Zététique: critical spirit, are you there?
On June 9, 2018, five YouTubers sneak in during the night in the Moselle fields of Sarraltroff. They are between 30 and 45 years old, called Mental Hygiene, Defakator, La Tronche en bias, Un monde riant and Astronogeek and their channels have more than 1,6 million subscribers. Their credo: the scientific method. Their church: skepticism. This evening in June, they are preparing to make a crop circle, this type of pattern carved in the fields of cereals, visible from the sky.
Midnight: equipped with wooden planks and tape measures, the troops lay thousands of ears of corn under the watchful eye of three cameras. An hour and a half later, a crop circle 70 meters high emerges from the wheat. The drawing quickly attracts curious and paranormal enthusiasts. For those enthusiastic about the supernatural, the work is of extraterrestrial origin, until the publication, on August 24, of the making-of of the five videographers who bury the thesis “encounter of the third kind”. "Media animals" The project is emblematic of the work of the new generation zeteticians, adepts of doubt thought of as a methodological tool and Compulsive Twitter users. Mostly self-taught scientific popularizers, they contrast with the more academic roots of the movement created in the 80s by the physicist Henri Broch to demystify the paranormal.. Distraught by the credulity of his students, the doctor of quantum mechanics studies in his amphitheatres the Kirlian effect (which would make it possible to photograph the aura) or psychokinesis (the power to move objects by thought). “But the paranormal is only the support. The goal of zetetics is the dissemination of a methodology of critical thinking ”, underlines its founder, now in his seventies. Today, nearly 30 people claim it on Facebook. A predominantly male community (like 85% of subscribers to La Tronche in bias), young (between 25 and 40 years old) and graduates of scientific courses.
In the mid-2010s, carried by a new generation of vlogging experts, it became more democratic on social networks. While YouTube is establishing itself in the media landscape, students and young professionals keen on science post some popular videos on the shroud of Turin and UFOs. They are trained biologists, musicologists, driving school instructors, computer scientists and intend to popularize scientific culture. A democratization of which Richard Monvoisin, science teacher in charge of a zetetics course at the University of Grenoble since 2005, regrets not having foreseen the drifts: “We did not anticipate the turn of 2015. While the YouTube channels were starting to multiply, we older ones weren't even on Facebook. Suddenly, a whole bunch of people rushed into the breach, and today we are no longer up to these media animals. " Since the 2015 attacks and the rise of conspiracy theories on the Net, zetetics have left the amphitheatres of the universities of Nice, Grenoble and Montpellier to invite themselves to prisons, libraries and business seminars. Training, monetized videos, books, awareness workshops: in a few years, a real business has been structured around content labeled "critical thinking", to the point of creating new careers. Today, the videos of La Tronche in bias bring 5 euros per month to its co-founder, Thomas C. Durand. The only employee of his association created in 000, he works alongside about twenty volunteers and finances his shoots thanks to crowdfunding, integrated advertising, a handful of training sessions and an endowment from the Ministry of Culture. In six years, his more than 2016 videos have been viewed over 300 million times.
“An activist approach” “The currency of YouTubers is the number of views,” explains Richard Monvoisin. And if no one sinks into "Cyril Hanouna", some ignore facts that could displease their community.
When a zetetician youtuber invited to discuss on a sophrology platform sends in the taxi: "Help the zetetic community, I have to talk about sophrology this evening, and I don't know anything about it!" it sells off the process. ” Between researchers and popularizers, the dialogue is stuck. “People listen to us because we are more understandable. [Researchers] are read by 20 people because they are boring! Thomas C. Durand retorts.No one has zetetics. We must promote a diversity of approaches and tones. ” By defending methodological expertise, these knowledge brokers explore disciplines whose subtext they do not always master. "Zététiciens, it is the rationalism without the responsibility of the scientist", regrets Sylvain Laurens, lecturer at the School of the high studies in social sciences (EHESS) and co-author of a survey on scientific disinformation, the Guardians of reason (La Découverte, 2020), which portrays the skeptics as useful idiots of the industrial lobbies, more interested in astrology than in Monsanto. "Zetetics is not a science, it is a militant approach to reason", replies Thomas C. Durand. From activism to dogmatism, there is only one step, and for the radical left collective Zet-Ethique, it is taken by some neozeticians. “Our group was formed against a scientist conception that is progressing in the zet milieu,” explains one of its members, blogger Kumokun. He denounces a restrictive approach to science which adores the natural sciences and the formal sciences and focuses on the results by failing to study the conditions of production. "Zététicians are relatively blind to the question of the social organization of the scientific process", confirms Philippe Huneman, director of research at the CNRS in philosophy of science. In the background, a fundamental question emerges: how to explain that science best describes reality while remaining critical of its productions? Among the most heated debates on Twitter: gender, feminism and glyphosate. “There are plenty of articles that tell you that glyphosate is harmless. But what is the question? The fact that it focuses mainly on human health rather than ecology is not trivial. Zetetics has long been very naive about the interaction between science and politics, ”explains the philosopher.
Right-wing The controversy between the young guard and the pioneers of the movement finally crystallized in the summer of 2020. For if the movement - heir to the French rationalist tradition - is historically rooted in left-wing thinking, zetetics seems to be like American skepticism won over by ultraliberal rhetoric. "The libertarian current is not yet very structured in France, but it hangs in the face of the zetetic", worries Richard Monvoisin. An observation shared by Philippe Huneman: "There is a great offensive financed by powerful think tanks in the United States which use the natural sciences and freedom of expression as a weapon of war against feminism, ecology and the human sciences. . " Invoked to serve transhumanist thought by actors like the Cobalt Circle - which brings together a handful of Elon Musk's followers on Facebook - zetetics is sometimes used today to justify racialist theses.
If the criticism of a right-wing movement is not new, it is today taking on an unprecedented scale. “By lowering the centrality of political labels, we see a structural porosity with the extreme right, diagnoses sociologist Sylvain Laurens. Part of the movement denies the idea that values feed scientific work. This fringe considers that there is only one relation to knowledge, yet science is a human activity, taken in history. ” A shift confirmed by the boom in evolutionary psychology in Zetetic discourses. “Evolutionary psychology is ultra anti-human. By wanting to explain everything through biology, it reactivates the patriarchal patterns "Mr. Hunt and Ms. Knit" ", also laments Philippe Huneman. It is against these drifts that the Zet-Ethique collective and a year later (in July 2020) Zététique, Scepticisme et Feminisme (ZSF) were created. “It kicked the anthill. Democracy sometimes calls for confrontation ”, observes Mathias Bonal, deputy secretary of the Para Committee, the first skeptical association, created in Belgium in 1949. Aware of this male inter-self and of the stranglehold of the natural sciences over zetetics, the organization is working to a federation of skeptical movements from French-speaking Europe. Among its new tools, a charter that will carry the values of inclusiveness of its 50 or so signatories. "We are in the midst of an attempt to rebalance, people are gradually becoming aware of the blind spots of certain popularizers who are well established", enthuses Domi-nique Vicassiau, co-founder of ZSF, a former engineer turned coach who closely follows the emergence new voices such as Cyssépho, Fantine and Hippocrate, la Mal Biaisée. "There are only two possible scenarios: the total split of the movement or the reconciliation with what the social sciences say", concludes Gabriel Pallarès, doctoral student in science didactics. ? (1) The term zetetic comes from the Greek zêtêtikós, the one who seeks.
All is said.