French trust in science drops as coronavirus backlash begins

More than a third of the public now believe scientists are hiding information – confusion over masks and broadsides from a ‘populist’ microbiologist are blamed

June 8, 2020
Rendez vous with professor Didier Raoult the director of the University Hospital Institute (IHU) Mediterranean infection in Marseille, infectious disease specialist in tropical infectious diseases.
Source: Getty
Controversial: Didier Raoult ‘acts as if the “people” determine scientific truth’

A survey has revealed that the French public has lost confidence in scientists during the coronavirus pandemic, largely because of a policy U-turn over face masks and the antics of a “populist” microbiologist who has vocally championed hydroxychloroquine, the treatment touted by Donald Trump.

Since the crisis began, trust in science appears to have risen in the UK, Germany and – at least among Democratic voters – the US.

But science policy experts have warned that researchers could face a backlash from a frustrated public as lockdowns drag on and a blame game begins, and France appears to be the first country to produce evidence that the mood has soured.

At the start of the crisis in mid-March, 84 per cent of the French public had confidence in scientists. Now, according to the latest data from late May, this has dropped to 74 per cent.

This is still far higher than the confidence reported in the government, the president and the media. Nonetheless, “there’s a significant decline in confidence”, said Sylvain Brouard, research director of the National Political Science Foundation at Sciences Po and one of a team tracking public opinion in France during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, over the same period, there has been a rise in the proportion of people who say scientists are hiding information about the coronavirus from the public. Thirty-six per cent of respondents now believe this is the case.

Dr Brouard attributes this shift in mood, which began in mid-April, to two controversies that have played out in the French media.

The first is confusion over face masks. Initially, the government said there was no scientific evidence in their favour, he explained, and official scientific advisory groups did not contradict this.

But later, the government changed tack, and the wearing of face masks is now compulsory on public transport. “It’s a complete reversal of policy,” Dr Brouard said.

The second incident to shake public trust is that of Didier Raoult, director of the Mediterranean Infection Foundation in Marseilles, whose early – and much criticised – study of hydroxychloroquine set off hopes that it could be an effective treatment for Covid-19. In late May, Mr Trump revealed that he was taking hydroxychloroquine despite there being no conclusive evidence of benefits.

Professor Raoult has vocally defended the treatment in the French media − and to his more than half a million Twitter followers − dismissing a decision at the end of May to stop using hydroxychloroquine on patients by France’s top public health council.

That decision followed a major study in The Lancet that found that the drug was associated with higher mortality and heart problems. But after questions about the study’s data, the article has been retracted. “The house of cards is collapsing,” Professor Raoult tweeted, although he had previously questioned the data himself.

He has even challenged France’s minister of health to a public popularity contest. A follow-up survey found Professor Raoult to be somewhat more trusted, particularly outside Paris and among the poor and unemployed.

“Raoult seems to adopt a populist stance in which the ‘people’ would become the arbiter of scientific truths,” said Michel Dubois, a sociologist based at Sorbonne University. “Many scientists in France are concerned about the image Raoult and his observational studies may give of French research abroad.”

Opposition conservative MPs have backed Professor Raoult and hydroxychloroquine, explained Dr Brouard. The scientific debate had been polarised, and public trust likely damaged, he said. The public see “one prominent medical professor saying he has a good answer to the disease and the government doesn’t want to use it”, he added.

A separate opinion poll taken in early May found that half the French public believed that when scientists disagreed about the coronavirus, this was because they were defending their “private financial interests”.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: French trust in science drops as backlash begins

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