Cédric Villani: The pandemic has eroded confidence in science

French deputy and candidate for the 2020 Paris mayoral elections, Cedric Villani, poses during a photo session in Paris on February 18, 2020 (Photo: Joel Saget / AFP)

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed a profound paradox: “while science does extraordinary things, citizens’ trust in it has been declining since the beginning of the pandemic,” said the renowned French mathematician Cédric Villani at the Puerto Ideas Science Festival in Antofagasta.

This contradiction is explained because a fundamental element of the scientific process is forgotten: its “chaotic and unpredictable” character, explained Villani, winner of the Fields Medal in 2010 – recognized as the Nobel Prize for Mathematics – and current deputy of the French National Assembly.

Saved by science

Science “has done wonders in the fight against the pandemic,” Villani said, highlighting the rapid development of vaccines against the virus “in an extremely short time.”

However, “he faces all the different opinions, the great media coverage and the scientific controversies.”

However, in the investigator’s judgment, this should be considered normal.

“This idea that error is at the heart of science and of our understanding of natural phenomena must be taken into account in our time. You don’t have to trust the scientist you have to trust science“.

Villani, who is very popular in France thanks to his mathematical studies but also for his way of dressing, with wide ties, nineteenth-century suits and the custom of always wearing an enigmatic brooch with a large spider on his lapel, was one of the star lecturers of this edition of the Puerto de Ideas Festival, which has hosted the Chilean city of Antofagasta since last Monday.

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Creative mistakes

During his speech, entitled Creative Chaos. Error and failure in science yesterday and today, Villani affirmed that science is “a process in which humans fight the unknownThey seek to explore new territories and embark on a true adventure ”, a path that is always rich in setbacks, accidents and incidents.

Examples of these unforeseen events are thousands, said Villani, including two that marked the way of conceiving the world: the creation of the meter as a unit of measurement and the calculation of the age of the Earth.

In 1792, with the king on the brink of being guillotined and on the verge of a civil war in France, the National Assembly commanded two renowned scientists of the time to measure the meridian that passed through Paris.

The relief of the Pyrenees distorted the measurements and the meter ended with two millimeters less, a “gigantic” error that was perpetuated over the years, Villani said.

With the age of planet Earth something similar happened: the knowledge of the time considered the Earth as a “rock” and based on that idea erroneous calculations were made.

The Earth, in reality, is a “fluid”, the rock was originally molten and therefore the equations should be different.

Over time the age of the Earth was recalculated and studies are still being done on it in the 21st century, he explained.

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The need for debate

As in any other human activity, “sometimes a good discovery is missed for the wrong reasons or a bad discovery is imposed for the wrong reasons,” Villani said.

For this reason, knowledge “is built in this same environment of debates, errors, twists and turns, of upsetting theories,” he pointed out.

“They are great debates and it is normal. We should not think of them as distortions in the scientific debate, as inconceivable things, to scandalize, to be offended, it must be seen as something normal that has to play a role in the progress of society, “he said. (EFE)