By David Adam
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance at a press conference
Richard Pohle/The Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Take nobody’s word for it. That is how the motto of the UK’s Royal Society Nullius in verba is usually interpreted. Its a warning against listening to arguments made purely from authority. Only the science data and evidence is persuasive. But what about when the science itself is presented as the de facto authority?
As the covid-19 pandemic tightens its grip, politicians in the UK and elsewhere have been invoking the science as their spirit guide, especially as a defence when their policies and actions (or lack of them) are criticised.
Decisions on covid-19 have to be made urgently, and its right that the latest scientific data and expertise are taken into account. Evidence-based policy-making is presented as the gold standard and rightly so, especially in public health. But its vital to stress that the science of this pandemic and what should be done in response is quite different from the science, say, of how soap and water protect against the coronavirus.
The benefits of the latter in handwashing are based on established facts, testable ideas and the results of properly planned experiments. It is knowledge; science used as a noun. Whereas research on covid-19, and in particular the policy response, is science as a verb. It is uncertain, transitive, contested and volatile.
No scientist would argue otherwise, of course, and those involved in coordinating the policy response have been at pains to point out the limitations and uncertainties in their thinking, and the preliminary nature of the findings.
But politicians dont like to stress uncertainty. UK prime minister Boris Johnson repeatedly says his governments actions are based on the best science. Campaigners on Twitter and elsewhere who wanted the UK to close schools earlier than it did had urged the government to listen to the science.
Those in the UK can see much of that science for themselves. Researchers at Imperial College London who are advising the government have published a summary of their model results, including the assumptions they rest on.
The importance of these assumptions is underlined by what happened when the team got hold of some updated data for what proportion of people hospitalised by covid-19 would need intensive care. The researchers’ initial estimate was 15 per cent. But when they doubled that to 30 per cent, based on reports from Italy and China, the model said that 250,000 people would die. That single change seems to have been enough to trigger severe new restrictions on public gatherings and social contact.
But those policies are based on assumptions of their own: that half of households will comply with requests to self-isolate for 14 days if someone shows symptoms, for example. And that closing schools and three-quarters of universities will actually increase community contact between infected and uninfected people by 25 per cent. How reliable are those numbers? We just dont know.
Earlier this month, an editorial in The Guardian complained that the UKs response to the virus was confused and hesitant, and argued that disclosure of the scientific evidence was needed to protect public trust. Yet confused and hesitant is how the best science proceeds.
Policies, even evidence-based ones, aren’t based on science alone. They emerge from a process that also accounts for values and priorities. Right now, politicians must balance the way a wider lockdown of the population could help protect against infection, against the negative sociological consequences of isolation and the impact on civil liberties. These are political decisions, and they must be seen and presented as such by politicians and others, particularly as the continuing pandemic and the severe restrictions on peoples lives start to fray the collective patience.
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By David Adam