Astrology and homeopathy have had a public presence for centuries. The majority of the French population believe that the amount of forest is reducing while in fact the land surface devoted to woodland has tripled over the last 200 years; biodiversity is not dwindling in France but is improving; air pollution is falling and does not kill 48,000 people every year in France as claimed by top level state authorities; glyphosate is not dangerous for farmers, let alone for fruit and vegetable consumers; new diesel engines are even less polluting than petrol engines; GMOs are not, by definition, harmful.
The list of misconceptions is long. There is widespread confusion. Parliament votes in “memory laws” which claim the right to establish history, and scientific laws that claim to establish the truth. This is true of the law on Bisphenol A (BPA), the content of which is far from reflecting the reassuring recommendations of the medical establishment.
Why is this?
Why does Rousseau always win in battles against Voltaire and Diderot? Why is science attacked when it is a success shared by all humanity?
While the scientific method is above all a peaceful way of settling conflict, it only achieves this provisionally, and by its very nature does not impose it: “There is no intrinsic force to a truth,” as Spinoza said long ago. Moreover, for many, anything is better than no explanation at all.
The nature of the models
To demonstrate that A is the cause of B, we have to measure the variations in A and its effects on B, all other things being equal. Not an easy task, because in many cases this is not possible. For example we can’t deliberately pollute a section of the population to empirically study the effect of a particular pollutant. The supposed tens of thousands of deaths from air pollution are not actual people, but inaccurate and often contradictory results of calculations, so the WHO does not have the same estimates as the French agency (Public Health France) whose orders of magnitude are wildly out. These contradictory results contribute to the public’s mistrust , and if you advance any sceptical arguments, you get the reply in all good faith that “some people think the opposite.”
The interpretation of chance
The human mind seeks out causation which often leads it to confuse proximity with causality. For example, the number of people vaccinated each year is large enough that the diagnosis of a handful of cases of multiple sclerosis is bound to come a few days, or weeks after the injection of a vaccine. This sad occurrence is purely down to chance, but a lot of associations have been created amongst the supposed victims of this undeniable benefit.
Everyone looks for facts that seem to confirm one’s beliefs and ignores those that challenge them.
The confusion between risk and danger
Just because a product is potentially dangerous does not mean it poses a risk. But when, for example, proponents of degrowth want to ban a particular product such as a fuel, they will claim to all and sundry that the risk level has to be zero. We may hear: “Prove to me that electromagnetic waves will never affect health!” This is logically impossible and the public authorities are then asked to set standards on top of standards for some of the targets of political ecology and only for them. This is true of nuclear energy and agricultural pesticides, but this is not the case for mosquito products that are spread over the skin or herbal preparations and natural herbal teas that are very unhygienic and which often contain very high levels of unspecified natural toxins.
Confusion between risk factors and causes of death
You don’t die from tobacco, but from lung, throat or mouth cancer, or even heart disease. While smoking is an important risk factor, especially for respiratory cancers, not all smokers die from these cancers, and some people who suffer from them have never smoked. Calculating the impact of tobacco or alcohol on the incidence of a particular disease is no simple matter; however, in both cases, the impact is massive. Things become complicated when the impact is minimal, the dose is low, and a particular population’s exposure to a wave or substance is poorly understood. What’s more, in biology, a thousand times one is not a thousand. If something weighing a gram lands on your foot a thousand times in a row it’s very annoying, but it’s a lot less painful than a kilo dropping on it all at once. “The dose makes the poison” is true even for endocrine disruptors, starting with soya!
The misunderstanding of time scales
The ecosystems of the living world are the product of a very long history; but we are trying to draw conclusions based on variations which may be random, or at best the result of poorly understood causes, around the averages over a few decades which, by the way, are far from normal – “normal” and “average” are not synonymous!
Social and political reasons
Building on scientific controversies, fulfilling the mission outlined by Hans Jonas and his heuristic of fear, political ecologists use both the techniques and values of contemporary society to spread their Malthusian ideology of degrowth and gain influence far beyond their electorate.
