Sarah Dubernet is a nurse by training.
During a Master’s degree in environmental health, she began investigations around the word « nanotechnologies » that lasted several years and invites her fellow students to allow themselves to do the same.
Socrates believed that every human being possessed buried knowledge and questioned his students in such a way as to bring this knowledge to their own consciousness, without wanting to inculcate his own. Our technological system, in many ways, operates in the opposite way, dispossessing us of our knowledge, our understanding of the world and our capacity to decide about our lives. The second half of the 20th century saw the birth of laboratory « science », a « science » cut off from the world that divulges what it wants of its discoveries and does not take into account the knowledge that abounds outside. Isabelle Stengers, philosopher of science, evokes the German chemistry that developed at that time through the creation of large research laboratories. From then on, the knowledge that a certain number of professionals in the field might have had on the toxicity of chemical products (tanners for example) is evicted from the official statements of « science », only the toxicity proven in the laboratory will be retained… and still.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
The great scam of the « industrial age » is to present itself as scientific when it is a question of technical deployment and has been accompanied by a massive loss of ancestral knowledge and know-how. For the public, scientific guarantee is a guarantee of seriousness, and people do not easily allow themselves to question the word of an academic. However, the citizens who allow themselves to examine the social stakes of research do not generally question the scientific theories themselves, but do contest the impact of this technological surge on our lives. And on this point, no one is more of an expert than another.
We can for example take position on the economic choices which are made today: on the background of « crisis », we invest massively in nursing robots, « gerontotechnologies », softwares which would educate our children, robot judges or other software of prediction of the crime… Do we have the right to refuse a world where robots educate us, judge us or care for us? Do we have the right to want investments to focus more on reorganizing living conditions and improving the ties that bind us together, than on the production and deployment of so-called « intelligent », « communicating », « empathetic » or « user-friendly » objects?
We can also take a position on research orientations: at present, the major global, European and therefore French orientations concern the unrestrained development of NBICs1. These new technologies and materials are being deployed alongside older ones such as synthetic chemistry or nuclear energy in all areas of industry, from food processing to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. However, no one is advocating for pesticides and GMOs on their plate and there is a growing demand for organic farming and less harmful medicine. It is certain that if these societal choices were put to the vote, they would be far from what has been decided by the leaders of the 300 largest world groups and implemented through our States.
COMMON SENSE VERSUS « SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN
Common sense is not a valid argument for researchers. This is quite justified, science is supposed to be able to debate (which distinguishes it from a religion) and to argue solidly. However, common sense allows many people to make sense of certain issues and seems to be sorely lacking in our institutions. You don’t need to read the slightest study on the toxicity of nanoparticles to think that introducing virus-sized particles of metals or minerals into food, medicines and many other products with which we come into contact through the respiratory tract or skin is not good for our health: this is common sense. Of course, reading the toxicity studies confirms this hypothesis to the highest degree… Another example: while physics tells us that our physical world is the emanation of information fields and that each atom is associated with a wave, do you think that the massive projection of waves of all kinds will be without consequence on the living?
What these two examples have in common is that they are invested in and dishonestly ignored in terms of their effects. So, rely on your common sense, because the scientific production is not ready to give you the answers.
HOT VIOLENCE, COLD VIOLENCE
The media likes to caricature the bad militants who attack the good researchers with great violence. This is not wrong, activists are sometimes helpless in the argument and can react according to their guts on the one hand because these subjects are serious and on the other hand, because it is not easy to debate, while the public presentation is an exercise inherent to the function of researchers and politicians. However, I can testify that in several years of debates and exchanges with my opponents, I never had the slightest counter-argument to what I was advancing, but I had several annoyed backhandedness or insults such as « obscurantist » or « conspiracy theorist » which ended the discussion. Rigor is not always present among researchers either, who are, let’s remember, human beings.
At first, I was able to stay calm, but I can easily admit that as I was exposed to the physical and cultural harmfulness of these tools, it became more and more painful to listen to the promotional rhetoric ofhigh-tech saving the world. The most difficult cases were the confrontations with chemists or medical experts working for industrialists, because as much as the passionate researcher who refuses to see the negative aspects of his work could touch me, the latter are politicians and know very well how to manipulate words and concepts. They are the ones who dictate the governmental reports on these subjects and decide on the tools of research and if one day the justice system would like to look into this type of criminality, it would be towards them that we should start even more than towards the politicians. We are talking about a dull, cold and authoritarian violence unknown to our prisons full of impulsive people…
Let’s not forget that anger can be legitimate.
