The Covid crisis has provided an opportunity to bring science and health back into focus. Most often for the better. Unfortunately, some researchers also distinguished themselves by their missteps when they did not get bogged down in conspiracy fantasies. The case of Laurent Mucchielli, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), is illustrative. On his blog hosted by Mediapart and in interviews with the conspiracy blog France Soir, Sud Radio, etc., he spread and repeated false information, such as one article downplaying the severity of the pandemic, another criticizing the effectiveness of the mask, or defending hydroxychloroquine, a treatment promoted by by Professor Didier Raoult, whose ineffectiveness has been proven, or the statement that the Covid-19 vaccination could potentially be “responsible for almost 1000 deaths” when he did not sign the forums against the “government of fear” or against the “health strategy”.
However, he only received a simple call to order from CNRS in a press release that was certainly harsh, but published more than a year after his first slips and without his direct name. To date, he is still associated with the CNRS, while many researchers are demanding tougher sanctions. This burning issue was discussed in detail at the symposium of the French Bureau of Scientific Integrity, held on Thursday, June 9, at the Collège de France. productive. This view is shared in part by Michel Dubois, a sociologist of science and director of research for CNRS, who also attended the conference, who nonetheless believes that solutions are possible.
When a researcher is accused of spreading potentially dangerous misinformation and damaging the image of his profession or even science, shouldn’t his institution punish him severely?
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Michel Dubois When a fragile, dubious or false idea is circulating in the public space, and its author is a researcher who calls for the exercise of academic freedom, the definition of behavior that should be adopted depends on his professional group to which he belongs. This group has two main options to choose from.
First: let it be. It is based on the idea that there is a form of self-regulation of the market of ideas, a researcher who publicly shows his incompetence can ultimately only discredit himself and mechanically contribute to the “depreciation” of his own words. The advantage of this option is to reduce as much as possible the effect of amplification and publicity associated with controversies that would in principle be public. But he seems to me naive in his liberal – in the Anglo-Saxon sense – approach to the marketplace of ideas, as if good or solid ideas impose themselves, while experience has long shown otherwise, and his double inconsistency. Inconsistency about the collective consequences of misinformation, such as deaths due to the spread of fake news about vaccinations. [NDLR : une récente étude montre d’ailleurs que près de 9500 morts sont attribuables à la mauvaise prescription d’hydroxychloroquine dans huit pays au cours de la première vague de Covid-19] and inconsistency in regards to discrediting, which can affect not only the researcher but, more broadly, the community to which the researcher belongs.
The second option is public intervention, either to challenge the exercise of academic freedom and replace it with freedom of expression, or to recognize the exercise of academic freedom but to transfer to the public space a form of regulation that traditionally takes place in a closed space. professional group space.
In the first case, it is accepted that the researcher, like any other citizen, has the right to have unstable, doubtful or false opinions and publicly expose them. But the institution to which he belongs must publicly remind him of his moral duty not to confuse freedom of speech with academic freedom, and that he must speak in his own name as a more or less “committed” and not as a “disinterested” researcher.
Isn’t this exactly where the shoes tingle, as researchers use their “CNRS stamp” or Inserm, Inrae, etc. as a pledge of their audience’s credibility?
The effectiveness of this strategy depends on two conditions: on the one hand, on the ability of all stakeholders to agree on the existence of a clear boundary between freedom of speech and academic freedom, on the other hand, on the ability of these same stakeholders to position themselves. equally on both sides of this boundary. In the case of Laurent Mucchielli, these two conditions are not met, which creates disagreements that add to the original disagreements. A press release dated August 24, 2021, in which CNRS refers to the opinion of its ethics committee – “a researcher intervening in the public space must indicate in what capacity” – directly contradicts the desire of Laurent Mucchielli to publicly declare “work”, and also his supposed ability to have a “grounded” opinion in any field. [NDLR : l’épidémiologie] still far from its original area of expertise [NDLR : la sociologie].
When it is not possible to replace freedom of expression with academic freedom, the question arises as to how the public speaking of a researcher should be regulated. This is where the question of peer review comes into play.
Who has the right to publicly remind him that he is wrong and that he must respect the rules of his profession?
With regard to the column published in Le Monde on August 19, 2021, the sociological team invited the CNRS and the French Association of Sociologists (AFS) to take a public position: “This mistake should lead to a stronger reaction on the part of the CNRS, and also, on the part of the FSA, a clear explanation both are all the more necessary in this period of the pandemic, when such nonsense can have dramatic consequences.”
This group, in my opinion, makes a double mistake. On the one hand, the AFS is not the equivalent of the Order of Physicians for sociologists, and the association does not have the power or legitimacy to regulate the public speaking of a sociologist. On the other hand, CNRS is a research institution where a researcher works. But the evaluation work is carried out by the National Committee for Scientific Research, that is, a separate evaluation body made up of fellow researchers and research educators, not necessarily employed by the CNRS.
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If intervention is necessary in these exceptional cases, then it is therefore the competent section of the National Committee (Section 36, Sociology and Law), that is, the colleagues of Laurent Mucchielli, who should publicly express their opinion. recall the rules that apply in the professional environment of sociologists and, more generally, the ethics of the research professions. To stay, perhaps, but another question, to be surprised at the extreme discretion of these peers.
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