Boris battles the boffins over lockdown

Crossing swords: 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 and raucous laughter. On one side, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer demanded that the government follow the recommendations of its own scientific advisors. Pitted against him was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, defending his decision to go his own way.

Johnson had previously assured citizens that he would “follow the science” in combating Covid-19. But papers from recent Sage meetings reveal that his government has been ignoring scientific demand 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.

For many, following science is tantamount to common sense. It has immeasurably improved our lives. Why would we doubt our own greatest resource?

Some would argue that science fails to account for all aspects of human behaviour and is unable to measure every aspect of our existences.

Furthermore, although we often automatically defer to science, we also regularly disobey it. Humans may have existed for 315,000 years, but it is only in the past 400 that we have discovered such concepts as the circulation of blood and our composition from cells. Even if scientists do hold the answers, they are slow to relinquish them, allowing opinions to fill the gap.

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.

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.

You Decide

  1. Has science always improved human lives?

Activities

  1. In pairs, choose one scientific advance from history and prepare a presentation supporting why it is so important.

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 expressed faith in science as the source of 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 would happen over the half-term school break.

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