‘Following the science’ is more complicated than we like to admit

When London mayor Sadiq Khan was asked this week whether it might be best to just “cancel Christmas”, he replied that the idea would not be Grinch-like at all. Rather, it would simply be a case of abiding by the 2020 catchphrase, “following the science”.

On the face of it, Mr Khan had a point: there have indeed been warnings from scientists in recent weeks that the planned relaxing of coronavirus restrictions over the festive period will lead to a surge in cases. But scientists aren’t robots, every one of whose utterances must be treated as an absolute dispassionate truth; they are complicated, messy, biased humans like the rest of us.

The phrase “following the science” would perhaps be better expressed as “following the scientists”. Or, maybe (given that they don’t all agree) “following some scientists — particularly the ones whose views align with my own”. 

Even if its practitioners were able to leave their personal opinions, ambitions and prejudices aside, “the science” shouldn’t be thought of as static or complete — particularly when it comes to something as new and rapidly evolving as Covid-19. “Science works as an extremely human process of incremental and argumentative development,” says David Spiegelhalter, professor of public understanding of risk at Cambridge university. “All areas of science are contested, and that’s quite right, because there’s so much uncertainty.” 

And while scientists have made some tremendous achievements this year — notably producing vaccines in record time — they haven’t always been right. Most of what we might now deem to have been mistaken advice came as a result of opinions being expressed with too much certainty: that masks were useless; that there could be no such thing as a superspreader event because the virus wasn’t airborne; and that a lockdown wasn’t advisable in the UK because the public wouldn’t accept it.

It’s easy to see how this state of play has come about; we live in a society that rewards certainty, where whoever shouts their opinion loudest seems to get the most traction. “The ability to state strong opinions with total conviction is more highly valued than typical characteristics of scientists — the ability to study, think, and reach less certain but more useful conclusions,” says Martin Walker, a director at the Center for Evidence-Based Management. 

Many epidemiologists and other scientists have built up impressive social media followings during the pandemic, putting them firmly in “celebrity” territory. The more they opine self-assuredly on what government should be doing, the more their voices are amplified with likes, retweets and media coverage. 

When it turns out that confident statements of fact are actually just opinions, and when other scientists respond with opposing ones, it all starts to get rather confusing. Government messaging suddenly changes and the general public is expected to pretend we haven’t noticed. Trust in both politicians and scientists ebbs, leading to a situation in which potentially harmful conspiracy theories can thrive. 

“It is quite reasonable that scientists might have opinions, but . . . as soon as a scientist is recommending a particular action to be taken, they are stepping outside their scientific knowledge,” says Prof Spiegelhalter. “That should be . . . clearly distinguished from when they’re communicating their science.”

Ultimately, questions about how we should be responding to the pandemic aren’t scientific but moral ones. They often require a complex process of weighing trade-offs against one another — including, but not limited to, the collateral damage to the economy, public health and individual happiness that results from lockdowns. Scientists aren’t any better at dealing with those questions than the rest of us. 

One vocal critic of the UK government’s response to the pandemic, former home secretary David Blunkett, reckons that a single multidisciplinary group should be set up to try to grapple with some of these issues. As well as Sage, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, he suggests we should create Rage — the recovery advisory group for emergencies. 

These acronyms seem fitting somehow — the sagacious epidemiological modellers telling us to remain shut up indoors, and the angry economists and psychologists shouting back: “You will cripple British businesses! You will cause misery!” 

Lord Blunkett is quite serious. “There needs to be a recovery group that is trying to take a much broader view than just a scientific and health perspective, critical as that is, incorporating advice on alternative damage to both people and societal well being,” he says, quoting a phrase often attributed to Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill: “‘Scientists should be on tap, but not on top’ — I agree with that.”

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