Following the science – but which science?

From the start of Coronavirus the Government have repeated the mantra that in all their actions, they have been “following the science.”  However, the idea that there is this thing called “The Science” is rather misleading.

It misses two points. The first is that there are various fields of science. This of course includes the obvious pure sciences, biology, chemist and physics. However, even then, those disciplines are divided into sub disciplines. To advise the science on a coronavirus pandemic it is not enough to be a biologist or chemist, you need to be one who specialises in medical science. Even then, that is not enough, there different medical specialisms so in fact we are looking for people with expertise in virology. At this point we acknowledge that there are different types of virus and they can behave quite differently. Finally we don’t just need virologists but also epidemiologists who have expertise in how viruses mutate and spread.

The second point is that science and scientists don’t always agree. They support different theories that conflict with each other, they employ models and get different results based on different assumptions. They are not emotionally or ideologically neutral and we cannot assume that they will necessary leave those perspectives at the door of their labs.

So a Government that is just following the science if that means it is taking the advice of some scientists unchallenged and unchecked is actually quite a dangerous thing. You actually need people who are skilled at listening to different arguments, hearing advice and then making decisions.

Furthermore, the science is not just about the pure sciences but will include a wide field of disciplines that are called sciences because they seek to follow scientific methodology. For example, the government will have been following political science. Like it or not, the Prime Minister, Health Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition are politicians. They all want to be in power. We might prefer decisions just to be about the disease itself but actually they will still have been making decisions calculated to ensure they retain power. Similarly the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish First Ministers are making similar calculations. In some respects we have a slight advantage with the UK Government in that it is newly elected. Therefore there is a stronger likelihood that the Prime Minister will have been making decisions that would be in our long term interests because he needs things to work out for the medium to long term to coincide with the electoral cycle. You might be a bit more nervous about decisions made by someone who is seeking re-election in say  (to pick a month at random), November.

Well, no-one will admit to following the political science on this. However, our government has been quite open in acknowledging that it is also following behavioural science.  In other words, it has been interested in how different decisions, actions and pronouncements will affect human behaviour in order to best respond to the virus.

This doesn’t surprise me.  In fact, I am personally of the view that lockdown measures had as much to do with the behavioural science as the medical science.  You see, to suppress the virus, we did not necessarily need to tell people to stay home. We needed to be able to test and trace, we needed to be able to identify and isolate, we needed a level of social distancing and we needed protective equipment.  Those were the sorts of things that the Government were focusing on in the early stages but on the one hand they were not able to get effective track in trace in place and on the other it was challenging to get some of the necessary behaviours in place.

In fact, one reason why we would have struggled with track and trace in the early days was not just about the lack of test facilities and trace technology but rather that behaviours were necessary. Track and trace works best in a society where there is a high level of social compliance but we live in a culture that enjoys its personal liberties and tracking who we have been in contact with invades those.  So, without being alert to the seriousness of the disease we were unlikely to behave compliantly at the start, that would have to come later.

Secondly, I have suggested before that culturally we tend to have a lag factor in terms of compliance with rules we don’t like. So, if you want to get people to follow one rule, you have to impose a further more draconian rule. I think our government had to assume we would not be strict adherents to a lockdown but it might get us to adhere to social distancing better!  Notice that at the other end of the spectrum that we have been a little quick off the mark in responding to relaxation of rules before the actual date, something I believe that has been factored in.

I think also that behavioural science has governed the lifting of lockdown. The strategy that the Government followed was to suppress the virus for a time but there were two challenges with this. The first was that they were working with a sledgehammer. Lockdown is a blunt instrument. So they did not just suppress the disease but also the economy and a lot of other aspects of human behaviour, good and bad.  The second challenge is that if you suppress things then once the pressure is off, if you haven’t suffocated them to death then they tend to burst back up again. We might hope that this is good news for the economy but also fear that there is tight margin of error in avoiding a second spike in the disease. Not only that but I have been saying for a while that there was a huge risk of the end of suppression leading to an outbreak of dangerous and anti-social behaviour in terms of criminality, violence and restlessness. I think we have seen elements of that already.

So, I suspect that the Government had a strategy to try and ease the suppression in a phased manner. I also suspect that this has been knocked off course a little by the Dominic Cummings incident and also the recent protests linked to #BLM.

One final challenge. We often describe things as a “science” because that suggests evidence, certainty and confidence. However, even with the most robust, evidence led, structured methodology, there is always an art to what we are trying to achieve!

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