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‘Stupidity and provocation are trendier than well-articulated thought’

French physicist and philosopher Etienne Klein talks to us about his infamous ‘chorizo’ star tweet, post-truth and if technology is dangerous for democracy

The message behind Etienne Klein’s chorizo prank was to always check the source, no matter who published it Pic: Etienne Klein / Twitter

Physicist and philosopher Etienne Klein made headlines recently with a Twitter prank in which he reposted a picture of a chorizo slice and pretended it was an image of Proxima Centauri (the closest star from the sun) from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The tweet, which was liked 21,000 times and retweeted nearly 7,000 times, went so viral that a Google search of his name now will return countless articles about it from more than 60 different countries.

However Dr Klein said he agreed to talk to The Connexion after turning down hundreds of other media requests he received following the story, as our interview would focus on the man, not the prank.

In fact, Dr Klein has been a regular commentator on French news and is well-known for presenting scientific concepts to the public in an accessible way.

He is also a research director at government-funded research organisation French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and has published more than 40 books on philosophy, physics and astrophysics. 

When Covid hit, he hoped it would bring people closer to science via increased access to scientists and researchers on prime-time TV, but the reality of the situation meant that he came away with mixed feelings.

For example, he was shocked when Le Parisien ran a poll in April 2020 stating that two-thirds of those polled thought chloroquine was an effective treatment for patients with Covid symptoms. 

This came in the context of a controversial doctor – and Donald Trump – promoting the drug as a cure. 

Read more: WHO halts trials of controversial drug hydroxychloroquine

However, Dr Klein said the consensus at the time among health professionals and scientific researchers was no treatment existed for it. 

He called the phenomenon ‘ultracrepidarianism’, or the tendency for people to speak with confidence about something of which they have absolutely no knowledge.

“Behind ultracrepidarianism lie tomorrow’s problems, created by a world designed by Big Tech, that overwhelms people with information, erodes truth and offers a virtual world as an easy and quick escape from reality.”

“It seems that the hierarchy between the territory and the map – the idea that the territory is always more accurate than the map – is coming to an end,” said Dr Klein.

How did you react to the chorizo prank? Did you expect it to have such an international impact?

It was meant as a prank since using pictures of chorizo is a common prank in the science community. 

I mean, the picture speaks for itself. It really looked like a chorizo slice. But I wanted to pull the wool over people’s eyes by using my scientific authority. 

The message behind it was to always check the source, no matter who published it. 

What is even more paradoxical is that the image was retweeted by a journalist, someone whose job it is to check sources... 

Yes, but it is easy to mock the people who were fooled. 

I have been fooled by images, myself. Everybody is fooled at some point. It is not always easy to check the source. This is a lesson we can all learn.

What is funny is that the chorizo picture had more reactions and comments than the genuine pictures sent from the telescope that I had previously retweeted.

I published the following text [in a related Twitter comment] along with my prank tweet: “According to contemporary cosmology, no object relating to Spanish charcuterie exists elsewhere than on planet Earth.” 

I thought it would be clear that the image was of chorizo.

It went viral the next morning. 

I offered condolences to the journalist and to readers. I refused interviews from hundreds of newspapers because I feel uncomfortable with the fact that the virtual world is more interesting than reality. 

It is as though we were already living in the metaverse [editor’s note: this term refers to predictions that in future we will live our lives more and more online in a ‘virtual’ world].

We have been wanting to interview you for months to hear your thoughts about the post-truth era, metaverse and social media in our society.

Post-truth is an important word here. I don’t know what was written in Japanese and Israeli newspapers since I don’t speak Japanese and Hebrew, but CNN called it fake news. They accused me of fraud.

American sociologists wrote letters to the CEA calling for my resignation, saying I was hindering science credibility: a credibility already put to the test in the US, where post-truth originated.

Pranks differ from fake news in that they allow critical thinking and act as a lesson in how to spot actual fake news.

Pranks can have an educational purpose. I wanted to raise awareness, but never thought it would spread in the way that it did. 

Read more: How fake news posts tried to skew French election result

Do you think western societies have reached a tipping point in the post-truth era? And if so, when?

Post-truth was coined by Stojan Tézich, a Serbian immigrant in the United States who understood during the Gulf War that Americans wanted their government to protect them from the truth rather than tell them the truth. 

Post-truth was institutionalised in modern western society with Trump and his notion of ‘alternative facts.’ Trump does not lie. He spouts ‘bulls**t’, which is different from lying. 

A liar knows the truth and conceals it. Trump does not understand anything about what he says. He just wanted to appeal to his voters. 

