Following the science

The British Government have made much of the idea that all their decisions during the pandemic have been led by science.  I find this both encouraging and slightly alarming.  Encouraging because we seem, as others have pointed out, to have emerged from a period of denial of the value of ‘experts’, a time when it appeared as if wishing, or saying, something was so made it true, in the face of any evidence to the contrary.  But also alarming, when most scientists are more than clear that not enough is known about the science to be sure about a lot of things, even when they agree on various predictions, sensible responses, etc – which is far from always.  This is, of course, exactly what science, when it confronts new phenomona, is always like.

Obviously, government spokespeople are aiming to reassure the public that their decisions are not driven by ideology or political whim.  That is eminently sensible, and good to hear.  But they cannot take away the fact that judgements, strategies and tactics have to be settled upon in the face of great uncertainty, whether this is about the nature and behaviour of the virus, the prospects for finding vaccines, or about how the population will behave in the face of guidance.  Painfully, non-experts – politicians and many civil servants – are having to make the call, settle upon choices, try to turn them into action.  I don’t envy them this position, in fact I sympathise a lot, but it is not really possible, or indeed safe, for them magically to shift responsibility to ‘the science’.

The idea that Government is ‘just following orders’ just won’t wash. The recent leak that Dominic Cummings and his ‘data science’ advisor attend SAGE meetings rather makes that point. Cummings’ ‘love’ of (his view of) science is well known, but this humanities graduate is rather better known for his opinions about the civil service, skills in manipulating public attitudes, and political advice to Boris Johnson.  His presence underlines the point that scientists advise, and that politicians have to make the decisions, decisions that will always involve choices, choices that will never be entirely devoid of ideology or self interest, however generally committed to doing the right thing those politicians are. Personally, I’d prefer neutral listeners attending SAGE on behalf of politicians, rather than opinionated agents of spin and manipulation, but some representation around the table with the scientists of ‘listeners’, on behalf of the government, seems sensible.

It is interesting that the official reason for not revealing the make-up of SAGE – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – has been to protect them from undue influence, or, perhaps, blame.  I can see the point of this, to an extent. They could become the targets for floods of unsolicited advice, public anger, or worse.  They do, though, need to be open to new research, different ways of interpreting data, the anomalous findings emerging in real time as we try to make sense of the patterns associated with this virus.  Even if there were an argument for keeping the identities of members of the committee private, we still have a right to be told which sciences they are ‘following’, and the general qualifications of their spokespeople around the table.  Otherwise, we have no way of evaluating the judgement calls and decisions the government is making on the basis of SAGE’s advice and opinions.

Some people, including medical specialists, have raised the question as to whether the science that the Government are listening to is over-dominated by mathematically informed epidemiological ‘modellers’, and it is true that there does appear to be a predominance of that perspective in the leaked SAGE membership.  The presence of people with expertise in other areas of the science of viruses and their treatment, at both biological and population levels, is somewhat reassuring. I am not qualified to judge what the exact balance between the statistical, mathematical and modelling disciplines and those focused on treatment, immunology, etc should be. What is alarming, however, is what disciplines and perspectives are not represented on this scientific advisory group, unless the membership leaked is untypical of the make-up of SAGE at other times.

Among the 23 names leaked, there is one ‘reader in the psychology of emerging health risks’ and one ‘professor of behavioural science and security’.  That means that less than 10% of the advice the Government are listening to (at least in this apparent incarnation of SAGE) involves psychology or other social sciences.  This at a time when questions about public behaviour, compliance with guidance, mental health – not just of care staff – during the crisis, etc, are absolutely critical.  Where are the social psychologists and sociologists, with their understanding of how communities behave, of what influences them in their behaviour?  Where are the specialists in the behaviour and psychology of organisations, with their perspectives that will help government understand how the organisations working to respond at this time, carrying the brunt of the risk, the demand and the weariness, need to be supported and run? Indeed, where are the people who can, on the basis of science, not partisanship, advise on the best forms, tones, methods and content of public communication? All these issues, and many more, influence the appropriateness, and effectiveness of Government choices and actions.

I know there are some people who would argue that psychology and other social sciences are different from ‘hard’ sciences, but that actually underlines the importance of their being present.  Making calls on quite widely different predictions and analysis is what the committee is about, and government choices have consequently to be made, and communicated to the general public.  Disciplines with perspective on the unpredictable and ambiguous aspects of human beings and their communities have something vital to offer.  Getting the choices, and the communications, ‘right first time’ is, at such a time, crucial.  Being able to think about what will lead to the greatest public buy-in – in terms of what is decided, and how it is communicated is vital, and not, I would argue, safely left to ‘spin-doctors’ or public relations ‘specialists’.  Psychological and social understanding, contributing to the choices and recommendations, and to the strategies for pursuing them, is likely to promote the emotional intelligence and humanity that will secure public confidence and cooperation.


One thought on “Following the science

  1. Italian PM is a very reputable judge, Mrs Merkel a scientists. Both of them receive advice from the best scientists they can get. No COBRAS, no SAGES, no secrecy. It is particularly striking in Italy, where the trust in the government has been low for decades, and yet the Italians show an exemplary self discipline and trust their government. Britain has followed the US and elected a bunch of shady and under qualified individuals who have never imagined they would have to deal with a pandemic. It is a fairy tale with a moral at the end but we do not know yet where the plot is going to take us and whether the population is capable of drawing any useful conclusions.


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