Coronavirus and the Rightful Place of Science

I am surely not alone in switching on my bullshit detector when I hear politicians say that they ‘defer to the experts’ or claim that their responses to COVID-19 are ‘guided by the best science and evidence’. After all, expertise is seemingly brushed aside when it comes to water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin or addressing climate change. When leading politicians say that they will be ‘guided by the science’ we should be as alert to deception as when some told us that ‘people have had enough of experts’. Equally, we should hold onto the reality that science is a social practice too, not simply a truth-revealing one.

Many have welcomed the high-profile role of medical experts and chief medical officers on daily TV. ‘It has already forced people back to accepting that expertise matters’ is the view of Professor Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise. On this reading, COVID-19 may herald a welcome reversal of the ‘post-truth’ turn, and an acceptance that facts matter and expertise counts. Some have taken this approach to technocratic extremes. An opinion piece by Professor William Bowtell of the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of New South Wales argued that politicians should stand aside and leave it to a committee of non-partisan, trusted experts to direct all aspects of the public-health response to COVID-19.

There are, however, many reasons not to embrace such reassertions of expert authority uncritically. Many challenging questions about science and this crisis, and expertise more generally, will start emerging. They already are. While experts may indeed have specialised insight into particular issues, they are not simply bearers of ‘truth’ or revealers of facts that have hitherto been hidden. We must ask: which experts and what science? carrying what values? using what evidence? with what relationship to power? and why now? In short, the current moment makes it both necessary and opportune to ask what the rightful place of science is, when it comes to tackling coronavirus, and in the making of public policy more generally.

Why are experts embraced now?

This crisis has seen an unusually prominent role played by chief medical officers, chief scientists and other leading public-health experts. The need for expert perspectives was not always acknowledged—witness Trump’s reluctance, even in late March, to admit that anything needed to be done to combat what was only ‘flu’, or the persecution of Chinese doctors in Wuhan who brought the problem to public attention, even as expert advice was apparently being given to the country’s leadership in private. But once the crisis was recognised the general trend was to turn to public-health experts, virologists and epidemiologists for advice. I can think of four basic reasons for this renewed reliance on experts.

Firstly, the political class genuinely didn’t know what to do in the face of the unprecedented event of COVID-19. It could not draw upon its stock solutions (trade good, taxes bad, ‘it’s the economy stupid’, ‘hardworking Australians’, and so on). Its initial responses were usually confused, clumsy and slow. Having neither knowledge nor experience itself, it looked around for those who might. In many countries this knowledge was often unavailable in-house following years of degrading the capabilities of the public service.

Secondly, for many, but not all, citizens, being seen to take expert medical advice would enhance trust in the political leaders. A lack of trust in the political class, its motives and competence, has been widely observed in recent years. Not surprisingly, therefore, there was good reason for the political class to draw on existing public-health expertise. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsanaro’s open rejection of such advice, and his dismissal of his health minister, is hurting him politically.

Thirdly, rich and middle-class people are affected. Unlike hunger, COVID-19 is said not to discriminate. But, like hunger, it hits the poorest hardest—witness the profiles of those dying from the virus in the United States, or the shockingly unjust treatment of rural migrant workers in India. While the very wealthiest can ensure more comfortable lockdown conditions and better medical treatment if required, they can’t avoid being infected. When it is said that ‘this disease does not discriminate’ this means that the rich are getting it too and so the political class must act.

Finally, one can also anticipate some political leaders using experts as the ‘fall guy’ if management of the pandemic does not go according to plan or too many undesirable effects occur. We already see this in Trump’s attacks on the World Health Organization and his retweeting of attacks on Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading medical expert advising the White House. The most high-profile expert advisers, those appearing on TV regularly alongside their political bosses, would be well advised to project independence of mind now, both in words and in body language, if they want to survive.

Which experts?

At one level COVID-19 is a human health problem stemming from the zoonotic transmission and rapid human-to-human spread of a virus about which a great deal is still unknown, and for which no vaccine currently exists. It is also a health-system problem because treating those who fall ill relies on the health facilities that are available (testing and tracing capacity, protective-equipment availability, intensive-care beds, ventilators etc.), and the robustness and accessibility of the health system generally. In this regard Australia has been relatively well positioned. So too have poorer jurisdictions with robust public health systems such as Cuba and Kerala. The United States and United Kingdom have been less successful. COVID-19 is also a societal health problem. The ways in which we interact socially and physically affect the speed at which the virus spreads, and the measures taken affect our social, physical and psychological well-being. Finally, and because the measures to tackle coronavirus have involved unprecedented lockdowns and restrictions, this pandemic has become a whole-of-society problem with far-reaching implications economically, for trade and globalisation, for labour markets, for education, for the young, for the most vulnerable, and so on.

