Fragilité de la connaissance, robustesse de la science

Capture d’écran 2016-03-04 à 16.18.29
Stuart Firestein

Le 26 février 2016, je participais à un atelier INSERM, à l’invitation de P.-M. Lledo, avec Stuart Firestein, qui venait présenter son ouvrage Failure: Why Science is so Successful (OUP, 2015). Je ne reproduis pas ici la totalité de la conférence que j’ai donnée, sur le  mais simplement l’introduction.

Stuart Firestein has given, in his last two books, a very refreshing view of science: Science is not (only) about the accumulation of facts, not about a « method » or about settled knowledge: Ignorance made a brilliant picture of science as opening ever deeper questions, hence as giving a voice to interesting and productive ignorances. The last book, Failure, why Science is so successful, addresses another « negative » category, failure, to show how and why we should allow more room for failure in our narratives of science, and, perhaps more importantly, why science funding should allow for failure. In the two books, Stuart Firestein seems to be playing the actual practice of scientists, where ignorance and failure is part of the daily routine, against preconceptions about science in administrators, textbook publishers and some part of the public perhaps. Oddly enough, the robustness of science does not need the level of certainty we might need elsewhere, and does not demand daily groundbreaking successes.

Im interested in the following question: how can we explain that the standard view about science is sometimes so far from the one Firestein is describing? I’m not embarking here in the whole philosophy of science from Plato or even Descartes on, but starting from now, from the present: more than often, complaints are raised about the « distrust of science », with worries that in some fields it’s difficult to assess what is confirmed and what is not, that we should be concerned with artificial controversies. Knowledge (to take a term that relates more to our representations of the current state of science than to its actual dynamics) looks fragile. I do think that it is true to some extent: even if science progresses toward a true picture of reality in the long run, inquiries are things we do, they share many characteristics of our conduct: like our actions, they can fail, they can fail persistently, they can fail because of us, or because we are led, under the actions of causes or of other agents, to fail. I’ll focus today on four cases, where our knowledge of science, the knowledge upon which we act, looks fragile. And each time, I think that a more sensible approach to science, whether it is the one developed by Stuart or by the pragmatist philosophers I read, might be useful.

J’ai ensuite traité en détail (1) des enquêtes de R. Proctor, (2) de l’émergence de théories du complot dans le domaine biomédical (virus Zika), (3) de l’ouvrage de Stéphane Horel sur les perturbateurs endocriniens et (4) du travail de Linsey McGoey sur le « philanthrocapitalisme ».


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