What I am concerned about is how the poor language on some social media platforms leads people away from debate.

Stupidity, provocation and shocking messages seem to be trendier than argumentative, well-articulated thought. 

This is what I was aiming to denounce by using that strange-looking word ultracrepidarianism.

Read more: Volunteers join online fight against fake vaccine news in France

Do you think that scientists have not said ‘I don’t know’ enough? 

People tend to think that our brains must have an answer for everything.

A scientist should say “we know that” and “we are wondering whether” in the same sentence as a way to distinguish between science and research. 

People have confused and used both terms inadequately during the Covid period. 

France is the only country where trust in scientists has decreased sharply following Covid. 

That is an intriguing phenomenon. Are French people special, or has the dramatisation of science and research during the pandemic differed from other countries so that it erodes confidence?

I think we urgently need to hear a lot more from people with moderate views.

Do you consider that proper science was bypassed by social media so as to spread ideas faster?

Pedagogy in science was the victim of what I call ‘a crisis of patience.’ 

We cannot share our research as fast as social media can, so people with bad arguments won without anything to back up their claims. 

But I am not saying that science has not worked at all. People are more informed than before about R rates and epidemics.

We could have hoped for more but that’s what we got. The scary truth is that the pandemic increased our cognitive biases. 

More people seem to have lost their grip on reality and to be following conspiracy theories. 

Read more: French conspiracy theorist suspected of planning Élysée coup d’état

Has technology become dangerous for democracy?

People are part of the same society but do not live in the same world. 

My neighbour is a flat-earther who has come up with hundreds of arguments to dismiss mine. 

But he made me laugh recently by saying: “You know Mr Klein, flat-earthers are everywhere around the globe.” I thought that was the start of a reconsideration of his position.

The question you ask is a new one and I do not have an answer for it. This will entirely depend on our collective intelligence. 

Will we be able to live with an increasing amount of information by practising critical thinking and education or will it become more and more anarchic so that reality will fracture? 

Alexis de Tocqueville (a 19th-century intellectual) predicted it. He wrote that the greatest threat to French democracy was what he called “small societies” taking root.

Read more: French land agency blocks land purchase by One Nation conspiracy group

Is that something different from communitarianism [identity politics]?

It is pretty similar actually, in that cognitive biases categorise people into groups that no longer speak to each other. 

This is communitarianism with regard to what truth is, so to speak. 

Everybody defends their vision of truth and no longer feels the desire to oppose a different concept.

When your neighbour thinks that the earth is flat, what does he have in his mind? And how can that communicate with what you have in yours? 

These are impressive and mounting questions. 

Covid raised the alarm. We will need to wait for an answer. But the situation is not as desperate as we think. 

People on social media can look like a majority, like the anti-vaxxers for example. But how does this manifest in the polls? Their voting scores are weak. 

When polls say 17% of French people believe that the earth is flat, I always raise an eyebrow. Seventeen percent is a lot. I barely meet them, yet apparently they ought to be on every street corner. 

Does technology now do more evil than good?

How could I know that? Drawing on my own consumption of technology, I am under the impression that it is extremely useful. It’s another matter when you see two-year-old children holding phones.

It is a bit like the reverse of Plato’s cave, a symbolic representation of how human beings live in the world, contrasting reality versus our interpretation of it. 

The real world is no longer the outside world but the one with which we are connected through our cell phones. It leads to the metaverse. 

That’s your second mention of the metaverse. As a climber, virtual reality glasses now allow me to experience the top of Everest from my couch. Does the metaverse not heal the frustrations of life and provide access to hopes and dreams?

Frustration is part of education. If everything is artificially and effortlessly accessible; does it replace pleasure? I think that contact with reality is something that cannot be recreated. 

This world was arranged by Big Tech and people of science. How do such people think, who seem to want to suppress real life?

Well, as I said earlier, it seems to me that the traditional hierarchy between the territory and the map is coming to an end. 

The impression is being given that we could live a far more interesting life in the metaverse than in reality. 

Why do people shun books when they are the best way to impart knowledge?  

I do not know whether people read less. But they read fewer books, that’s for sure. 

The problem is that by not reading long texts, we lose something that encourages linear and deep thinking. 

Students read a lot but they are always doing something else at the same time. This could have political, psychological and social consequences in how we deal with the future.

When I was younger, some books could separate me from the outside world, from the fascination and concentration I applied when reading them. 

Is the book still able to produce that concentration? Haven’t video games or cell phones replaced them?

The political question for the next generation is: What will we, individually and collectively, pay attention to? A lot of industries want our attention. Toward which of these will we orient ourselves? And who will win?

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