133. What does “follow the science” mean?


LeonardoWe’re told these days by our leaders that they’re “following the science” in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And, of course, we know what they mean. In an age where it became fashionable not to listen to the experts, they’ve never needed experts more. Briefings abound with flattenings of curves and keeping the R value below 1.

But, if I’m uncharitable enough to unpack the catchphrase, an oddity leaps out.

Politicians and scientists have a different understanding of truth. Politicians want clear answers—should we do this, yes or no? Invoking science should be the gold standard of clarity.

Scientists, on the other hand, deal in uncertainties. Hypotheses are contingent on testing, interpretations are contested, epoch-making claims turn out to be mere statistical blips as more data emerges.

There is so little data as yet on this new virus that “the science” is less a provider of clear yeses and nos than it is a habit of thought.  That habit of thought is the opposite of what the politicians mean—it is a cultivated scepticism, an openness of mind, a willingness to change your mind when the evidence changes.

In the future we’ll know a lot about this virus. But now we don’t know whether people who have recovered generate immunity or whether they can catch it again. We know that it appears to differentially affect men, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, but we don’t know why some young patients with no known health conditions have a severe response. We think of it is a respiratory illness, but it doesn’t always respond to ventilation in severe cases and it appears to cause kidney problems in some patients. Other patients seem to be overwhelmed by their own immune responses, a so-called cytokine storm. It may not really be a respiratory condition at all.

We don’t think the virus is mutating in the way the influenza does, but we’re not sure. We don’t even know for sure yet what the death rate is.

Not being sure is “following the science”, but this doesn’t cohere well with policy-making. And we want simple clear answers. This is understandable in a population where scientific literacy is low. We’re only just getting used to weather forecasts that give us probabilities of rainfall rather than simple yes-no predictions. But, perhaps we’ll use this crisis to become more comfortable with uncertainty and more conscious of which things we can be certain about.

Angela Merkel, in a broadcast to the German nation, gave a detailed epidemiological explanation of what different values of R meant for the health system. Covid 19 is thought to have an R of between 2 and 3. This means, without intervention, every infected person goes on to infect between two and three others. If measures like social distancing keep R below 1, the chain of transmission starts to be broken. Merkel explained what a small increase in R meant: if it goes up to 1.1, the German health system would be overrun by October; at 1.2, the crisis would come in July, and at 1.3, by June.

Even where there is a certainty within a discipline, building a response to the pandemic involves different disciplines with different answers. An obvious example is the answer to the question “how long does the lockdown need to last for?” Epidemiology says the best answer is as long as there are high levels of the virus circulating in the population. But behavioural science tells us that people will only tolerate being cooped up for so long before they begin to go walk-about. There were already some signs in the fifth week of the British lockdown that this was starting to happen.

So, from an epidemiological point of view, the lockdown on 23 March came late. But from a behavioural viewpoint, this may have been the optimal time. And, of course, other factors have to be considered too, most particularly the effect on the economy, on people’s livelihoods and consequently on their mental and physical health, covid 19 notwithstanding. We won’t know until the official papers are released, but there are speculations that there was a policy debate in the UK in March as to whether to bear down on the spread of the virus or, alternatively, whether to let infections rip hoping for a quick peak and the creation of “herd immunity”. The world has never encountered anything like this, not even in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19, because there was no lockdown then. On the contrary, the First World War ground on towards its grisly conclusion despite the virus.

So there really is no simple “science” that can be followed. It’s all a matter of balancing some things that are known and guessing at some things that are not yet known. The decisions are ultimately political, not scientific. The “following the science” mantra may simply serve to shift blame onto the scientists if things go wrong.

12 thoughts on “133. What does “follow the science” mean?

  1. I agree that the term ‘following the science’ as put out on the daily briefings appear to be a misnomer.
    What is being explained is a statistical model (GCSE explanation of rate of infection), and yes lockdown will disrupt and slow the infection rate. But our lives are not statistical models, it is more complicated than that. In lockdown we have been backed into a box and it is not a complete seal since there are rouge infections freely wandering about – the key workers – lots of them who have not stayed at home. We are told that most infections can be rather mild and that some people may not even know they have had COVID -19. (Asymptomatic)
    When the box is opened; what next?

    The other misnomer being used is ‘no evidence’ that face-masks stop the spread… Tell that to Asia.
    Tell that to people who have had a serious bout of seasonal flu.

    No doubt there will be the usual political blood letting as the situation carries on- but there are certain facts.

    The economy has gone into meltdown. The evidence that lockdown worked or not will only come when the lockdown is lifted and a comparison can be assessed.

    Sweden have accepted a partial change based on common sense – they accept the balance between the economy and causality rates. They have adopted changes to their working practices and lifestyle rather than a full serious lockdown. Is it working? – We will wait and see.

    To consider that we have not experienced this situation before is true – but we knew it happens.

    In 2003 SARs swept through Asia – that experience has taught their systems how to react . Look at South Korea.
    Even Australia had 14 day quarantine put in place before they had any number of cases.
    Swine Flu and Bird Flu did not impact on Europe – we were lucky – but to not learn form other’s experience was a shame.

    Shutting down the economic world is a drastic decision – we have no choice but to survive and we will.

    The people of the UK have followed the advice/science for four weeks now and have experienced a pandemic.

    Perhaps we need to seriously look at many aspects of the British lifestyle and not be so arrogantly self-conceited as a nation as we progress.

    We rely on Turkey and China for PPE and we will need the India to mass manufacture the vaccine, once it has been developed.

    We are not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Quarantine of travellers only works when there are relatively few cases. There are probably around 10,000 to 20,000 new cases a day, so isolating a handful of travellers will make no appreciable difference to domestic spread at the moment. But it will make a difference in the future when new cases have dropped

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Which is probably why it worked well in Australia Neil. We closed borders quickly. And anyone returning (rescued) from overseas had to be quarantined in hotels for the 14 days. It all helps. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post Neil. You make so much sense and so clearly explained. Mind you, I still blame Boris and all the other Tory Tossers!

    Stay safe and well,


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe not ‘shifting the blame’ but supporting why their actions are moderated. This also reflects the uncertainty of what correct actions should be and that we’ll only know in the doing. Nice piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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