How brilliant scientists damage democracy

These remarks on the French Science Council were published in Le figaro on July 7, 2022 and are reproduced here with permission of the author. Translated by Russell A. Berman, whose comments are here.

The Science Council met for the last time this week and issued its 75th and final statement. He will officially disappear on July 31st. In his closing statement, he underscored the importance of better scientific education for the youth who will be the public leaders of the future, and recommended the creation of a “Science Council” that would be composed of a “group of scientists of the highest quality” who would advise the head of state. Whether or not these recommendations are followed, it is likely that some new bodies will be established in the coming months. In any case, we stand at the end of an institution that has played a crucial role throughout the public health crisis, and it makes sense to make a preliminary assessment of it.

The Science Council, composed of brilliant individuals and our best scientists, was – for all its talents – one of the main architects of the democratic debacle of the health crisis. And if there is one lesson to be drawn from this fiasco, it is that science must never be a substitute for politics and that political decisions cannot simply result from scientific expertise – at the risk of profoundly damaging our democracy.

The Science Council systematically expressed its preference for the strictest, most anti-liberty recommendations, as it directed France for almost two years. The quarantines, the curfews, the mask requirement and the requirement for IDs to access the public were all recommended by the Science Council before being imposed by the political authorities, who apparently chose to blindly listen to the opinion of Jean-François Delfraissy and his colleagues follow. The Science Council’s opinion has always worked like this: an accurate and rigorous analysis of the health situation, and then a series of alternative recommendations, ranging from the “lightest” to the most severe. However, the Science Council was not content with merely presenting possible precautionary measures, but also expressed its own preferences. It always favored the strongest recommendations, and the government almost systematically followed those recommendations to the letter – with the exception of January 2021, when Emmanuel Macron decided not to quarantine the country, against the advice of the council (although a curfew remained in place). available at the time).

To increase their influence, some Science Council members even appeared on TV shows and offered after-sales service for their own recommendations. The fear they spread through their words was compounded by their standing as scientists and doctors as they set the rules for family life and privacy, how to socialize, party, eat. . . . . and even speak (the Academy of Sciences recommended not speaking on public transport). Science began to rule our lives and, with its undeniable authority, decided what to do and what not to do.

The Science Council is, of course, perfectly legitimate, and indeed there was a need for a body capable of explaining science’s perspective to government. It was necessary to scientifically interpret the quantitative data on the epidemic, to understand its dynamics and the possible containment scenarios, and to understand how the vaccine works. And if the Council had limited itself to this type of clarification, it would certainly have fulfilled its actual task. We needed doctors and scientists to provide the keys to explaining the disease, its variants, the protective measures and the vaccines. In these questions the scientific discourse was valuable.

The problem, however, is that when scientists recommended policies as stringent as quarantine or the health passport, they started making politics. After all, these are steps that cannot be taken on the basis of purely scientific considerations. They threaten our democratic, social and economic model and raise enormous ethical questions. No scientist has the legitimacy to declare the entire country incarcerated. Only politicians can decide on such a measure, and only after examining all the challenges and problems. The health card was about using a QR code to ban the entire social life of a part of the population, depending on the vaccination card: how could a measure of this grave, which raises immeasurable ethical problems, be ordered by. . . Doctors?

How can even the idea of ​​compulsory masks in public, which restricts facial society and thus the possibility of living together, be the result of a simple scientific recommendation? For what reasons can science demand a curfew, i.e. a ban on going out, and underpin this ban with the repressive power of the police? Finally, how can scientists be allowed to reinstate nurses who have not breached a clause in their employment contract? Let us remember that the policy of “COVID zero”, which has been openly advocated by several renowned scientists, assumes a new confinement of the entire population at the slightest return of the epidemic. This was more or less the policy implemented in the first year of the pandemic, amounting to a complete undermining of the rule of law to be replaced by a permanent public health emergency. And what some scholars have dubbed “measures of restraint” were actually moves that amounted to some degree of an assault on the rule of law.

In its concluding statement, the Science Council rightly calls for better scientific education for the younger generation. But it should also have called for better education about democracy and what it demands of scientists and doctors. The matter cannot only be attributed to an authoritarian impulse in the medical world: for many scientists there is also a deep ignorance of democratic institutions and the basic norms that govern our republic. Incidentally, there were some academics who admitted that certain democratic challenges were well beyond their own competence. Yonathan Freund, an emergency room physician at Pitié Salpetrière and a professor of medicine, expressed his unease when some of his colleagues recommended classifying intensive care patients according to their vaccination status. The big question is why there were so few who expressed this kind of humanistic view.

Nevertheless, medical ethics is at the heart of medical practice, and it is amazing that almost no one has addressed the ethical flaws in measures such as mass incarceration and vaccination records. Of course, central to public health is the existence of comprehensive measures that apply to whole populations. But it should also recognize the challenges of freedom and consent, as was the case, for example, in the response to the AIDS epidemic, which was far from perfect but privileged information and pedagogy over any coercive politics. One could also argue that there are compulsory vaccinations and fortunately there are: Yes, but not being up to date with vaccinations does not lead to social death or loss of civil rights. Additionally, there is a strong societal consensus about these vaccines, meaning that in reality, coercion matters much less in these cases. In short, ethical issues are always very present in public health issues and it is surprising that they have been so absent since the beginning of the COVID crisis. Incidentally, we have a national ethics advisory board that regularly comments on such issues (e.g. on the Bioethics Act), which was never heard of during the Corona crisis.

There is therefore an urgent need to separate science and politics without breaking the apparently fundamental connection needed to understand health, technology and climate phenomena that are essential today. This is an important and difficult challenge. This confusion of orders – the order of politics and the order of science – is one of the main characteristics of “Macronism”, which treats every political question as a problem and a situation to be managed. The logic of politics implies the conflict of values ​​and the mediation between them in terms of what is considered to be a priority. But at Macron, the rule of expertise sweeps away everything else. It is no longer a question of arbitrating between values, but of imposing measures without discussion, which are only taken through the prism of managerial efficiency.

This evil has been coming for a long time, as can be seen in the continued deterioration of our public services in the shadow of neoliberal policies pursued in the name of efficiency and profit. But Macron has undeniably made it worse. Furthermore, it is this managerial utilitarianism that has led the government to adopt other security measures incompatible with liberty, such as the “Global Security” law, or with violence and even violence against opposition movements such as the “yellow vests” to react.

It is therefore wrong to treat the management of the health crisis as a simple, extraordinary bracket whose effects are disconnected from the context in which it took place. On the contrary, it can only really be explained from the global logic in which it is located. This is the logic of management, the method of authoritarian government that ignores all the basic principles that should guide political action. You don’t run a democracy like a company, just like you don’t run politics like a scientist. Otherwise one has to accept that, in the name of efficiency, democracy is put into perspective, becoming more or less active depending on the crisis, which ultimately means the final loss of the rule of law.

Matthew Slama is a consultant and political analyst who is a regular contributor Le figaro and the Huffington Post. He is the author, most recently of Farewell to Freedom: An Essay on the Disciplinary Society (Presses de la Cite, 2022).

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