The latest bombshell to explode in the government’s face has hit its claim to base its policy for the Covid-19 pandemic on “the science” or “the evidence”. The Guardian newspaper revealed on Friday last week that the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) includes Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.
This is discreditable—apart from anything else Cummings dabbles in weird science. But the more interesting question is about the way in which the Tories try to cover their political choices beneath a fetishised “science”.
Given the situation—the rapid spread of a death-dealing virus—it makes sense to draw on the expertise of different kinds of scientific specialists. But the political advantages of appealing to the authority of “science” is twofold.
Science is supposed to be certain, so choices based on it can’t be contested. It is also meant to be neutral and independent of political parties and class interests.
But none of this is true. The greatest physical scientists—Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, or Albert Einstein—produced theories that were fallible, and have been amended and sometimes replaced by their successors. The history of the sciences is one of controversy, criticism, self-criticism and revision.
This is particularly important when, as now, we are dealing with something new. As an article in Science magazine put it, “Despite the more than 1,000 papers now spilling into journals every week, a clear picture is elusive, as the virus acts like no pathogen humanity has ever seen.”
One reason why the government and its advisers initially opted for the “herd immunity” strategy was because they were treating the virus as if it were a form of flu. There is some truth to the tweet by the quirky mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “The safest policy is to act as if we had no idea about the consequences of this.”
This is why the most influential expert advice involves constructing statistical models based on the growing quantity of data on the virus’s impact on human populations across the world. This is evidence all right, but statistical data don’t tell you what they mean. They need to be interpreted.
Much of the controversy about the different studies of the pandemic focuses on the assumptions on which different models are based. These assumptions aren’t dictated by the data but are used to organise them. And the theories that help form these assumptions are far from neutral. Sage includes two “behavioural scientists”
This is a form of pseudo-science that seeks to explain how people act socially on the basis of dodgy psychology and ignores the role of deep-seated structures such as capitalism, imperialism and class in shaping behaviour.
A contrasting approach is provided by Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet. He has denounced the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic as “the biggest science policy failure in a generation”.
In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Horton says he has been reading the historian-philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault developed the concept of “power-knowledge” in order to study how sciences develop in the context of and to serve particular forms of domination.
In The Birth of Biopolitics, the book Horton cites, he shows how liberal political economy took shape in the 18th century as part of the emergence of what Foucault called “governmentality”—state strategies to manage whole populations.
The pandemic in Britain is in many ways a case-study in neoliberal governmentality. It has inflicted mass deaths, particularly on the old and vulnerable in care homes, where the Financial Times estimates there have been 11,000 excess deaths. Horton fortunately advocates a very different relationship between science and politics.
“Some of the great advances, like the 19th century sanitary movement and the birth of the NHS, were not technical accomplishments but political struggles,” he says. “The idea you can strip out politics from medicine or health is historically ignorant. The medical establishment should be much more politicised, not less, in attacking issues like health inequalities and poor access to care.”