Why do French intellectuals "know nothing about science"?

France has always struggled with evidence-based science.

Louis Theroux’s examination of the schooling system for American children with autism made for moving and captivating viewing last night. It would be fascinating to watch him do the same in France.

Being autistic, or the parents of autistic children in France is an appalling experience. This BBC report makes astonishing reading: in France, autism is widely approached through psychoanalysis – sometimes of the whole family. Most of the rest of the world uses an evidence-based approach, treating autistic spectrum disorders by embracing the scientific appraisals of the condition and offering alternative approaches to education. This approach works: the UK, for instance, manages to get 17 times more autistic students into university than France.

The autism issue seems to be symptomatic of France’s difficult relationship with evidence-based science. I first got interested in this notion in 2009 when author Simon Singh tweeted about French rejections of his book examining the case for alternative medicine: “Publishers reject Trick or Treatment? for translation, claiming French don't care about evidence. Argh!”
This week, Singh and his co-author Ernst finally got a French publisher. The thing is, French people are good at science. They are well-educated and know their stuff, according to this European Union report. They are also well-informed about current science. But science remains at arm’s length: it doesn’t make inroads into the cultural life. Here is French primatologist Bernard Thierry talking about the French attitude to evolution: "Nobody in France is against Darwinism. There's just not much interest…Our intellectuals know nothing about science.”
It’s what some researchers have called the “knowledge-ignorance paradox”. According to LSE researcher Martin Bauer, support within a population for science is inversely proportional to the strength of that country’s scientific research. As Bauer and his colleagues put it in this paper, “if the national science base is strong… science initiatives find less support and vice versa.” And, as it turns out, the French are highly supportive of science initiatives – suggesting their science base is actually rather weak.
I can offer some arbitrary and rather unscientific figures to back this up. Here’s the question: how many members of a population does it take to create a Nobel prize-winning scientist?
Taking 1970 as the cutoff for modern times, in Sweden, it’s 1.5 million people per scientific Nobel prize. In the UK, it’s 1.7 million. Germany has a prize for every 3 million people (reunification will no doubt have pushed that figure up). France? Since 1970, one scientific Nobel prize per 5 million people.
It’s a heinously crude measure, obviously. But there’s something in it. President Sarkozy is clearly bothered by French science, and his campaign for re-election includes a push to change the way science is done in France. In this interview with the journal Nature, he points out that France got its research model wrong after the Second World War. “We created agencies separate from the universities to do basic research. At the time, such a set-up was found only in Communist countries, in particular the USSR and China. Now, even these countries have abandoned this model.”
France, he says, has to follow. When it comes to science, vive la difference is no longer an option.
Sarkozy has expressed concern over French attitudes towards science. Photo: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.