Fake news, conspiracy… Why do scientists who "skid" are rarely sanctioned

For more than two years, scientists have never had so much influence. They guided the government in the Covid crisis, paraded on television sets and granted countless interviews in order to popularize their work with the general public. All is not rosy, however. From Pr. Didier Raoult to Laurent Toubiana via Jean-François Toussaint, without forgetting the former Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier, many researchers have distinguished themselves by their slippages. Some have sunk into conspiratorial fantasies.

Sanctions, however, have been rare. The case of Laurent Mucchielli, sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), is emblematic. Despite the repeated dissemination of false information on his blog hosted by Mediapart and on the conspiratorial blog France Soir, he only received a simple call to order from the CNRS. The press release, admittedly severe, does not directly mention the social behavior specialist and was published more than a year after his first controversial articles. To date, he remains affiliated with the CNRS, while many of his colleagues ask Sanctions.

Are the major French institutes such as the CNRS, Inserm, Inrae and the universities too lax? The question was discussed at length during the symposium of the French Office for Scientific Integrity (Ofis), which took place on June 9 at the Collège de France. For the specialists who spoke there, there is no doubt that Laurent Mucchielli was “completely delirious” during the pandemic. He minimized its seriousness, criticized the effectiveness of the mask or defended hydroxychloroquine, a treatment promoted by Pr. Didier Raoult whose ineffectiveness and potential danger have been proven.

However, they believe that a more severe sanction, such as a suspension from the CNRS, is not necessary. “By multiplying the false assertions, he has discredited himself with his peers. For a researcher, this is equivalent to a social death and therefore to a professional death”, advances Yves Gingras, professor of history and sociology of science at the ‘University of Quebec in Montreal. In addition, such a sanction could frighten researchers who, without “delirious”, dare to express hypotheses that are not very consensual. Too much severity would harm freedom of expression and scientific audacity. “On what basis could a management thus censor and punish a researcher who has positions against the consensus? The only justified way would be to link this to his employment contract, adds Yves Gingras. However, disciplines such as sociology are not equivalent to professions like those of doctor or lawyer. There is no body that can sanction a point of view, even delusional”.

Should we then “let it go” and hope that ideas will self-regulate over time, even if it means ignoring the potential damage of misinformation? Aren’t the conspiracy or antivax arguments made by scientists still recognized – at least not sanctioned – widely brandished by the public fond of these theses? “In the case of Laurent Mucchielli, I do not believe at all that he had a real influence, because those who repeat his words are already convinced. And opening Pandora’s box of sanctions will lead to certain excesses, warns Yves Gingras: On the other hand, the doctors who co-signed forums with him [contre le “gouvernement de la peur” (Le Parisien) et “la stratégie sanitaire” (sur blog hébergé par Mediapart, NDLR] cannot say that.” A liberal vision shared by Olivier Beaud, professor of public law at Panthéon-Assas University. “This thesis remains the most reasonable in the current circumstances, otherwise all excesses would be possible? Because, for an obvious case of ‘delirious researcher’, you will have three or four other doubtful cases where arbitrariness is likely to reign”, he pleads. “And there is an additional problem, it is that certain researchers can take credit from being sanctioned by saying “they want to silence me because I’m right”, adds Olivier Le Gall, doctor of biology and director of research at Inrae, and chairman of the board of the Ofis.

“The laissez-faire option has advantages, but it appears, in my opinion, naive in its liberal approach to the market of ideas, as if good or sound ideas imposed themselves, whereas experience has suggested the opposite to us for a long time”, retorts Michel Dubois, sociologist of science and CNRS research director. He denounces the double inconsistency of this solution, first with regard to the discredit that can affect not only the researcher himself, but also the community to which he belongs, then with regard to the collective effects of misinformation, such as deaths due to the broadcast of fake news on vaccination. A recent study also shows that palmost 9,500 deaths are attributable to the incorrect prescription of hydroxychloroquine in eight countries during the first wave of Covid-19.

So what are the solutions? The ethics committees of the major institutes, if they rarely dismiss their researchers – except for extremely serious facts such as rape – still keep an eye on the grain. Olivier Voinnet, biologist at the CNRS, was, for example, suspended two years after proven scientific fraud. “Some say he should no longer do research, yet he has ‘served his sentence’ and his credibility remains damaged”, underlines Olivier Le Gall.

In addition to these sanctions, public interventions are possible. The first would be for institutions to remind researchers that they have the right to hold fragile, questionable or false opinions, and to expose them publicly like any other citizen, but that they have the moral obligation not to create confusion. “They should then specify that they are speaking in their own name, as a more or less ‘committed’ citizen, and not as a ‘disinterested’ researcher”, suggests Michel Dubois. This suggests that institutions and researchers agree on the demarcation between freedom of expression and academic freedom. “In the case of Laurent Mucchielli, this condition is not met, which generates a controversy which adds to the initial controversy. The press release of August 24, 2021, in which the CNRS recalls that ‘the researcher who intervenes in the public space must specify in what capacity’, clashes head-on with the will of the researcher to publicly report on the ‘work’ accomplished as well as his alleged ability to have a ‘justified’ opinion in a field that is nevertheless far from his initial expertise,” he points out.

Another solution would aim to publicly diffuse the regulation that is traditionally exercised in the confined and muffled space of the world of scientists. “Researchers should speak out more often against abuses, instead of hiding behind the authorities by asking them to be silenced”, summarizes Yves Gingras, as did the collective of historians who distributed the leaflet “Zemmour against history” showing how the former presidential candidate has it all wrong. “It is up to the peers of Laurent Mucchielli to speak publicly to recall the rules in force in the professional environment of sociology and more generally the ethics of the research professions, abounds Michel Dubois. Perhaps remains , but that’s another question, to wonder about the extreme discretion of the latter…

Yves Gingras makes a final suggestion: “Journalists could also no longer give voice to discredited researchers”. A theoretical idea that clashes with reality: not everyone can be a specialist in these sometimes complex subjects. Above all, some media exist thanks to polemics, while others brandish the banner – rightly or wrongly – of freedom of the press. “And, even so, there are still social networks, points out Olivier Le Gall, who nevertheless believes that training work remains to be carried out.

“I still remember, in 2012, when the Séralini study on GMOs made the headlines so it was obvious that it was not serious, I asked myself: why did the journalists let this go “Are they so bad at science? If we must surely increase the assumption of responsibility on the side of researchers, there is also work to be done on the side of journalists, but also in the general population, especially at school, because science and technology are more and more important today.” Extensive program!


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