed to take into account issues like climate change or new energy consumption habits. Successfully adapting political and scientific cycles to such different paces of change is one of the major challenges facing our modern societies, in France and throughout the rest of the world.

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Serge Haroche, « Reflections on Science and Democracy », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2015, consulté le 20 novembre 2017. URL : http://lettre-cdf.revues.org/1916

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Serge Haroche

Quantum Physics, Administrateur of the Collège de France

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