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Science, media and politics in the time of the pandemic

Science, media and politics in the time of the pandemic

The immunology and virology researcher, who had earned a doctorate on coronaviruses, had already become a well-known figure, under pressure from colleagues who referred him, and constant requests from the media. Last Friday, he spoke again, but this time during a seminar on ” Effects of the pandemic on media coverage of science ». “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were unable to do research and made up for it by speaking out in public.”

He is not the only person. For two and a half years, many Quebec scientists have come out of their lab to talk about science in the media: about viruses, vaccines, and barrier gestures, but also about the way science is constructed.

“When we speak of a study, we must also explain its scope and limitations in order to properly inform the public. Qu’un scientifique soit capable de l’expliquer, cela enrichit le debat et cela permet à la recherche d’être mieux comprise”, signale Lyne Sauvageau, présidente-directrice générale de l’Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité work.

For non-partisan knowledge

It wasn’t always easy. Because of the health crisis, the scientific discourse circulating in the media and in the public space has become simplified and politicized. The audience wanted a short and direct answer when we had several answers (a, b, c) to give them. One meter or two meters? Science does not take a stand – an idea that is difficult to convey to people,” agrees Quebec’s chief scientist, Rémy Quirion.

What may not help during the pandemic is that “some researchers co-existed with politicians and journalists, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that affected the perception of scientists, for better or for worse,” notes philosopher of science and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Montreal, Frédéric Bouchard. Justin Trudeau’s statement, ‘I believe in science,’ invites partisanship. The label ‘pro science’ leads to the belief that others are ‘anti-science’. Science should be a decision component, not a partisan component. »

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Mark A. adds. Bonnet, a researcher in legal sciences at Université Laval, does this by recalling that science is not a religion, and therefore cannot be “believable”. We must rely on the scientific method and can trust experience, but we must be wary of politicizing science,” he argues.

Experience in public debate

It wasn’t easy in times of pandemic either, because scientific knowledge was being built in real time, recalls Marin Corneo, a journalist at Quebec Science. “We were interacting, without having the necessary background. This is the opposite of our usual work. But we had no choice but to do it, and we had to do it very quickly.”

Usually, “discussions about methodology and sampling” are what is important in public health, emphasizes Luc-Alain Giraldeau, director of INRS. But “Is it realistic to give all this to the public so that they can discuss it?”

“What we want to discuss is rather the outcome. For people to be able to understand, they must either agree to a postdoc or trust the specialists. Here is the debate.”

Wrong information appears

The other big problem was the rise of misinformation on social media. “Bad news spreads more than good news and takes up more space,” recalls Martin Chenal, a doctoral student in biology at the National Institute of Statistics. In this regard, young researchers undoubtedly have a role to play, Alain Lamarie continues: On social networks, “I have little influence, but young people are there,” the INRS researcher notes.

Martin Chenal believes that the best way to combat misinformation is to flood people with good scientific information. “Exposing them in this way probably makes them less forthright,” the person producing a small, popular science journal thinks, The result of combining the exposition and the opposite.

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It is not an easy task due to a kind of “incompatibility of scientific discourse and misinformation”. With the latter, there is often no room for debate,” he notes.

This movement is also part of something beyond science and is dangerous, notes journalist Marin Corneo. “There is an almost political claim to saying that I don’t believe in science. In the context of the rise of populism, ‘science can be exploited in this way’.”

Like her fellow journalist Jean-François Klitsch, who participated in the same session, she assures us that she will continue to do her work despite the increasing aggressiveness in the public sphere and on social networks. “Some people see journalists as biased or corrupt, so sometimes that is frustrating. Despite everything, I want to do my job well without putting myself down, but I’m a little afraid of this dichotomy,” I still support the journalist.

Social sciences to the rescue

Could injecting more social science help? Remy Quirón agrees, “We have to find new ways of doing things.” In addition to experts in virology or epidemiology, we should have had a greater presence of experts in mental health and social sciences. »

Urgency and lack of time played a role. We will learn from that and from the societal climate as well, to find different ways to address citizens. We will also have to increase our scientific literacy. This is a lesson for research funds and governments,” notes the chief scientist.

Frédéric Bouchard is also of the opinion that with regard to solutions, the table should be expanded to include more diversity of opinions. “It is important to take care of the relationship of trust. There are many groups that no longer trust institutions because they have been abused in the past.”

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This will require more diversity in the student cohorts. And, no doubt, too, with greater representation in the faculty and in the research world.

But the philosopher of science again returned to the necessity of maintaining the separation between experience and politics. To reassert this trust, we must also restore greater independence, whether perceived or real. On the one hand there are expert opinions and on the other hand there are community decisions. This requires allowing elected officials to decide to use this tool that they are aware of. And also to better equip our researchers who must participate in the public discussions. »

Photo: Lauren Gardner, of Johns Hopkins University, whose group designed the digital COVID tracker.