Author Archives: Oliver Robbins

What is ‘The Science’, anyway?

When Boris Johnson locked us all down in March 2020, he did so on the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). At the time, the group contained no molecular virologists, immunologists or social scientists. Despite Boris’ inability to attend a meeting, instead preferring to make speeches filled to the brim with vague Churchillian platitudes, practically all of his decisions throughout the pandemic were taken on the advice of SAGE. In fact, the only major instance of the PM ignoring SAGE was his decision not to increase restrictions beyond Plan B – incidentally, the COVID deaths in the following period were lower than SAGE’s predicted ‘best case scenario’ for this policy.

This article isn’t about disparaging the hardworking men and women of SAGE. I have no qualms with them as scientists. I do, however, have an issue with them as ‘The Science’. Certain scientists, and indeed non-scientists, discovered in the early stages of the pandemic that all they had to do to be taken seriously was to label themselves as ‘The Science’, in a statement of authority and arrogance that would make Emperor Palpatine blush. Independent SAGE, an organisation set up, confusingly, to oppose SAGE by pushing for harder restrictions at every turn, even used ‘Following the Science’ as their tagline.

The issue, of course, is that science is not fixed. It is built on discussion, disagreement and scepticism. There were a number of high-profile scientists – such as Sunetra Gupta (Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford), Carl Heneghan (Director of the Centre of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford) and Jay Bhattacharya (Professor of Medicine at Stanford) – who raised their concerns about the efficacy, ethics and negative consequences of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns. That is not to say that they were right. On some things, they were certainly wrong, just as on some things the likes of Neil Ferguson, Susan Michie and Eric Feigl-Ding, the quote-on-quote ‘other side’, were wrong. But the dismissal of these fine scientists as ‘fringe’, and in some cases ‘right wing’ – Sunetra Gupta had to reveal that she was a Corbynite to rebuke this particular attack – should concern us all. Science is not settled overnight. SAGE are not ‘The Science’, and nor are the signatories of the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’. ‘The Science’ is the illusion of authority and certainty in a field that is built on disagreement and scepticism.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 14 Comments
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