The breakdown of relationship with the agricultural world
70 years ago in France 40% of the working population was agricultural, and during the last World War the whole French population had to try to live from what farms could produce, but today we know nothing about modern agriculture, its constraints, its flexibility, or its modern technology. Many children find out quite late on that to eat meat, you have to kill an animal. As humans are omnivorous, and as we don’t follow seasonal patterns and rhythms for food any more (25% of the inhabitants of Paris never cook meals now), our contemporaries focus their food phobias on the agricultural world and there is a proliferation of vegetarians, vegans, orthorexics and fans of “free from”: gluten free, meat free, GMO free, but not for free, of course!
The search for emotion and the rejection of complexity
Humans prioritise bad news, especially since prophets of doom are viewed as altruists. Radio or television so-called news channels are mostly about getting an emotional reaction. As we wake to the morning news we’re only really listening to a mixture of sensationalist news interspersed with meteorology and horoscopes, sprinkled with interviews — i.e. opinions — with a slice of derision on the side, which can be summed up as bad luck for some, mockery of others, and out and out unscrupulousness of most people. And that’s how we are trapped between the politically correct and nihilism.
The power of the image
From a geological or hydrological point of view, there is no difference between a natural phenomenon and a natural disaster, except that in the latter human beings are affected by flooding, volcanic eruptions or tidal waves… As this produces, if not “beautiful”, then at least spectacular images, one section of humanity just sits comfortably in front of the tv, helpless but sympathetic witnesses to these dramas, becoming convinced that the frequency of such phenomena is increasing.
This gap has widened further, as the Internet encourages the development of a cognitive oligopoly  to use Gérald Bronner’s expression. Search engines contribute to the emergence of what he calls a “gullible democracy” and not to an increased level of popular knowledge, as one might have hoped. Believers publish, believers act, believers argue when scientists don’t spend enough time refuting their wacky ideas, until they become dangerous, then it is too late because search engine algorithms dredge this intellectual slurry back up to the surface. As for everyone having access to knowledge, that may be a necessary precondition to forming an opinion, but it isn’t enough in and of itself!
The selection of the political class
In François Hollande’s governments there were no farmers, no workers, no business leaders, no engineers, no science researchers – so basically they were made up of sophists concerned about gauging public demand, all the better to satisfy it and win the next elections.
Civil and criminal liability of civil servants
The reasons for the bureaucratic incontinence of the ministries in charge of technical matters are clear. In France, civil servants have civil and criminal liability, but this is not the case in the United Kingdom or in the United States where their sole liability is civil. In addition, the engineers of the major public bodies who used to build, commission and regulate public infrastructure, these days no longer run construction or commission it (this is now mostly local authorities), but instead just monitor and set standards.
Conflicts of interest
Added to this is the new requirements for purity, the hunt for conflicts of interest, which is a substitute for substantive debates. The mainstream press does not talk about content; scientific controversies, however fascinating, are never discussed; on the other hand, members of organizations that do not share the views of their journalist-activists, a terrible oxymoron, are discredited for having once worked for certain companies!
The refusal of uncertainty and the hunt for protection
Unable to reduce unemployment, politicians suggested that they would be able to protect the population from everything. This is how the precautionary principle came about, a move which claims to be able to take “proportionate” measures against uncertain events! Proportionate to what? One may well wonder. Until you notice that it is the political ecologists, anticapitalists and proponents of degrowth who, in Europe, define themes, rules and solutions and consequently fuel the political agenda and reinforce popular beliefs.
However not everything is a matter of opinion. While scientific truths are temporary, their evolution, or even their revolution, occurs through a complex process. Certainly scientists kill off hypotheses rather than each other, but their debate is on a different level, and even if you think everything is relative, when you press the TV remote control, you do get a picture! Let’s finish with a quote from Marie Curie. “Our society, in which reigns an eager desire for riches and luxury, does not understand the value of science. It does not realize that science is a most precious part of its moral patrimony. Nor does it take sufficient cognizance of the fact that science is at the base of all the progress that lightens the burden of life and lessens its suffering.”
 Gérald Bronner, “Marché de l’information et crédulité” [“Information Market and Credulity”], http://parisinnovationreview.com/article/marche-de-linformation-et-credulite
This post is also available in: FR (FR)