COVID-19: 'Following the Science' is Not a Defence, Says Brian Cox

Peter Russell

May 19, 2020

Politicians are often too swift to repeat a mantra that they are 'following scientific advice' when faced with uncertainties and political calculations during the current pandemic, it has been claimed.

Ministers and officials frequently say in response to questions about COVID-19 that they have and will be guided by advice from scientific experts.

"I've seen it in several interviews with several different politicians, when asked a difficult question," said Brian Cox, professor for public engagement in science at the Royal Society. "It's very easy to say, 'well, we were following the science'.

"That's not an appropriate defence."

Concerns Over 'Politicisation' of Science

Instead, a group of UK scientists have said that COVID-19 continues to throw up many uncertainties, which experts are trying to quantify.

Doubts about health and science during the current pandemic are inevitable because SARS-CoV-2 is a new phenomenon, they say.

They argue that political leaders should be transparent with the public about what is happening, stress the importance of learning from an evolving situation, and should not hide behind white lab coats when things get rough.

"The politicisation of science or scientific advice might deliver some short-term political advantages," Prof Cox told a briefing at the Science Media Centre (SMC).

"It's very tempting, I think, to blame the science if a decision is made which subsequently turns out to be suboptimal in some way. But this will have, I think, serious long term consequences, because it undermines public trust in science."

In a blog post, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, wrote: "Evidence-based decision making should absolutely be a cornerstone of Government, especially in a pandemic for which science is of paramount importance to our response.  However, we must recognise both the potential and the limits of science."

The Nobel Prize-winning biologist added: "In an emergency, data for decisions may be uncertain, incomplete, or even missing."

Truth 'Often Takes Time to Establish'

Speaking at today's briefing, Dr Ramakrishnan cautioned against blurring the distinction between the best data that is available and actions taken as a consequence of that information.

"Science at the frontiers is always uncertain," he said. "And so scientists will often disagree on various issues, and the definitive truth will often take time to establish.

"So, often there's no such thing as 'the science' – so, one cannot follow 'the science' – one has to consider scientific 'advice'. And Government will need to make the best decisions they can now, because urgency is an issue."

He quoted former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once famously said: "Advisers advise, and ministers decide."

Several examples were given of areas surrounding the pandemic where knowledge was incomplete. These included: how many people had been infected, whether people who recover from the virus will be immune, and if so, for how long, and why some individuals are more vulnerable.

The debate around whether face masks or coverings should be worn to prevent viral spread was given as another example of scientific uncertainty.

Dame Linda Partridge, Weldon professor of biometry in genetics, evolution & environment at University College London, pointed to scant randomised controlled evidence to show whether they were useful, despite recent UK advice that face coverings should be worn in certain ituations.

Dame Linda, who is vice-president of the Royal Society, told the briefing that the public would be "much more comfortable with understanding exactly what the evidence is, rather than being given an over-definite account of the situation".

'Embrace Doubt and Uncertainty'

According to Brian Cox, who is also professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, people should to a certain extent be reassured when they see areas of scientific doubt. "It's the embrace of doubt and uncertainty during the process of the acquisition of new knowledge that's the basis for the success of science," he said.

He added: "Advice will change as new knowledge becomes available, and that is not something that has to be apologised for. In fact, it should be something that is not only accepted but seen as evidence that when new data and new understanding appears, then we change the advice."

Prof Cox quoted from a 1955 essay by US theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who referred to science as the "freedom to doubt". This, said Prof Cox, was based on his idea that science was a "satisfactory philosophy of ignorance".

He added: "I think it's a worry that if you have a straightforward defence to a difficult question, which is always 'we were following the science', then that masks a whole area of debate."

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