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President Macron tackles the Leaving Cert

On 1 April, Philosophie magazine, a French periodical, made an important announcement. It had managed to obtain a copy of a student’s exam script for the Baccalauréat (Leaving Cert) of 1995. The exam was in philosophy. The question: “Can we be indifferent to the truth?” The student was one Emmanuel Jean-Michel Fréderic Macron. And the magazine had been in pursuit of his exam script since his election as President of France in 2017.

The magazine reproduced extracts from M. Macron’s answer. His conclusion was delicately crafted. We can be respectful of the importance of truth, not indifferent too it, while also leaving room for the influence of passion and intense personal convictions. For his part, the student said, he always tried to tell things like they are, to be faithful to some form of truth, even at the risk of shocking people, and always recognising that the quest for truth is never-ending and that one’s own truths are always somewhat uncertain.

M. Macron was awarded 16 out of 20, a very high mark. The examiner described the answer as “brilliant” with only minor quibbles. One conclusion: “You would make a good philosopher, provided you don’t want to be too political.”

There is an obvious sense in which we cannot possibly be indifferent to the truth. We could not go through life in perpetual uncertainty over the effects of everyday, routine actions like whether every footstep we take might not land on solid ground. We “know” to the point of not ever thinking about it that we can move around on foot most of the time without fear of falling through the ground. We can be confident that most of the routines of our lives will play out tomorrow as they have played out today and yesterday. We might be indifferent to that truth in the sense of being unconscious of it, but not in the sense of mistrusting its reliability.

But M. Macron’s answer focused on higher truths than the prosaic matter of the solidity of the ground beneath our feet. In his exam paper, M. Macron spoke of the duty towards truth that animates scientists, philosophers, intellectuals, moral beings and citizens; the significance of “truth” in public discourse or on the “public square”.

And this is a domain of life where it is possible to be indifferent to the truth without risking immediately obvious direct adverse consequences. Did Donald Trump’s steady stream of lies in the run up to and throughout his presidency annoy us because we were actually affected by them or “just” because of the implied insult to our intelligence, an insult that leaves few marks of injury?

“Can we be indifferent to the truth?” is several different questions rolled up into one. We can certainly get through life comfortably without ever sifting through Donald Trump’s verbiage to separate the chaff of lies from grains of truth. But whether we “can” in the sense of having moral blessing or even permission to do so is another question entirely. And the latter question doesn’t just apply to somebody like Trump who is not accidentally incorrect but deliberately lies in his assertion of “alternative facts” to support his views; dishonestly rather than innocently untruthful.

Around the fiftieth anniversary in 2019 of the first moon landings, I heard New Yorker reporter Andrew Marantz say in a podcast that as many as 20% of Americans today believe the moon landings never happened. Scepticism about the landings is no longer an entirely “wacky” view like believing that the earth is flat, but in the mainstream even if very much a minority opinion.

Mr. Marantz’s report included a snippet from Joe Rogan, the American comedian whose regular podcasts are among the most popular worldwide: “I am too dumb and uneducated to really know but I am wavering more on the possibility that some of the footage was faked.”

The rise of social media has not only encouraged proliferation of scepticism but also its legitimacy. So too has misplaced social tolerance of ignorance and stupidity. Opinions do not merit respect just because they are honestly held. If Mr. Rogan really is as dumb and uneducated as he claims, he should be listened to politely, but no weight should attach to his views. “”Experts” have been getting a bad press lately but I wouldn’t ask a doctor to renovate my home or a builder to check my physical health.

Of course, Mr. Rogan isn’t citing his alleged dumbness and lack of education as traits that reinforce the truth of his views directly, but for two other reasons. The first is as a kind of alibi in case evidence emerges to make his “views” look even dumber than they already do. The second is to reinforce those “views” indirectly by invoking common identity with his audience. “Hey, just because you don’t really know anything about the subject, doesn’t mean your views shouldn’t count”. In similar vein, whenever Donald Trump would preface a view with “A lot of people are saying”, you could be sure that what followed was supported only by very thin ice if not being clearly a downright lie.

But Messrs. Trump and Rogan are extreme examples. Much more insidious is more delicate tampering with the truth than bulldozing through it. Here is an example involving M. Macron himself.

The cover of The Economist of 3 April displayed a tattered EU flag mounted on a syringe above the headline “What has gone wrong?” The magazine contained both an editorial and a “briefing” on the shortcomings of the vaccination programme in Europe. Among the reasons cited for the slow pace of vaccination was the following:

The bloc’s vaccination drive has also suffered from some hesitancy. Of almost 85m doses delivered, some 15m are still to be used. The biggest surplus is of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which some politicians helped undermine. In January Mr Macron described it as being “quasi-ineffective” in over-65s, which had an impact.

Most important, The Economist offers no evidence whatsoever about the alleged “impact” of M. Macron’s comments. It simply asserts the “fact” of one. As a close student of French and British newspapers, I can assert confidently that M. Macron’s one-time use of “quasi-ineffective” is repeated (and condemned) far more often and more loudly in the latter than in the former.

But neither is there any contextualisation of M. Macron’s comments which were made at a private briefing of political journalists on 29 January, the same day, but ahead of the announcement by the European Medicines Agency of its approval of the vaccine. That day also, Germany’s vaccine commission renewed its advice against using the Astra Zeneca vaccine in older people. According to the commission, known as STIKO:

The reason is because there is currently insufficient data on the effectiveness of the vaccines on people above 65 years old.

Here is the Agence France Press (AFP) report from that day of M. Macron’s remarks:

Macron said there was “very little information” available for the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish company and Oxford University.

“Today we think that it is quasi-ineffective for people over 65,” he told the reporters, his office confirmed to AFP.

“What I can tell you officially today is that the early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca,” he said.

Macron said he was awaiting the EMA’s verdict — which came later Friday — and also that of France’s own health authority “because they have the numbers”.

The French expert decision on the vaccine is expected at the start of next week, according to sources close to the health authority.

“I don’t have any data, and I don’t have a scientific team of my own to look at the numbers,” Macron acknowledged.

So, while The Economist account is not false in the sense of being in direct contradiction of reliable facts, it is untrue in the sense of not being the whole truth of what M. Macron said or the context in which he said it. It misrepresents reality.

Cohesive and coherent social life depends on widespread agreement on what counts as shared truth and reality, the “facts”. Unless we tend vigilantly the garden of the highest common factor of actual truth, the weeds of merely plausible contentions can run riot. For proof, if such is possible, one need look no further than the remarkable fact that a substantial proportion of American adults including a strong majority of Republican party supporters believe that November’s presidential election was fixed against President Trump, despite the absence of anything other than truthy rather than truthful anecdotal evidence.

But back to M. Macron for a finish. Some attention should be paid to the date of Philosophie magazine’s revelation, another reminder that the truth can sometimes be more difficult to grasp and hold on to than the proverbial wet bar of soap. But the effort is worth it.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.