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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Munich shootings: The bloody drama where everyone knows their part

A teenage gunman murdered nine people in Munich on Friday night. 

At time of writing, we know only certain facts about the gunman who shot and killed nine people and wounded many more at a shopping centre in Munich.

He was 18 years old. He was German-Iranian. He was reported to have shouted: "I am German." After murdering his innocent victims he killed himself.

We don't know his motive. We may never truly understand his motive. And yet, over the last few years, we have all come to know the way this story goes.

There is a crowd, usually at ease - concertgoers, revellers or, in this case, shoppers. Then the man - it's usually a man - arrives with a gun or whatever other tool of murder he can get his hands on. 

As he unleashes terror on the crowd, he shouts something. This is the crucial part. He may be a loner, an outsider or a crook, but a few sentences is all it takes to elevate him into the top ranks of the Islamic State or the neo-Nazi elite.

Even before the bystanders have reported this, world leaders are already reacting. In the case of Munich, the French president Francois Hollande called Friday night's tragedy a "disgusting terrorist attack" aimed at stirring up fear. 

Boris Johnson, the UK's new foreign secretary, went further. At 9.30pm, while the attack was ongoing, he said

"If, as seems very likely, this is another terrorist incident, then I think it proves once again that we have a global phenomenon now and a global sickness that we have to tackle both at source - in the areas where the cancer is being incubated in the Middle East - and also of course around the world."

On Saturday morning, reports of multiple gunmen had boiled down to one, now dead, teenager. the chief of Munich police stated the teenage gunman's motive was "fully unknown". Iran, his second country of citizenship, condemned "the killing of innocent and defenceless people". 

And Europe's onlookers are left with sympathy for the victims, and a question. How much meaning should we ascribe to such an attack? Is it evidence of what we fear - that Western Europe is under sustained attack from terrorists? Or is this simply the work of a murderous, attention-seeking teenager?

In Munich, mourners lay flowers. Flags fly at half mast. The facts will come out, eventually. But by that time, the world may have drawn its own conclusions.