Édition #5

Getting away from controversyand engaging in fruitful dialogue between stakeholders

Vincent VLÈS Professor Emeritus at the CERTOP 5044 CNRS-University of Toulouse laboratory
The mountains are highly exposed and vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. The fact that this will get worse in the future increasingly calls into question the investment needed and the relevance of facilities and developments, when it comes to maintaining the local population and ensuring its well-being. Indeed, local decision-making in the democratic processes is encountering obstacles more frequently, the most common of which is the impossibility of dialogue between players with often opposing rationales.

The pressure groups these players represent sometimes block public utility procedures or challenge the illegitimacy of the democratic processes implemented (public debate, citizens’ juries, public utility enquiries, etc.). In such cases, it is not uncommon for the argument “local referendums where the people can express themselves are the only way” to be put forward in order to reject any other dialogue.

In these controversies, the players’ inability to build a consensus is often due to a lack of consideration for scientific knowledge very early on in the debates and a lack of application of this knowledge to the acts, actions, programmes and concrete changes resulting from the discussions.

Scepticism about the technical capacity of the sciences to resolve all the human problems associated with the impacts of climate change, the strong tendency of regions to ignore the tension between uses of “common goods”, and the rational pursuit by each player of their own particular interests are all factors that increasingly lead to a “dialogue of the deaf”, or even more simply to a lack of willingness to engage in dialogue when projects are being drawn up.

Faced with this strong trend, how can we co-construct these projects and make more rapid decisions that are more consensual and more in tune with future challenges? How can conflictual situations be resolved? Can scientific approaches break the deadlock in confrontational situations?


First of all, we should remember that in order to be beneficial, public debate must take place at a very early stage of project development. In France, “consultation meetings” are often organized at a late stage. If the project has already been set up, they do not allow local residents and users to take ownership of the issues to be resolved and the solutions to be found. For local society, the issues of employment and the future are tangible, concrete, sensitive realities. Failure to take them into account at the very start of project development will subsequently give rise to misunderstandings, anger, resentment and even violent demonstrations that reveal failed expectations, because the discussions have not taken account of everyday difficulties.

Also, it is imperative to initiate a fruitful dialogue in order to anticipate and collectively build a culture of risk as much as of projects, rather than being limited to expressing power struggles between positions that are already clear-cut. To achieve this, it is essential to avoid prejudice and mistrust between groups of stakeholders. Managing crises costs and will cost much more in the long run than making the effort to adapt now and change our way of thinking. So how do we do this?

“Managing crises is and will cost much more in the long run thanmaking the effort to adapt now and change our way of thinking.”


For dialogue to be useful, the players must first learn to respect each other’s contributions and take them into account. In today’s public debates, there is a great deal of confusion about roles and systematic mistrust between the positions of the protagonists: scientists, politicians, citizens, entrepreneurs, etc. Scientists are sometimes suspected of taking sides and not respecting “scientific neutrality”. The example of “TV experts” who use scientific data to put across political ideas fuels a general lack of trust.

Reminding scientists of their missions and the whys and wherefores of their work, without absolving them of any responsibility for the implications of the findings of their research, are conditions that enable the terms of the debate to be calmly established and the absence of bias to be verified.


If science is to act in the general interest, it must remain objective in the current debates on how to combat climate change: a lack of bias is based above all on objectivity. In discussions about mountain conservation, development or equipment projects, scientists must restrict themselves to questions of fact and avoid giving their opinion.

“The scientific approach and attitude assume work on oneself in order to look at and explain things, facts and actions without judging them.”

This distinction between factual and value judgements is fundamental for all those involved in the discussions – not just the scientists – because it enables them to achieve axiological neutrality1. Achieving this assumes that intellectuals refrain from imposing their judgements, not concealing them in a supposedly objective analysis which, under the guise of a purely factual discourse, hides their personal assessment, particularly when they dismiss or do not mention facts that would contradict the conclusions put forward.

Scientists need a great deal of care and rigour to achieve this, both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences, where ideals often underpin the logic of public and private intervention.

The scientific approach and attitude assume an ability to refrain from taking sides in these discussions and from making value judgements, to keep one’s convictions to oneself and to present the facts without bias. This means working on oneself to look at and present things, facts and actions without judging them.

If they so wish, scientists may address axiological issues (political, moral, ethical) in other arenas, but as citizens rather than “scientists”. Scientists are perfectly entitled to enter the public arena to defend their ideas. But that is a political arena, not one for scientific debate on the impact of projects. It is therefore important for scientists to make it clear whether or not their position is a political one and what methods and facts validate their expertise.


For their part, local representatives, players and investors are guided by an issue of values, a stance that is free from any “objective” control. Any political decision assumes a trade-off between different interests and this trade-off is, by its very nature, a committed one. Consequently, the debate cannot take place in a confined space (closed consultation meetings, debates reduced to juries or mini citizens’ conventions, project development meetings): it must be open to society as a whole and clearly set out the values that necessarily guide the choice of the principles that these players will defend (for example, in the context of a debate conducted by the Commission Nationale du Débat Public – CNDP).

A reminder of these principles during public debates on new projects would already recognise the right of each type of player to think, express themselves and act differently, to establish a hierarchy of positions and not place all arguments on the same level (some are scientific, based on knowledge, others are part of the decision-making process, and therefore part of the consensus-building process), to better respect each other’s positions and recommendations and to take them into account more fully. Acknowledging the right of others to put forward a different opinion is already a sign of respect.

1. Axiological neutrality is a methodological position offered by the sociologist Max Weber in “Politics as a Vocation”, that aims at the researcher becoming aware of their own values during their scientific work, to reduce as much as possible the bias that their own value judgements might cause. The requirement developed by Max Weber is one of the criteria for scientific neutrality.

Vincent VLÈS
Vincent VLÈS
Vincent is an Emeritus Professor at the CERTOP 5044 CNRS Laboratory at the University of Toulouse. His work, both theoretical and operational, focuses on the impact and coordination of tourism development policies with nature protection policies, especially in sensitive natural areas (particularly in the mountains and on the coast): determining the carrying capacity of sites threatened by visitor numbers, agreeing on gauges, defining tools and implementing flow regulation measures.