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.

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood