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.

Another question is this: which fields of science should be listened to? Epidemiology and immunology of course, but what about the social sciences? Should sociology, psychology and economics be taken into account? That would require asking certain uncomfortable questions, such as: Will pausing in-person social interaction damage our society? Will closing schools and replacing them with temporary online learning prevent our children from reaching their educational potential? Will shutting down the economy and paying for it by printing and borrowing money cause inflation? (We’ve learned the answer to that last one the hard way.)

Sir Patrick Vallance himself noted in October 2020 that “one shouldn’t underestimate the impact of lockdown” and that “there’s no doubt purely from the point of view of the spread of COVID, the earlier you go in [to lockdown] the better […] but of course, people have to take into account other things as well, and that’s a matter for politicians”. Despite this, our politicians seemed generally reluctant to make their own decisions, instead shirking their responsibilities and deferring to ‘The Science’, largely ignoring counterarguments or socioeconomic concerns. The Liberal Democrat MPs deserve some praise for voting against the renewal of the Coronavirus Act at a time that the reasoning for renewal was unconvincing, and for rejecting vaccine passports on the grounds of civil liberties. Whilst I might not agree with every stance taken by these MPs throughout the pandemic, it is evident that they approached these questions with a great deal more thought than our Prime Minister did. Perhaps if we’d had a Lib Dem government, ‘The Science’ would have given way to its more reasoned, albeit less self-assured, older brother: science.

Two and a half years after the first lockdown, we are not in good shape as a country. A cost-of-living crisis, NHS backlogs, and political polarisation hang over us like a dark cloud. At times, it seems difficult to find any positives in the wake of COVID. But if there is one lesson that can be learned from the pandemic, it is this: listen to scientists, certainly, but be wary of anybody who claims to represent ‘The Science’, for I am quite certain there is no such thing.

 

* Oliver Robbins is a member of the Liberal Democrats and Liberal Reform, based in the North East

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14 Comments

  • Of course, the other social science which was ignored was history. So many of the mistakes made in 1918 after the Spanish Flu were repeated, it’s incredible.

  • James Fowler 7th Sep '22 - 10:19pm

    Othering ‘The Economy ‘ as a Moloch, or as a large abstract number that had nothing to do with real life was one of stupider fashions at the outset of the pandemic. ‘The Economy’ is the sum total of everyone’s jobs and livelihoods. It’s also people’s homes, access to free education and health care. Damaging it damages us. That might be a price we’re willing to pay for certain outcomes (fighting in the Second World War, for example) but it is not something than should be wantonly vandalized, trivialised, or can be degraded without serious consequences. When ‘The Economy’ is treated as a sort of immoral optional extra that we don’t really need, it’s the most disadvantaged in society that suffer.

  • To me the important questions are ones like why do we not enforce proper ventilation in schools. The same applies to public transport. Instead when we panic we simply close them down.
    Vaccination trials are useful, and as a participant it is obvious to me how much resources are available to drug companies to do there work. Why not put a similar amount of resource into the things we should do to ensure a healthy society.
    I would favour research into how the elimination of poverty might lead to a healthier society.

  • It’s certainly good to remind the more technocratically-minded politicians, and that certainly includes some Lib Dems, that scientific advice is just as human and subject to bias and flaw as any other advice, and that even a strong scientific consensus only says “if A, then probably B” and it’s still a political responsibility and decision to determine whether B is good or bad and what should be done about A if so.

    But I wouldn’t have picked as an example for that argument that we did “too much” to mitigate a disease that’s killed 200,000 people in the UK already and could – looking at the worst hit countries – have easily killed another 200,000 in the absence of mitigation … has even with action taken to reduce its spread caused major capacity crises in the NHS … and is still causing way above-average sickness absence rates in multiple key sectors with huge knock-on impacts on … the economy?

  • I don’t think our government did follow “The Science”. They were very selective in what they chose to do, and while it’s right to recognise the range of views and uncertainty in any apparent consensus within ‘the science’, the same would apply to considerations of social science.

    Tom makes the key point. The science has continued to tell us that we need better ventilation and that money invested there won’t just help reduce problems from COVID, but other respiratory diseases. Many places, including schools, have inadequate ventilation simply in terms CO2 levels, never mind viruses. And yet government communications continued to give the impression that hand washing was the most important thing.

    I’m still seeing Scottish Government public health adverts on my social media timeline that are 90% handwashing or using anti-bac gel. There’s next to nothing on ventilation.

  • Oliver Robbins 8th Sep '22 - 3:54pm

    Tom, cim and Fiona all make points that seem eminently reasonable to me, so I’ll skip past them for now.

    Andrew’s points, however, definitely require combating, as some of them are genuinely quite frightening. Are you seriously arguing that we should “make virtual social interaction the default”? Would that benefit the immunocompromised? Well, perhaps. But at the expense, and I mean the *serious* expense, of everyone else. A world without in-person social interaction is a world that, quite frankly, I don’t want to live in. It is what motivates many of us to get up in the morning. If you want to live in the Metaverse, then be my guest. But I do not. I wish to live in reality. And to take away the social interaction that so many thrive upon to *arguably* benefit the immunocompromised – it’s not as if they don’t have the option to socialise primarily on Discord if they so wish – is just about the least liberal thing I can think of.

    You ask if the educational potential of a healthy child is more important than the life of an immunocompromised one. OK, let’s play out your little thought experiment. Let’s make all education virtual, making our kids (especially kids with poor home lives) less intelligent, less well-rounded, more depressed and more anxious. All to protect immunocompromised kids who – haven’t you thought about this – could have their own virtual education system? Why not? We could have virtual schools for those who are endangered by being around other kids, and those who aren’t can have an in-person education. Surely that makes more sense than punishing healthy children and ruining their futures?

    You ask which groups of people matter to me. Everyone matters to me. As a liberal, I mean a proper one, I want to protect the vulnerable. But it is possible to protect the vulnerable without ruining everyone else’s lives. As James quite astutely points out, the economy isn’t just some numbers on a screen, the economy is people’s lives. The cost of living crisis isn’t just some abstract issue, it’s seriously affecting people, here and now. I suppose you would have told those who were living in poverty and desperation during the Great Depression to stop moaning, it’s only the economy after all. People’s lives should not be measured in binary: alive or dead. Life must be worth living. You can try to abolish death, but you will only end up abolishing life.

  • James Fowler 11th Sep '22 - 9:09am

    It’s remarkable how the words like ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ have acquired a faintly disreputable tone even in supposedly liberal circles. The line of argument seems to be this: The whole of society should only be allowed the freedoms that the least free have, otherwise it’s not fair and somehow immoral. ‘Everybody dances or nobody dances’ was the slogan of the extreme Marxist Shining Path movement, and the sentiment is often found on the far left. I’ll leave people to ponder what extending that to every aspect of life (not just selected aspects of under lockdown) would mean, and how that squares with core liberal values like rationality, tolerance and respect for the individual.

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Sep '22 - 1:58pm

    @James Fowler
    “The line of argument seems to be this: The whole of society should only be allowed the freedoms that the least free have, otherwise it’s not fair and somehow immoral.”

    Are you implying that some people (perhaps you yourself…?) have a right to certain freedoms irrespective of the (possibly detrimental) impact their excercise of those freedoms might have on others?

  • Peter Martin 12th Sep '22 - 10:49am

    “The Science’ is the illusion of authority and certainty in a field that is built on disagreement and scepticism.”

    Careful. This is an argument used by Climate Sceptics to exaggerate any disagreement within the scientific community for political purposes.

    Certainly there is some disagreement in all branches of science but it’s usually quite minor. There are no separate schools of thought in Physics, some of which accept Einstein’s theories and some which don’t, for example. There might be some disagreement about how to interpret Quantum Mechanics but there’s no disagreement about the validity Schrödinger’s Equation.

    Scientists are good at coming to a consensus, and this is the foundation of what might loosely be termed “the Science”. However it does take some time to reach. The Covid 19 pandemic happened very quickly, so Sage would have had to do the best they could with what was available at the time.

    The consensus will develop as more data becomes available. This is as it should be. When the facts change, so should opinions – and “the Science”.

  • > Independent SAGE, an organisation set up, confusingly, to oppose SAGE
    Needed to do better research. Independent SAGE was about making the scientific debate public, remember SAGE sat behind closed doors and with no public discussion just made announcements. What Independent SAGE demonstrated was those announcements were based on a consensus interpretation of the evidence – contributing in part to Oliver’s (and others) awakening to the gradations of scientific ‘fact’ and when dealing with populations, things tend to be varying shades of grey rather than black-and-white.

    > Will shutting down the economy and paying for it by printing and borrowing money cause inflation? (We’ve learned the answer to that last one the hard way.)
    The answer is no it didn’t. However, printing money in an attempt to pay massively increasing work energy prices will.

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