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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Following Donald Trump in New Hampshire

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul - but Trump is impossible to ignore.

Donald Trump doesn’t miss a beat. When a man in the front row of a packed school auditorium shouted, “We don’t want a scripted president,” he bellowed straight back, “No you don’t! And you don’t want a politically correct president,” a comment that sent the thousand-strong audience into a raucous standing ovation.

It was classic Trump: a move aimed at underlining his credentials as a populist, anti-politics insurgent. For bemused outsiders, his stump speech on 14 August at Winnacunnet High School in the tidy New Hampshire town of Hampton offered fresh insights into the methods by which Donald Trump has successfully hijacked the Republican race for the White House.

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul. Trump’s campaign is powered by little more than personality and wealth. His pitch features few policies beyond building a giant wall along the Mexican border and putting his business associates in positions where they can strike better deals than the current administration. His campaign shtick resembles nothing so much as a stand-up comedy show. On Iraq: “It isn’t even a country. It’s a bunch of corrupt people.” On oil: “Iran, Isis, everybody has it but us.” And on China: “You hear that sucking sound? You know what that means . . . jobs, money.”

And yet he is impossible to ignore. Trump has led the polls for the Republican nomination since declaring his intention to run on 16 June – in a speech that accused Mexico of sending both rapists and murderers to the US. In New Hampshire he has a double-digit lead over Jeb Bush, who remains the favourite to win the nod, given his record as governor of Florida and his party connections – not least his father, George, and brother George W. This makes Trump the people’s choice.

Something similar is happening among Democrats. Although Hillary Clinton has a monopoly on donors and party grandees, Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont, is making a move in the polls. The US version of Jeremy Corbyn – the unreconstructed lefty selected to balance the debate – offers a different way of doing things from Clinton, who comes from a tired elite, or so runs the familiar argument.

And this is Trump’s main message: the rich are running politics for their advantage, donating money to the establishment in return for favours when they return to office. “Who knows it better than me?” he boasted to more whoops from the audience. “I’ve contributed to everyone.”

Trump acts like a heckler on stage. It’s his brash honesty that appeals to the likes of Bob Pennell, an orthopaedic surgeon who had travelled from neighbouring Massachusetts to see him speak. “He is shining the light on the rich and how they use the government,” Pennell said. “I always suspected it. But now I know.”

The result of such poor leadership, Trump argues, is that the US has lost its place as the dominant global economy – hence that sucking sound from China. It’s a message that strikes a chord with an audience that feels squeezed financially at home and sees its country adrift in the world.

Trump’s larger-than-life persona – and frequent, unverifiable boasts that his net worth stands at $10bn – felt like a throwback to days gone by, when “the American dream still meant something”, according to Jimmy Riordan, a diesel engine parts engineer. “It’s a cut-throat world and he’s the best businessman,” he said.

Quite what a Trump administration would look like, however, is anyone’s guess. In a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, he committed to federal investigations into the treatment of army veterans and the Environmental Protection Agency. An audience member asked if he would send astronauts to Mars. Trump smiled, saying he would first fix the US’s crumbling roads and airports. “Who’s better at infrastructure than Trump?” he asked, to more laughter.

Even a string of glaring gaffes has failed to dent his lead. Most recently he tried to undermine Megyn Kelly of Fox News after she probed his attitude towards women. Her dogged questioning, Trump said, was down to “blood coming out of her wherever”.

Yet to his supporters in the school auditorium, this kind of comment is not a misstep but a breath of fresh air. They say it shows he is his own man, that his personal fortune frees him from the need for spin doctors, lobbyists or donors who would seek favours should he reach office. Even his opponents can sense the appeal. “He doesn’t have to have their influence,” said Kerri Ruggiero, who is campaigning in the state for George Pataki, the Republican former New York governor, who is failing to gain traction. “It’s just him.”

Not everyone at the stump speech was a supporter. In New Hampshire, people take their responsibility as an early primary state seriously. A good showing here in February can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In the 1968 Democratic primaries, Eugene McCarthy came within 7 per cent of Lyndon B Johnson, a close enough result to force the sitting president to announce he would not run for re-election. Some showed up last Friday to gauge whether Trump was a credible figure. Others came to make a point. Noah Thompson, an 18-year-old student, wore a giant golden sombrero to protest against Trump’s comments about Mexicans.

“I probably would have voted for him,” Thompson confessed as the crowd headed for the exits, “if he hadn’t opened his mouth for two months.”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars