There Is No Such Thing as The Science

Science is not some grand tome we can consult to get the ‘right’ answer.

According to David Blunkett, a former senior cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s governments, attempts to have a blanket lockdown on the over-70s are discriminatory. He believes that the current ‘shielding’ rules are too crude and need to be more nuanced. Whatever the merits of his ideas, his comments on the scientific advice that the government is receiving are interesting.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One on 28 April, Blunkett argued that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has a problem. Drawing on Matthew Syed’s book, Rebel Ideas, he said that ‘major mistakes in the recent past have been made by people of similar ilk, similar ideas, similar background, similar thinking being considered the only experts that you could draw down on. And I’d like RAGE – a Recovery Advisory Group – that had a very much broader swathe of advice and expertise to draw down on.’

Rebel Ideas: The Power... Syed, Matthew Buy New $21.69 (as of 04:12 EDT - Details) The dangers of listening to a small pool of experts with orthodox thinking was also pointed to by a former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. Reacting to reports that Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, may have pushed SAGE to back the current lockdown, King told Bloomberg: ‘There is a herd instinct in all of us – we call it groupthink. It is possible that a group is influenced by a particularly influential person.’

Other leading scientific figures have criticised the idea that the government’s policies are based on science. Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian: ‘As a scientist, I hope I never again hear the phrase “based on the best science and evidence” spoken by a politician. This phrase has become basically meaningless and used to explain anything and everything.’

The same article quotes Professor Mark Woolhouse, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh: ‘I do think scientific advice is driven far too much by epidemiology – and I’m an epidemiologist. What we’re not talking about in the same formal, quantitative way are the economic costs, the social costs, the psychological costs of being under lockdown. I understand that the government is being advised by economists, psychiatrists and others, but we’re not seeing what that science is telling them. I find that very puzzling.’ Governing Global Healt... Sridhar, Devi Best Price: $16.80 Buy New $15.95 (as of 04:12 EDT - Details)

All these comments and more point to one of the most striking aspects of the Covid-19 crisis. For many years now, politicians – largely bereft of any wider purpose or philosophical principle – have claimed that they are pursuing ‘evidence-based policy’ and being ‘led by The Science’. In reality, science is a process of trying to draw together tentative conclusions driven by experiment and observation. Claiming authority from The Science – as if there were a grand tome you could simply open up to find the correct answer – is just wrong.

As Professor Brian Cox told Andrew Marr this week: ‘There’s no such thing as The Science, which is a key lesson. If you hear a politician say “we’re following The Science”, then what that means is they don’t really understand what science is. There isn’t such a thing as The Science. Science is a mindset.’

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