However, the medical expertise that governments have most heavily relied upon appears to be epidemiological modelling that focuses on COVID-19 as a human health problem. According to Edinburgh University’s Professor Mark Woolhouse, ’scientific advice is driven far too much by epidemiology—and I’m an epidemiologist’. All modelling rests upon the availability of data, on deciding which data can be relied upon, which variables to include in the model, and on assumptions about the relationship between variables. This can, and often does, result in vastly different projections about the pandemic’s likely progression. Modellers themselves have generally been frank, so far, in conveying where they are ignorant and uncertain, and in explaining why they have often reached vastly different conclusions. More generally the problem is what is modelled. As Harvard’s Professor Sheila Jasanoff, a leading thinker on science and technology, has noted: ‘We’ve modeled the progression of the disease, but not the social consequences of the preventative measures that we’re taking’.

The first problem with expertise, therefore, even if we think about COVID-19 narrowly as a health issue, is which experts, what fields of expertise and which approaches need to be drawn upon. If, for example, how people behave is relevant to the policies we design, then we need to know which experts are best. Are they those committed to public engagement and winning public support for difficult measures, or those inclined to measures needing police enforcement, or those planning to use the manipulative elite strategies of ‘nudge’ theory and behavioural psychology?

Expert differences

Expert and scientific differences always exist. Different value perspectives infuse even the most technical subjects, as do different relationships to authority and power. What facts matter may be contested. Even the facts may not be agreed, given that this is a novel virus and the speed of events means that ‘peer review’ cannot keep up. Such differences are not, in themselves, a problem. Experts can be transparent about such differences and still act as ‘honest brokers’ when giving advice. But, and this is a second problem with expertise, when it comes to ‘official’ expertise (such as that handed out by chief scientists or medical officers) we need to be clear that political and power considerations are ever-present.

An Australian example relates to shutting down schools. Since March the federal government and chief medical officer have argued that expert medical opinion holds that schools are not a major vector of transmission. There was therefore no need to close schools. But parents, rightly or wrongly, started withdrawing their children unilaterally. Further, teachers’ unions complained that their members, some of whom were particularly vulnerable to the virus, were being exposed and were unable to ensure good handwashing practices or keep children physically distant from each other and from them. State premiers then stepped in, also claiming to have received expert advice, and shut the schools.

What expertise was drawn upon in deciding this? Clearly, expert advice is dependent on its reception as much as its veracity. Premiers may have decided that to retain their own authority they needed to be receptive to public opinion. Their thinking may have been, ‘Better to shut the schools in a fairly orderly way than to allow attendance to dissipate’. We are seeing the same problems emerge in debates around reopening the schools. Perhaps the best science was that that also engaged with public opinion and the concerns of educators at the chalk-face! Alternatively, politicians could have acknowledged that medical advice and other considerations resulted in the policy adopted by government. Better that than pretending to be ‘guided by the science’.

Expert differences are not something to be scared of. They are certainly not a reflection of ‘truth’ versus ‘error’. Expert differences can even be welcomed. They can reveal the limits of ‘expert’ knowledge, the availability of options, and also the value of experts critically engaging with the publics and societies within which they are located. Indeed, as the COVID-19 crisis affirms, knowledge is never simply about unveiling the ‘facts’. It is also shaped by the values of the expert (hence the common, and not always unreasonable, charge that elite values are different to those of ordinary folk), by the relations of power that exist within society, and by the political objectives our rulers wish to pursue. Expert knowledge exists within this messy confluence, and it should not claim to hover above it.

Expertise and whole-of-society problems

A third problem with expertise during the current crisis is that it is being selectively used. We are told that we are guided by the science in relation to the health problem, narrowly defined. When it comes to science and expertise when thinking about COVID-19 as a ‘whole-of-society’ problem it seems that we are back to business and expertise as usual.

In Australia, understanding and responding to the social consequences has been delegated to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, billed as an expert group ‘advising the Prime Minister on all non-health aspects of the pandemic response’. It is, in reality, stacked with big-business leaders (the chair is the former CEO of Fortescue Metals, and its special adviser is the former head of Dow Chemical). We should not be surprised when its ‘expert advice’ includes tax cuts for big business, rollbacks of support payments, slashing of ‘green tape’ to ‘get the economy going’ and so on.

Conclusion

Joe Biden has urged the US president to ‘follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you’. It is easy to sympathise with this, given Trump’s dangerous recommendations of cures and his hostility to politically inconvenient expertise. But Biden’s advice, if taken literally and always, is a poor rule of thumb. It begs more questions than it answers. While there are bad reasons to mistrust experts, there are good reasons too. As one commentator has put it, it is like saying ‘my economic policy will be guided by economists’ without reflecting on which economists, what models they use, and whether they care most about inequality or economic dynamism. Science is a social practice as well as a knowledge-revealing one. Our challenge is not to proclaim the need to trust scientists, ‘follow the science’ and have faith in the authority of experts. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the rightful place of science is within, not above, society. Together, we can find a way through.

About the author

Jeremy Baskin

Jeremy Baskin is a Fellow of the Melbourne School of Government and the Melbourne Law School.

More articles by Jeremy Baskin

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