How do we perceive progress at the start of the 21st century? A survey responds by showing that expectations around this theme remain relevant. On condition that we provide very concrete answers.
Once again, Aristotle was right. The assertion formulated, 350 years before our era, according to which "progress is worth only if it is shared by all" is the idea which seems best to sum up the current vision of the general public on what is and should be progress at the start of the twenty-first century. Published a few days ago, a European survey (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and United Kingdom) commissioned by Medef, allows us to get a fairly precise idea of the expectations and hopes around this question .
The relative good news, and it should be emphasized in these times of doubt and mistrust, is that there is no rejection of this notion. Even if this does not constitute a tidal wave, 31% of French people questioned believe in progress (against 24% negative opinions), figures to be compared to those of the United Kingdom (60% positive opinions) and Germany (29%).
Tech for good
Of course, times have changed and it has been a long time since this “messianism of progress” that our country has been proud of for the past three centuries, has not run out.
Nevertheless, and as an echo to Aristotle's assertion, all those who now work for progress (scientists, innovators ...) now have an imperative: to be more concrete than ever, that is to say to demonstrate by the facts that what they bring to society provides a real improvement in living conditions, even hope.
Moreover, and it is probably no coincidence that the expression that appeared a few years ago of “Tech for good”, in other words “inclusive” technologies, accessible to all, goes in the direction of this quest. of meaningful progress. Surrounded by the thurifers of degrowth or by techno-skeptics, even conspirators of all kinds, progress has no other choice but to prove its essential contribution in many fields, starting with those related to three subjects placed, in this survey, at the top of the concerns of Europeans for the next twenty years: the environment, health and education.
Doubts about progress
In his book on progress, the scientist-philosopher Étienne Klein questions this notion. Besides that we can only agree with the fact that "probably never in history [...] has the theme of progress so questioned humanity as a whole and humanity specific to each individual. ”, this does not prevent us from living at a particular time when opposition to progress is strong.
Certainly, and almost always, a number of innovations have encountered innumerable obstacles. In the midst of the industrial revolution in England, think of the Luddists, these “breakers of machines” opposed to the arrival of industrial looms in workshops. One hundred and sixty years later, in the midst of the post-war boom, doubts about the benefits of progress shifted to the question of the growing power of man over nature.
In recent years, and in this period of explosions of technological innovations, progress is often equated with a form of technoscience with on the one hand, a public discourse on science, technology and its benefits, mastered by an elite, and on the other, the intimate relationship that individuals maintain with these ubiquitous new technologies which would not systematically live up to their expectations or quite simply neither understood nor mastered. The recent debates on 5G, vaccines or advances in genetics (including the work of the 2020 recipients of the Nobel in Chemistry - Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna - on molecular scissors) testify to this mistrust of progress. , especially scientific progress.
Educating for progress, stemming the decline in scientific culture
The current debate on the acceptance of progress in society seems more than ever to be a political subject in the noble sense of the term. This survey shows it: while there is no rejection of the idea of progress as such, there are, however, many questions and concrete expectations. How to cope ? The question is simple, but the answers complex.
Among the possible avenues, and without Manichaeism between the “for” on one side and the “against” on the other, we must rely on the lessons of this survey. These show in particular that the sciences are still poorly understood: 54% of our fellow citizens claiming to be poorly informed in terms of climatology, 61% in the field of environmental science and management, 72% in terms of biology or still 73% for mathematics.
Now, and this is a fact, progress and science are intimately intertwined. Besides that we must more than ever bet on digital inclusion in order to give the keys to what is hidden "on the other side of the machine" - to paraphrase the title of the popularization work of the scientist Aurélie Jean - we must also promote, not to say, stem the decline in scientific culture; including (and above all) with our leaders. This is a democratic, and therefore political, imperative. Victor Hugo would undoubtedly have subscribed to it, to the point, let us suppose, of going back on the writing of his final sentence:
"Without ceasing progress, wheel with double gears,
makes something work by crushing someone. "