Following The Science … or The Sciences? How much disagreement really?

Every so often in life, you will hear someone say “well there are so many different opinions on x, therefore I am completely entitled to believe y” at which point they introduce a completely new option that no sane person in the debate would ever endorse. The belief that there are lots and lots of unproven and unprovable possibilities entitles me to come up with my own and I don’t need to justify it either.

We need to guard against this risk when we talk about coronavirus and the scientific data.  Early in the pandemic, Governments around the world introduced a mantra “We will follow the science.” They claimed that everything they were doing was what objective scientific data and expert opinion required of them.  However, we began to notice problems with this approach. As Michael Ots observes in his guest post, there are actually a range of views amongst the scientific community. There are a couple of reasons for this.

  • We don’t have a set of data that tells us exactly what we must do. Data is interpreted and even still, it doesn’t predict the exact future, it enables you to identify possible scenarios, risks and opportunities. You still have to make a decision.  For example, interpreted data about he risks with an operation may suggest a probability of about 20% that I will survive the operation. It may seem obvious that on that the science is telling me not to have the operation but in fact choosing to take that 20% chance may actually be worth it. Or to put it the other way round, when I had my first eye operation I was warned by the surgeon that there was a 1% chance of death during the procedure. So I asked him how many people he had operated on and how many had died. If he said “99 and all lived” I might have had second thoughts about the surgery!
  • There are actually a whole range of disciplines included under the umbrella of “The Science.” During Coronavirus, the Government will have been listening to virologists, epidemiologists and Pharmacists. They will also have been listening to behavioural scientists and economists.  This is important because sometimes we hear people interviewed or read an article by them and their qualifications clearly make them an expert in the issues we are facing, however this will mean that they are qualified to speak on some aspects of it but not all. The head of a Pharmaceutical company may be well placed to tell us about the development of his drug but how much priority should we give to his views on the probability of ending lockdown anytime soon?

However, there is another danger. We can so emphasise the range of opinions and the diversity of views that we assume there is no commonality and end up with the situation I raised in my introduction.  We are quite right to recognise that “The Science” is not uniform however this does not mean that all options are equally valid.  It simply means that you and I might not be qualified to make the judgement call between competing options.

Additionally, I think people have been over egging the differences and that hasn’t at times been helped by the rhetoric used by people in order to gain a hearing.  We see this most overtly among the politicians. As I observed last week, The leaders of the different political parties use extreme rhetoric to disguise the fact that the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and First Ministers of the devolved administrations share a consensus view of the seriousness of the situation and what the best solution is. They just happen to disagree on tactics, timing and communication.

Now, the reality is that there is a strong consensus that this virus is extremely serious in terms of its ability to spread and its ability to cause serious health issues leading to death.  There is consensus that there are also a lot of unknowns too including about the exact level of seriousness long term and how the virus will behave over time. One thing we still don’t know for certain yet is whether people can build up long term immunity against the virus. The last point is crucial because people have assumed that there is this controversial concept called “Herd Immunity.” As I’ve mentioned before, the phrase sounds frightening until we realise that this is an approach with a long heritage in epidemiology for which there is a strong consensus. The way we control viruses is that we build up immunity in the population. The only question was whether given the unknowns we could risk attempting this without a vaccine which is the standard method for achieving it.

In fact, I would suggest that most of the tactical differences have been shaped by other factors. We are looking at judgement calls about whether to take a 70% risk or a 30% risk, we are looking at decisions made on behavioural science advice (a lot of which is probably contextual due to culture).  The differences are not as huge as we sometimes assume and certainly we are not in a position simply to make up our own hypothesis.

Now, this is important for how we respond as The Church as well.  Frequently we give the impression through our rhetoric and reactions that there are lots and lots of extreme and divergent views. In fact I would argue that there is strong consensus.  We do follow the Theology.  So despite appearances to the contrary, there is consensus that.

  • We acknowledge the specific risks of this virus
  • We also acknowledge that there are other risks that need to be considered, not just a pandemic.
  • We believe in the importance of God’s people gathering physically for worship
  • We agree that we should submit to the secular authorities
  • We agree that there are boundaries/limits to secular authority and that if we are asked to obey the Government in a way that leads to us disobeying God then we must say no.

There is in fact a level of agreement there that may not be clear in some of our conversations. This leads to some interesting circumstances.  A few weeks back 700 church leaders signed a letter to the Prime Minister and First Ministers urging them not to close churches again.  I felt that I could not sign it as I wasn’t completely happy with its content and the potential outcomes it could lead to. I felt justified when I saw the results in the press which suggested that some church leaders will willing to act in defiance of Government regulations and guidance.

However, get this. Yesterday, the Welsh churches were told they would have to close during the Welsh circuit break.  My immediate reaction was that this was unnecessary and that lines were being crossed. I immediately expressed support for and hope that legal action would be taken to prevent this. Yet, surprisingly, people who had been most vocal at the time of the letter seemed more circumspect and ready to wait and see.

Why is that?  Why did the person who seemed more moderate earlier suddenly become more militant and vice versa? Were we being inconsistent? Had we changed our views? Well, I suspect not (and can say categorically not in my case).  Rather, the reality is that there was the strong consensus above. Those who signed the letter were not abandoning their Romans 13 responsibilities to obey the authorities and I was not planning to confuse submission with support nor to relinquish my responsibility to obey God over man.

I don’t want you to think I’m the guy who just tries to pretend there is never any disagreement or difference. This site is testimony to the fact that I do observe clear differences between people and value the importance of debate. However, it is also important that we recognise where there is genuine agreement.

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