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Autumn Symposium

The Terms of Scientific Debate and the Issue of its Reception

Marc Fontecave
p. 46-47

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from Prof. Marc Fontecave’s paper

Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013

Texte intégral

1The theme of global warming has a special status in the environmental debates that animates political and social life, particularly in France.

  • 1 (1) D. Pestre, à contre-science, Seuil, 2013.

2Our aim during this symposium is to understand the difficulties and deadlocks faced by our country, and others, with respect to the relations between science, technology and society, the role of scientific progress in economic and social development, the way the media and the political sphere tackle this issue, and finally, the democratic dialogue between the various actors involved: citizens, politicians, scientific experts, etc. We are clearly faced with a para­do­xical situation in which citizens are more than ever hoping that scientists will resolve major societal problems – for example regarding health or the development of new energy technology for the large-scale exploitation of renewable energy sources –, yet at the same time they are ­increasingly seeing science exclusively as a source of tragedy. When medicine is associated at once with the Mediator affair, all the benefits of pharmaceutical research are forgotten. When chemistry is essentially perceived as a source of pol­lution, everything our quality of life owes to chemical industry products, to molecules, polymers and various materials, is overlooked. And when nuclear energy is exclusively seen as a source of potential disaster, no thought is given to the fact that every day the switch, which affords us the comfort of heating and lighting, is linked to a nuclear power plant, at a relatively competitive energy cost, with a lower impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. This paradox is what makes scientific debate so tense, and the necessary poli­tical arbitration so difficult. Journalists generally make things worse, as they obviously place far too much emphasis on immediate news and disasters, as well as on consensus, leaving little room for dissident voices to be heard. Virtually none of the environmental questions – nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), shale gas, and even climate change – are safe from these deadlocks. In my view, this situation is due to the exacerbated confront­ation between two currently polarized ideologies dominating modern societies. The first is liberal ideology, which orga­n­izes society­ according to the demands of the market, risks and com­petition, prioritizing short-term action with quick returns on investment. The second is the new environmental ideology that Dominique Pestre, who spoke at this symposium, calls “the ideology of sustainable development” in his latest book1.

3This ideology, which began to emerge 50 years ago with the early debates on nuclear power and the Club of Rome report, calls for a society that is respectful of the environment, collectively devising solutions to society’s problems, based on the principles of both precaution and long-term interests, and asserting unconditionally that “the ecological crisis is the major determining factor of our collective well-being”. This ideology draws on new values that are widely shared by citizens of the world, even if politically they do not always translate into electoral terms, both in France and elsewhere. These values can be summed up as respect for the environment, a relatively recent and, in a way, revo­lutionary concept. They also include a growing awareness of the fact that the consequences of our current actions will be felt much later and will essentially affect future generations. These values are shared so strongly that anyone who gives the impression of not adhering to them and of prioritizing the satisfaction of very short-term interests without taking long-term impacts into account will be excluded from the debate. Finally, these are values of precaution, which are so important to citizens with growing expectations of protection and security, and therefore of precautionary attitudes, which unfortunately sometimes lead to excessive caution but also to necessary normative policies.

4Unfortunately, like any ideology, it also breeds a number of dogmatic ideas, against which it is increasingly difficult to voice opposition. We need, however, to fight steadfastly the gloomy outlooks that systematically pit humans, science and technology, on the one hand, against nature on the other, mostly envisaging the former solely as sources of destruction of the latter.

5Hence, wherever possible, let us stress that it is not science that generates problems, but the need to feed, heat and transport seven billion people currently living on the planet and ten billion in the future. In particular, energy con­sumption is expected to double over the next 40 years, if only to meet the demand of over a billion human beings in China, India and Africa, currently faced with dire energy needs. This goal cannot be reached without continuous scientific and technological development, controlled through proper evaluation of the potential risks raised by new technologies.

• Listen to the full paper at

• The symposiums papers will be published by Odile Jacob in 2014.

Opening Address
Serge Haroche

Energy and Climate Change Challenges and Opportunities: Dr Chu Goes to Washington. Review of a former US Secretary of Energy’s Experience.
Steven Chu

A Comparative Study of Explorations and Exploitations in the World
Bernard Tardieu

Media, Scientific and Political Taboos, etc. A Strange Era
Anne-Yvonne le Dain

Knowledge, Politics and Democracy in Countries of the South
Dominique Kerouedan

Perspectives from Africa: Science, Politics and Democracy
Francis Akindès

The Experience of the FACTS Initiative, the Role of NGOs
Philippe Kourilsky

Innovation, Freedom of Research and Societal Choices: the Example of Regenerative Medicine
Alain Prochiantz

Who is Afraid of Research and Innovation?
Freedom of Research and Socially Robust Knowledge

Helga Nowotny

Regeneration, Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine
Nicole Le Douarin

Scientific Debates and Political Decision-Making:
the Case of Climate Change
Jean Dalibard

The Terms of the Scientific Debate and the Problem
of its Reception
Jean Jouzel and Marc Fontecave

Issues Surrounding the Long-Term Economic Management of Problems
Roger Guesnerie

Economic Actors, Civil Society and Political
Dominique Pestre

Science and Politics: the Question of Institutions
Pierre Rosanvallon

Making Decisions Differently. Reflections Based
on Citizen Conferences
Yves Sintomer

What Scientific Journalists Can Do and What They Actually Do
Hervé Morin

The City of Science, Science in the City
Alain Prochiantz

Democracy and Managing the Long-Term Future
Pierre Rosanvallon

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1 (1) D. Pestre, à contre-science, Seuil, 2013.

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Marc Fontecave, « The Terms of Scientific Debate and the Issue of its Reception », La lettre du Collège de France, 8 | 2014, 46-47.

Référence électronique

Marc Fontecave, « The Terms of Scientific Debate and the Issue of its Reception », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 11 août 2015, consulté le 28 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Marc Fontecave

Chemistry of Biological Processes

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