Should scientists be on the podium?

Owl noticed that the “alter boys and girls” were absent from last night’s daily briefing ritual. Should scientists be on the podium?

COVID-19 has given rise to an interesting piece of political performance in our democracies: the daily briefing.

Like most traditions, the briefings emerged half-formed. At the beginning, as the wave of infection spread and grew, they took the form of emergency broadcasts. Over time, they adapted to the situation and incorporated the appropriate experts. But across the world the variable geometry of the briefing set-up was revealing of the place granted to science, and most of all of the place leaders were granting themselves.

In Greece, incredibly successful in its management of the virus, politicians knew better than to take centre-stage – the health minister is a retired professional basketball player. In his place was the soft-spoken expert on infectious diseases, Sotiris Tsiodras, who became the nation’s favourite doctor.

In France, science was referred to and consulted but remained largely invisible. The message was political decisions guided by science.

Britain went for a different approach. After a series of blunders, the only solution was to shore up any pronouncement by flanking politicians with an expert on either side. The fact that science had to make such a bombastic entrance to be heard is testimony to what the government’s first reflexes were.

As the prime minister fell ill with the virus and then left hospital to recuperate, it marked the resurrection of politics in the midst of a barely controlled maelstrom of scientific expertise and political tragedy.

These contexts offer different lenses through which to view the relationship between experts and politicians. Some of it has to do with the variable geometry of institutions – in Germany and Canada, for instance, health is devolved respectively to Länder and provinces. As is the management of health emergencies.

Those circumstances both curtail the role of national politicians but also amplify the role of scientific experts, who become central in this form of decentralized management and decision-making. The main point however is that regardless of how the optics have been engineered, the return of science and of experts has been widely noted. The phrases ‘guided by the science’, or ‘follow- ing the science’ have defined this pandemic moment. For politicians it has been seen as a guarantee of competence – whatever cynical distancing from decisions it might also have provided.

The sharing of the podium among politicians and experts has brought a number of uncomfortable truths into sharp relief. Above all, and somewhat paradoxically, as politics sought to cosy up to science – and as science duly obliged – the size of the gap between the imperatives that drive each of these activities shattered some long-held truths about what evidence is, and how policymakers can use it.

As the crisis evolved, and despite the claims of many a technocratic government over the past 30 years, it became increasingly clear that evidence is not necessarily about certainty. And, perhaps even more usefully, that neither is science, which is based on the very opposite of certainty – doubt. Good science is always about testing your hypothesis, testing your results, it is about remaining humble in the face of evidence that can evolve and be debunked by new theories and the testing of those theories. Evidence, in other words, can change – hence the difficulty of basing final decisions on something that is by definition, potentially provisional.

These dynamics were laid bare as scientists sought to understand a new virus and its behaviour. As was the centrality of disagreement and divergence in the culture of science – disagreement is the lifeblood of progress. This has hopefully become far clearer to the lay public.

Politics, on the other hand, is about decisions – so even though politics must look to science, it cannot look to science for certainty.

As politicians and policymakers struggled to enact policy and define new parameters for the management of a health emergency that threatened to engulf our people and our economies, it became increasingly clear that science can only advise on the basis of what it knows – and some- times it doesn’t know for sure.

There are a number of lessons here. The first is that by turning evidence into the holy grail of policymaking without bothering to define evidence, the policymaking of the past 30 years was good at passing the buck – think of Margaret Thatcher’s mantra ‘there is no alternative’ – but it set itself up for hard times when a crisis such as this one revealed the dynamics of good science and the limits of evidence.

The second lesson should be that good democratic politics needs to be about uncertainty and doubt … and give priority to judgment, what Aristotle called ‘prudence’ – the capacity to interpret, the courage to decide, in difficult moments.

And politics is, well, an art.