‘A breathtaking, beautiful day for science’

Art of survival: the UK has already ordered 100 million doses of the new jab. © Heather Hazzan

Was it pure science that saved us? Some are eagerly taking that as the lesson of yesterday’s new vaccine announcement – but it is worth asking whether there are other heroes in this story.

Writer and surgeon Dr Atwul Gawande called the announcement “stunning”. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed the “really, really good news” and suggested that life could return to normal by Easter.

One researcher simply said: “A breathtaking, beautiful day for science.”

The vaccine was created by a partnership between Oxford's Jenner Institute, named after vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner, and Swedish-British pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca. It is seen as a perfect pairing of scientific excellence and financial brawn.

For many, this is the story that will be told in years to come as the moment modern science definitively took its rightful place as humanity's guiding light – laying to rest any lingering competition from religion, philosophy, or art.

This story will probably focus on three key points. First, the vaccines demonstrate the very best of the scientific method. While the jabs have been developed quickly, they have also undergone rigorous testing to ensure their safety.

The pressure to be the first to produce a vaccine was immense. In Russia, one team tried to win this race by unveiling an experimental treatment that had not been properly tested. But most scientists have refused to succumb to this temptation, instead working quickly but carefully through round after round of clinical trials to ensure the jab would be safe.

The second point will be that science also helped to lessen the impact of the virus. From the very earliest stages of the pandemic, it introduced “social distancing” into our vocabulary. It persuaded us to wash our hands and to wear masks. And almost everybody listened.

And thirdly, scientific progress only seems to be accelerating. Covid-19 has only existed for one year, and it already has three vaccines. No other vaccine in history has ever been produced so quickly: it took 17 years for a safe, effective polio vaccine to be rolled out in the United States.

But many resist this narrative. For them, science is only part of a much wider story – this great breakthrough included.

They argue that we survived the pandemic because people supported one another through mutual aid, agreed to abide by restrictions and made sacrifices in the name of the greater good. In this narrative, triumphing over the virus was an ethical success as much as a scientific one.

And they suggest that, while scientists have found a safe and effective vaccine at astonishing speed, attempts to manage the pandemic response scientifically were flawed.

Behavioural scientists told the government that people would have to be “nudged” into doing the right thing. They tried to manipulate people, rather than persuade them.

Ethical philosophers argue that this approach diminishes autonomy. They believe that the best way of persuading people to follow regulations in a democracy is to reason with them, using evidence and clear argument. As such, science ended up clashing with vital democratic principles.

Was it science that saved us?

Viral success

Yes, say some. They argue that scientists have guided us through every stage of this pandemic. Their advice, based on years of research, introduced vital measures like social distancing and masks. Now, working at breakneck speed, they have produced a vaccine to end the crisis once and for all. Failures in the coronavirus response have largely occurred where politicians failed to listen to science.

Not really, say others. No-one would deny that the vaccine is a staggering scientific achievement. But it would be equally wrong to ignore the important role of ethics in guiding our response to the pandemic. Pursuing their ethical instincts, people went to great lengths to protect themselves and others, succeeding where behavioural science failed.

You Decide

  1. Is it important that people should trust political leaders? Why?
  2. Should we be governed by “experts”? Or is it enough for our representatives to listen to a wide range of voices?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have to persuade someone who doesn’t want to take a vaccine that they should take it. What do you say to convince them? Write a short argument in favour of the vaccine.
  2. You are a scientist advising the government on its Covid-19 response. You have to choose which strategy to adopt: persuasion or “nudging”. Write a short argument making the case for your preferred strategy.

Some People Say...

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

Isaac Asimov (1920 - 1992), American biochemist and writer.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that modern science has dramatically improved people’s quality of life. We have entirely eradicated two deadly diseases – smallpox and rinderpest – and we are close to eliminating other diseases that once killed millions, like bubonic plague. Global life expectancy has risen to 76.2; in 1950, this figure was just 46. Human beings are healthier than we have ever been in our history.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over how far science and arts really use different kinds of knowledge. Usually we think that science deals in facts, in “right” and “wrong” while the arts and humanities are based on different interpretations that may be equally valid. Yet Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics famously work on the basis of completely opposing sets of “facts”, while scholars in the humanities must agree on a certain set of facts for their interpretations to be considered valid.

Word Watch

Edward Jenner
An 18th-century scientist known as the “father of inoculation”. Jenner did not actually discover vaccines: they had already been used in Turkey for centuries. However, he did develop a safer vaccine for smallpox, and discovered how they work.
Scientific method
A procedure for conducting scientific enquiry that has developed since the 17th Century. It rests on careful observation and extreme scepticism.
Russia
The Russian government announced that it had developed a Covid-19 vaccine on 11 August, but international observers think that it has not been properly tested.
Clinical trials
The final stage of the testing of new medicines, in which the drugs are administered to human subjects.
Polio
A virus that causes paralysis in some people, although others who contract it develop no symptoms at all. It has been wiped out in the developed world thanks to a universal vaccine programme.
Mutual aid
A system in which people exchange and distribute the things they have amongst themselves so that everyone has enough.
Behavioural scientists
Scientists who study human interactions and decision-making. Critics argue that human activity is too rich and complex to be understood through scientific methods alone.
Nudged
“Nudge theory” claims that human beings can be influenced to do things with subtle positive reinforcement. Instead of appealing directly to their reason, nudge theorists try to guide people to take actions without thinking about them.

Subjects

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