Blaming 'wrong science' for the decisions of UK politicians is nothing more than a post-truth tactic

There is an anxiety among some in the scientific community that this daily national drama, with its storyline played out on our TV screens, is making science out to be something that it is not

Simon Clarke
Thursday 21 May 2020 00:55 BST
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Scientists to blame if UK blundered over pandemic Therese Coffey says

“Advisors advise, ministers decide,” goes the saying. During this current pandemic, ministers are falling over themselves to tell anyone who’ll listen that they’re being led by the science. It provides both an easy justification for whatever they’ve decided to date and perhaps a temptingly convenient scapegoat if any decision turns out to have been wrong.

The comments of Therese Coffey, the secretary of state of work and pensions, about “wrong science” are merely the most recent example. This clearing the path for a scapegoat has actually been going on for weeks. The media is awash with half-baked commentary from a repeating handful of backbench MPs, peers and businesspeople, pointing out the flaws in models that are being used to inform government policy making.

Nobody who knows anything about mathematical modelling will be the slightest bit surprised by the existence of such flaws. Indeed, members of Sage will be fully conscious of them when they provide their advice to politicians. But the existence of flaws is now being used in attempts to gaslight the public, which undermines the overriding public health message that has curtailed freedoms and shuttered businesses.

At a time when it’s critical for public and national safety that people trust the advice provided to them by those in authority, it is exceptionally dangerous to cast around non-specific criticisms of the science. As a chemist, Dr Coffey would be better advised to explain how science works, how the evidence is gathered and how it is then interpreted in order to help guide policy.

Medical science’s rudimentary understanding of this new coronavirus, which nobody had heard of six months ago, mean that uncertainty is inevitable; our understanding of it and how it affects the human body is constantly evolving. In such a fast-moving situation, it’s inevitable that data will frequently be uncertain and incomplete, if it exists at all.

Scientists often disagree in their interpretation of data – it’s one of the frustrating yet essential aspects of how science works. Scientific advice is usually heavily caveated, and it is the responsibility of politicians and elected leaders to make decisions and formulate policy.

There are numerous instances in the current emergency where our understanding has been patchy: the number of people who’ve been infected by the virus; why some people are more vulnerable to disease than others; how effective wearing face masks might be for the general population; and whether someone who’s recovered from the virus will be immune to subsequent infection.

Over-confident assertions are sometimes made by politicians wanting to look authoritative and in control. But in this pandemic, they’re made on the basis of a nascent understanding, which may change. To scientists, this is nothing to worry about; science is a process, not a finished body of knowledge, and they embrace this uncertainty, using it to drive forward the acquisition of knowledge. Changing advice as our understanding improves is not something to apologise for – it’s proof of better understanding.

There is an anxiety among some in the scientific community that this daily national drama, with its storyline played out on our TV screens, is making science out to be something that it is not: a sure thing. Presented through a prism of ministerial media briefings and Prime Minister’s Questions, science can appear as just another political tool, a force to drive decision-making along with opinion polls and public sentiment. And it really isn’t the same.

Science has never been so important, and so high-profile. Yet politicians should be careful. Criticising “wrong science” for decisions of government that lead to less than perfect outcomes – and, let’s be clear, that means people dying – can start to look like deflection of blame. Right now, we cannot afford to find our own, more convenient, “alternative facts”. Post-truth tactics may be advantageous for politicians, but for public health during a pandemic, they are potentially lethal.

Dr Simon Clarke is Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading

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