At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, critics of Boris Johnson’s government observed how “the people have had enough of experts” mantra has swiftly morphed into “following the science”. To them, it seemed like a return to the natural order, one in which we put our faith in those who really understand rather than in populist politicians. After all, when push comes to shove, even the populists are forced to listen to the experts. Some things are just “too important to be left to the politicians”.
But this didn’t last. Soon the Government was criticised, first for “hiding behind the scientists” and then for ignoring them, as though it was just too hard for populists to do the right thing for long. All the while, it was emerging (who’d have thought it?) that not all the scientists agree. Some favour lockdowns, others don’t – and much more besides.
I’m no epidemiologist so I’m not going to express a view on the virus. I’m not seeking to justify the Government’s approach, either at the beginning or now. Instead, I’m interested in how non-experts, politicians included, decide which expertise to rely on. We’re suffering now from the over-simplification of that initial highly seductive “we’re following the science”.
It’s interesting to speculate on how Margaret Thatcher, who was never shy of bringing her scientific training to bear, would have discussed with her advisers: Charles Moore’s account of her handling of the environment, as well as AIDS, provides a clue. She wouldn’t have followed the science; she’d have challenged it.
But for those of us who are not scientists – like our Prime Minister, I read classics – how should we decide who to consult and who to believe? When they first learned about the virus, ministers would have found SAGE already constituted, its membership chosen by experts on the basis of their expertise. Additional members were brought in as the epidemic evolved, but on what criteria were they chosen?
Not, it seems, to represent the widest possible range of views or disciplines, since many of the significant disagreements – lockdowns vs protecting the vulnerable, statistical modelling and so on – are taking place not within the committee itself but in scientific publications and blogs between the members of SAGE and outsiders. Talking of “outsiders”, how come some members of SAGE (three of them) are also part of “Independent” SAGE, especially when “independent” seems to mean “opposed to the government” rather than “dispassionate”?
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Which disciplines should be included? Behavioural science is definitely in, while the Prime Minister confirmed that economics and business would remain out. And yet behavioural science seems a lot closer to politics or economics than to the natural sciences. Shouldn’t behavioural decisions be properly for our elected politicians, rather than being short-circuited because the experts have spoken? Otherwise, our accountable ministers merely end up becoming uncomfortable spokesmen for their advisers?
Of course, we’ve been hearing a great deal recently from the government’s full-time advisers too. They are, I’m sure, all experts in their field. But a government adviser is more than an expert, just as any scientist is more than a hard-disk full of knowledge. Government advisers are first and foremost part of the government system. Whichever party is in power, they operate in an environment geared towards generating State activity. Combined with the drive and ambition which gets high performers to the top, it’s no surprise that there’s a predilection for doing something at every stage.
Moreover, anyone who’s worked in government will know, when it’s difficult to measure outcomes (as it often is), it becomes all the more important to protect institutional “credibility”. Unfortunately, sometimes that can degenerate into what’s cheekily called “policy-based evidence making”, a lack of transparency and questionable use of statistics (or graphs). In short, when in a hole, there’s a tendency to keep digging.
It’s no surprise that governments are hard-wired to dig in, not least since – in their milieu of politicians and journalists – open-mindedness is embarrassing if it means adopting someone else’s ideas and agility is scorned as “U-turn”. We truly do get the governments we deserve.
What’s more interesting to me is why our broader establishment has been so firmly behind the experts, especially the official advisers with their lockdowns, restrictions and (frankly absurd) detailed instructions about how many people we can meet where and when. It’s not as if there isn’t an alternative view, backed by other scientists as well as economists, businesspeople and others. It’s just not respectable to be sceptical.
Of course, “sceptic” is a pretty low-status word these days: Euro-sceptic, climate-sceptic, Covid-sceptic and so on. It seems you just can’t keep the culture wars out, even in a pandemic. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. Most of those with a voice are, by definition, paid-up members of the Guild of Professionals. They’re all experts in something. Solidarity with fellow experts, the “authorities”, makes sense. If the sceptics have a point about your expertise, maybe they have a point about mine too? Best not go there, accept the official line, dismiss anyone who disagrees, hope for the best and – if things don’t work out – blame the politicians. You can’t really go wrong.
This really matters because science and expertise is essential, never more so than today. But when expertise is subsumed into politicised professional and bureaucratic structures with all the perverse incentives they carry, we risk losing sight of why expertise is valuable – the challenge that comes from the scientific method. More transparency about the experts, their perspectives, successes and failures; and more open engagement with opponents are all essential.
Scepticism is as essential as “the science”. The alternative is unquestioning respect for the fashionable view, followed by cynicism when it doesn’t deliver against unrealistic expectations. As we go into winter, that’s where we seem to be heading. Time to get off the expert high horse.
David Landsman is a former Ambassador and now a company executive.