Faux Scientism and the UK's Tackling of Coronavirus

Faux Scientism and the UK's Tackling of Coronavirus

“Led by science.” If the UK government were to promote its coronavirus policy decision-making with a single slogan, that might be it. “We are doing everything we can to combat this outbreak, based on the very latest scientific and medical advice,” were Boris Johnson’s words during one of the early press conferences on March 9th. Following a period in British public life during which experts were dismissed as not knowing any better and as having an agenda, in some way this made for a refreshing change. Academics were no longer derided as the “elite” but listened to for their expert judgment, developed from many years of specialist training. ​ But there is a darker side to this sudden reverence for PhDs. The government’s claim that it was being led by science quickly became a shield with which to deflect any criticism for seemingly odd and alarming policies. While other European countries, startled by the devastating impact of the virus in Italy, were closing down schools and going into lockdown, the UK government’s advice was simply more diligent hand-washing and avoiding going out if over 70. The original strategy of achieving “herd immunity” while shielding vulnerable members of the population caused a stir but was once again defended as what the science dictated. The dramatic set of U-turns, the banning of large gatherings, the closing down of schools, asking people to avoid going to pubs, and eventually the full lockdown (measures that, only days before, the government insisted were unnecessary) were explained away by the claim “the science has changed.” But in seemingly placing all the weight of political decision-making on scientists, the government has been guilty of attributing to science the ability to answer policy questions that it alone could not possibly answer. Important as empirical research is in tackling the coronavirus, it cannot replace the ethical and political considerations that go along with governing. In pretending science is the author of its policies, the government is concealing its own political calculations and judgments in an attempt to make itself immune to political criticism.

The government has been guilty, then, of a form of crude scientism, the claim that science alone can settle all of our meaningful questions, including what the policies should be in tackling a pandemic. This is crude for a number of reasons. To begin with, there is no such thing as “science.” The idea of a unified scientific project connecting all human knowledge, linked by common methodologies and research principles, is a thing of the past. Philosophers of science now recognise that there is no “science,” but rather “sciences,” with different subject matters, following different methodologies, bound by different criteria of correctness, and with different levels of predictive power. Indeed, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is populated by scientists of different disciplines, including, from what we know, epidemiologists, behavioural scientists, and public health experts. Dealing with national health emergencies like pandemics needs the input and interdisciplinary cooperation of different specialists. But the lack of transparency around the board members of SAGE, as well as their decision-making process, has led to questions over whether the epidemiological models have been given too much emphasis at the expense of other scientific input.

The reverse worry was also expressed when the government suggested that behavioural scientists had led them to believe that people wouldn’t abide by lockdown rules for very long, contributing to the postponement of social-distancing measures until perhaps later than it should have. The worry here was that behavioural science and the folk at Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the “nudge unit”) were being given undue influence in the government’s decision-making. The argument against overreliance on the nudge unit’s insights was that trying to predict how people would behave during unprecedented circumstances, such as a lockdown during a pandemic, was extremely difficult and past behaviour not a reliable enough guide. Not knowing how the government weighed the advice it received from different sides renders the slogan “led by science” practically meaningless. What we need to know is which science? With the inner workings of SAGE – or even who all its members are – remaining a government secret, we can’t know the answer to that question.

But even if we did have more information regarding the key scientists consulting the government, that still wouldn’t be enough to justify the government’s deferring of decision-making to them. “Science” isn’t identical to the work of a single scientist or even a group of scientists. Science is successful in part because of its openness to scrutiny. In their attempt to understand and explain the inner workings and effects of some new phenomenon, like a new virus, scientists will make mistakes. They will assume some things to be true which will turn out not to be true; their data might be corrupted for reasons unbeknown to them etc. It is the scrutiny from other scientists that legitimises scientific research and eventually allows tentative theories to become part of a scientific consensus. Peer review is a necessary precondition for any piece of scientific research to be published in a reputable medium, and even then it is far from enough to guarantee the validity of the claims made in any paper. The secrecy surrounding the work of SAGE prevents scientists who are not part of that group, both within the UK and abroad, from scrutinizing and challenging their findings. That makes the advice coming from SAGE less scientific than any other piece of published, peer-reviewed research guiding government policy. The eventual publication of the Imperial College modelling that was originally guiding the government’s policy of achieving “herd immunity” allowed not only an assessment of the model guiding government policy by the broader scientific community, but also demonstrated the provisional nature of such models. When life-or-death decisions lie in the balance, surely it is the case that the more eyes checking these models, the better.