OBJECTIVITY, SUBJECTIVITY… AND DECISION MAKING
An idea that is very present in government reports and in the mouths of many researchers in the so-called hard sciences is that if one takes a position on these subjects, one is not « objective ». This implies first of all that for these researchers, objectivity is a possible reality, despite the fact that we are — until proven otherwise — subjects. Objectivity is an approach that goes with the notion of rigor and is indeed an essential component of the research process. But in no way can this constitute a state of being in the human race which by definition is a subjective world. Our consciences are all limited and scientists are not free of preconceived ideas and professional distortions as any human being. The difference is that in their field of research, they are indeed supposed to be able to argue in a way that supports their statements and addresses the controversy. But again, their field of research is not research itself nor its deployment in society and on this point, their word is no more valuable than yours.
But what is most frightening about this way of looking at things is that it makes it impossible to take a position on the societal choices that emanate from the laboratories, and therefore, any democratic process. If one takes a position, one is not objective, if one does not take a position and therefore implicitly says « yes » since it is in progress, one is objective. In other words, one can talk for hours about Nazism/transhumanism from a fundamental point of view, with the analytical coldness of a researcher, but one does not have the right to refuse this course.
Finally on this point, let’s note an important fact: scientists are presented as more capable than anyone else to discuss research issues because they are more objective than citizens. It appears to be exactly the opposite, as they are directly involved and can be amazingly dismissive when it comes to their own research, as can many caregivers who refuse to see the harmful effects of their care. However, our authorities, full of conflicts of interest, do not hesitate to brandish the « conflict of opinion » when faced with associations that try to have their say, as if researchers, judges and parties were devoid of it.
LEGITIMACY OF THE EXPERTISE
American movies like to show an image of scientists or engineers who know everything about everything and do everything. The same goes for our public authorities, who like to bring in people who are not competent to talk about a subject. For example, I have never heard toxicologists talk about the risks of nanoparticles during public debates, only physicists who, although they know more about nanoparticles than biologists, are less able to talk about their effects on living organisms and, moreover, say nothing about them. Many people outside of the research community, for example, believe that chemists are well versed in the toxicity of chemicals, when few are actually trained in this aspect of chemistry.
In addition, the research is very standardized and highly marked out, both in the questions it asks and in the way it answers them. I said above that few citizens question scientific theories or knowledge as such. This is partly because the research is too technical, meaningless and, what’s more, written in « globish », a kind of impoverished English. This is a pity, because we would have a lot to exchange with each other if dialogue was possible. The nurse in me was surprised by some inconsistencies in the discourse on toxicology: for example, our authorities focus on the study of the carcinogenicity of chemicals to the detriment of other types of toxicity, which is convenient because it is the most complex effect to demonstrate, while we can quickly see if there are inflammatory effects, immune reactions, damage to organs or hormonal disturbances. However, repeated inflammation, organic lesions, immune or hormonal imbalances can lead to various problems… including cancer! But if the specific carcinogenicity test (developed by the industry) says it’s not carcinogenic, then it’s not, even if it causes a whole bunch of other reactions. For the record, even when a toxic effect is demonstrated, a worldwide consensus is that studies systematically end with the following statement: « But more tests are needed to confirm this result »…
The question of expertise is obviously a stormy one and one can only regret, in many areas of our society, that decision-makers rely on expertise that they know will not be honest given its origin. But let’s not forget that we all have at least an expertise in the use of this technical world that is imposed on us and therefore, a capacity to argue our positions by example and experience. And these testimonies, if they are given in a calm manner, quickly put an end to the great theoretical speeches!
THE UNIVERSITY: THE NEW VATICAN
The university is not a place where it is easy to debate, although debate is essential in the common construction of knowledge. This is even what distinguishes belief from knowledge: one belongs to the intimate sphere of each person, the other also, but it must be possible to argue with others. Researchers who question the inculcated dogmas are quickly sidelined, as shown by the case of Christian Vélot, a geneticist who spoke out against GMOs to the general public, or the doctors who opposed vaccine policies and were consequently struck off the Council of the Order.
In science-society debates, the irrational beliefs of activists are often discussed. On my research subjects and without speaking about my own work, the most constructed, argued and effective works to understand and position oneself on these subjects, emanate however from citizen productions. In the same way, I remember a researcher, considered very solid by his peers and who was a heavy smoker, insisting that tobacco had no negative impact on health!
The research process requires above all an ability to question oneself, to question one’s own preconceptions and beliefs, even if it means being shaken up or even completely turned upside down. Without wishing to caricature things, I have observed two quite distinct postures among researchers: either they position themselves as « knowers » and then dialogue is impossible because they already know everything, or they position themselves as researchers of the knowledge they do not have and there, we can share our views and work together to better understand the world. It is thanks to such researchers that I write in this journal today. Humble, open-minded people who want to make beautiful contributions to the world through their research once asked me to speak publicly, recognizing that a little nurse from nothing could have something to say about research and development policy.
The engineering approach that now takes precedence over the research approach unfortunately favors a posture of arrogance more than that of humility…