Boris battles the boffins over lockdown

Parting of the ways: The UK has ignored the recommendations of its scientific advisory committee.

Should we follow the science? As British politicians clash over whether to impose a corrective two-week lockdown, the role science plays in our decision-making has come under the spotlight.

It was business as usual in the UK House of Commons: the braying backbenchers, the derisive laughter, the occasional bellowed “hear, hear”. On one side, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer demanded that the government follow the recommendations of its own scientific advisors. And pitted against him was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, defending his decision to go his own way.

Johnson has assured citizens that he would “follow the science” in combating Covid-19. Papers from recent Sage meetings, however, reveal that his government has ignored scientific demands for more severe restrictions.

Yesterday, two scientists released a report claiming that a short, sharp circuit breaker lockdown could halve winter fatalities from the virus. Johnson has yet to heed their advice.

Science is the pursuit of objective knowledge about the world through observation and experiment. “For thousands of years,” writes historian Yuval Noah Harari, “humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people.”

Science has been one major beneficiary of this shift; political institutions have been another. This might explain why the two have frequently been at loggerheads – from the persecution of Galileo by the Catholic Church to US President George W Bush’s funding freeze on stem cell research.

For many, following science is tantamount to common sense. It has immeasurably improved our lives. “Everything that defines modern civilisation,” says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “pivots on innovations in science.” Medicine, vehicles, smartphones – the list is prodigious. Why would we doubt our own greatest resource?

When science fails, it is often because of political interference. In 1976, for instance, US President Gerald Ford rushed out a swine flu vaccine before thorough testing; hundreds of Americans suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome as a result. We should trust objective science over subjective opinion.

For dissenters, however, science fails to account for all aspects of human behaviour. While we often automatically defer to science – thanks to science we know that drinking bleach is a bad idea — we also regularly disobey it. Doctors say that chocolate is not good for us, but the average British person consumes 7,560 bars of it in their lifetime. Over 150,000 people in Great Britain were injured by cars last year, but we still drive.

Although humans have existed for 315,000 years, it is only in the past 400 that we have discovered such fundamental concepts as planetary motion, the circulation of blood and our composition from cells. Even when scientists do hold answers, since they relinquish these slowly, opinions fill in the gap.

So, should we follow the science?

Sage advice

Without a doubt, some say. Science is the foundation on which our safety, comfort and health are built. By providing objective truths about the world, it allows us to clearly discern what is good for us. “There are in fact two things,” wrote the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates, “science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.” This dichotomy holds true today.

Exercise discretion, caution others. If science holds the key to a happy and fair society, why do we dispense with its guidance so often? Science can not account for all aspects of our lives, at least not yet. “Politics,” said German statesman Otto von Bismarck, “is the art of the possible, the attainable.” In making decisions, we have to rely on what we have to hand now.

You Decide

  1. Has science always improved human lives?
  2. Is scientific knowledge the only type of information that is truly objective?

Activities

  1. In pairs, choose one scientific advance from history and prepare a presentation supporting why it is so important. After presenting to the class, hold a vote on which innovation is the most important.
  2. You are the prime minister’s special advisor. Write a letter to the Sage committee, justifying why the PM decided not to follow their recommendations on a new lockdown.

Some People Say...

“The nations may be divided in everything else, but they all share a single body of science.”

Isaac Asmiov (1920–1992), American biochemist and science fiction novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many would agree that the Covid-19 pandemic bolstered the prominence of science in contemporary politics. In 2016, Conservative politician Michael Gove claimed Britain had “had enough of experts”; in 2020, his party leader Boris Johnson regularly gives public statements flanked by scientists. Internationally, politicians have turned to scientific advisors to provide justification for difficult decisions and have expressed their faith in science to provide a pandemic-ending vaccine.
What do we not know?
Debate remains on how objective knowledge should interact with political power. A stream of thought running back to ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s Republic argues for an epistocracy, where those who possess the most knowledge have the most right to rule human society. Others, such as political scientist David Runciman, posit that to base power on knowledge is discriminatory and undemocratic, as well as difficult to achieve.

Word Watch

Sage
The British government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, which has expanded immensely during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Circuit breaker lockdown
A two-week full-scale lockdown, named for a switch that prevents an excess current damaging an electrical circuit. A circuit breaker lockdown in the UK could happen over the half-term school break.
Humanism
The major intellectual movement of the Renaissance. Originating in 14th-century Italy, the philosophy places central emphasis on the human realm.
Galileo
Italian astronomer (1564–1642) imprisoned for championing the idea that the Earth rotates around the Sun. The Catholic Church finally admitted he was right in 1992, 359 years after his arrest.
Guillain-Barré syndrome
A disease in which the immune system damages nerves, potentially leading to permanent paralysis.
Hippocrates
Traditionally regarded as the founder of medicine. Doctors today still swear to upload the Hippocratic Oath, which outlines basic ethical standards.
Loggerheads
In dispute with – likely stemming from a 17th-century word for a tool used for heating liquids. Loggerheads is also the name of two British villages.

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