“We are led by science” is also misleading for another reason – science itself is led by questions, and those questions, in the case of the management of the coronavirus pandemic, were being put to the scientists of SAGE by the government. According to reporting from the Financial Times, John Edmunds, a professor of infectious modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who is a member of SAGE, said that the group wasn’t even asked by the UK government to model the effect of a lockdown until late February, despite the fact that from the outset epidemiologists had reasons to believe that limited interventions would lead to an “overwhelming epidemic.” What subject matter scientists choose to study, what questions they ask, or what they leave out from their research, are decisions that aren’t themselves entirely guided by scientific considerations. In deciding what to investigate, scientists take into consideration the research projects for which funding is available, the legal and ethical restrictions on certain forms of research, like animal testing, as well as their own personal concerns when choosing, say, to research climate change rather than a less urgent and existential matter. Science isn’t a values-free activity – it reflects the values both of individual scientists and of society at large. In this case, the research carried out by SAGE on coronavirus seems to have reflected the priorities of the government. In other words, science was led by the government, not the other way around. ​ Leaving aside the above objections for a moment, it should be acknowledged that the idea that science could hold the answers to all of our questions has seduced philosophers in the past. There was a time when the incredible success of science in explaining the natural world seemed to eclipse all other forms of human inquiry. During the Enlightenment, Newtonian physics and its ability to explain the motion of bodies on earth as well as in the heavens on the basis of natural laws made quite the impression on thinkers from Diderot and d’Alembert to Hume and Kant. Philosophers came to believe that something equivalent could be done for the human sphere. If the natural world is governed by patterns and laws, perhaps the social world is too. Hume in particular aspired to being “the Newton of the mind.” The life, social and behavioural sciences of today that are currently informing government policy around the coronavirus pandemic are very much the offspring of this project of expanding “the scientific method” to areas beyond the scope of physics. At the same time, however, there was a streak of Enlightenment thought that argued that certain questions are beyond the bounds of what science can answer. Hume famously argued that there is an “is-ought gap” – facts about what the world is like, important as they are, aren’t able to tell you what you should do, what’s right and wrong. Ethics and, to the extent that they are informed by ethical considerations, politics aren’t the subject matter of science. Or, to put it in the language of the UK government, science alone can’t guide your political decisions around a pandemic, you also need ethics and politics.

As others have already pointed out, many of the crucial decisions that the government has had to make in its management of the coronavirus outbreak are ones that lie well beyond the expertise of epidemiologists and behavioural scientists, decisions that require political judgement and ethical evaluations. The question of whether to minimise the number of casualties from the virus, minimise the damage to the economy, or how to find a balance between these two extremes does not have a scientific answer. Whether the government was willing to enforce changes to our daily behaviour by law, or whether it was going to leave it down to each individual to self-regulated behaviour (as it did with its original suggestions to work from home and avoid the pub) has nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics. Science alone could not have guided the government in these decisions. ​ ​What makes the “led by science” motto worse is that the government knows full well that the decisions it has been making are in fact (also) led by politics. To begin with, scientists were ringing the alarm bell of a potential pandemic on the horizon long before the government paid them any attention. But even after five Cobra meetings (ones we now know the prime minister didn’t even attend), when epidemiologists were very much in the room, politics was still in play. Boris Johnson himself let slip in one of the daily government press conferences that he was very reluctant to enforce lockdown measures, saying that “we live in a land of liberty.” This suggests that a lockdown could have been imposed earlier, potentially reducing the number of infections and thus fatalities, if it weren’t for the prime minister’s liberal sensibilities. It’s also become clear by now that the policy shift from achieving “herd immunity” to instead attempting to suppress the number of infections was influenced by the reaction to the publication of Imperial College’s study, suggesting that under the then government policy, hundreds of thousands more people would die. The government wasn’t following the science as it already knew that its policy would have a large number of casualties, it was following the public reaction to its policy.

So even though the government pretends to be suffering from the intellectual disease of scientism – claiming that it is science alone guiding its every move – this is far from being the case. Politics is playing as big a role as ever in shaping governmental policy, and it will continue to do so. Going forward, there will be more and perhaps bigger political decisions to be made. For how long can the government legitimately continue to suspend some of our civil liberties and cancel elections (as happened with the London mayoral election)? Where will the government draw the line at the level of economic damage it is willing to endure in the effort to save lives? ​ The way these questions are answered will perhaps determine the shape in which the UK comes out of this crisis even more than the decisions to date. The government is right to listen extremely carefully to the advice of scientists, but it should not pretend it is merely deferring to them. That’s a cowardly way of concealing the political decisions at play and eschewing the responsibility and risk the government takes in making those decisions. Alexis Papazoglou writes on philosophy, current affairs, and politics. He previously taught philosophy at the University of Cambridge and Royal Holloway, University of London. Twitter: @philosgreek

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