Following the science?

Is there such a thing as following the science? Depending on the variables measured, how these are defined, the sample size and composition, the goals and priorities of the investigation’s patron, the project’s timescale, and a multitude of further factors, the results of ‘the science’ will be profoundly different. Therefore, in matters of policy, it is more a question of which science is being followed, and why these particular results have been deemed worthy of guiding strategy and response.

In the context of the global coronavirus pandemic, this logic, of course, has become more relevant than ever. This point is hardly profound: people have become obsessed with ‘the science’, and speak of it as though it is a single entity, a piece of unquestionable Scripture which is undebatable, clear cut and never-changing. In recent months, just about every political figure and journalist who has made a statement or written an article has mentioned the importance of ‘the science’ in this way. To do this is to ignore the complexities of data analysis and the influence of the factors outlined above on how information is interpreted and subsequently presented to nervous populations.

Trust between the British people and the Conservative government has seriously eroded since March. What’s more, for many people, this trust was at a very low base to begin with. The credibility of the government has been a major casualty of the pandemic, as the bold claims Boris made only a year ago, as the general election drew closer, have fallen flat. His enthusiasm and (supposed) charm has somewhat diminished, if not vanished. To cure this relationship crisis – which for many is already beyond repair – transparency is needed, urgently.

The need for transparency is relevant across Great Britain. As Brian Wilson recently argued in The Scotsman, “If restrictions are to be respected, they must carry credibility”. Nichola Sturgeon, for instance, has pigeonholed many of her critics’ comments as “politicising” the pandemic and therefore claiming that she need not address them immediately. Most people who speak out against their government in Britain, devolved or otherwise, however, are questioning – with good reason – policies and restrictions which have no clear basis, no clear rationality. If the hospitality sector were to be shown ‘the science’ which dictates that their immediate closure is in the interests of the health of the British people, for instance, restaurant and café owners would be more likely to oblige. If the relative government continues to keep them in a state of ignorance, however, and deem them incapable of understanding the apparent complexities behind Boris’ decision-making, further social and political dislocation is inevitable. Asking for transparency and justification of new measures – like Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s mayor, did not long ago – is not a political attack. Rather, it demonstrates a desire to understand the virus.

Politicians are increasingly playing ‘the science’ card in attempt to make their policies safe from criticism and distance themselves from accountability. “It’s not our fault, we followed the science”. No, you did not follow ‘the science’, as there is no such thing. It should be made very clear, however, that this point is not intended to discredit hardworking scientists and their greatly-appreciated live-saving work, but rather to highlight how they are somewhat being used and abused. This is because their outputs are being manipulated for political purposes instead of being subjected to unbiased analysis. What is being suggested here, therefore, is that we critically question the science being presented to us, as the rampant politicisation of all factors and figures in recent months has allowed all manner of sins to slip under the radar. This, in addition to top-down transparency about decision-making processes, has the potential to begin healing some of the divides which are wrecking British society.

Feature image by Daniel Foster, available via Flickr

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