The COVID-19 syndemic is entering its most dangerous phase. There is a mounting breakdown of trust. Not only between politicians and the public. But also among politicians and publics with science and scientists. This breach of faith with science is far more threatening. For the public is slowly turning against those who have sought to guide the political response to COVID-19. As countries face a resurgence of coronavirus transmission, scientific advisers are recommending further restrictions to our liberties. There is now a palpable public reaction against these mandates. Whereas in March people were ready to stay at home to protect their health and health systems, the growing economic emergency that has followed national lockdowns is leading politicians to resist similar measures being applied once again. And it is scientists who are targets for public opprobrium. “Britain is in the grip of mad science”, wrote one commentator last week. A UK Government minister was quoted as saying that “[Boris] Johnson has been totally captured by [Chris] Whitty and [Patrick] Vallance”. “Boris is now a prisoner of the scientists”, ran a newspaper headline. Robert Dingwall, a professor of sociology, wrote “we have found ourselves in the hands of a scientific and medical elite with limited understanding of humanity and its needs”.
The reasons for this crisis in the science of COVID-19 are mostly self-inflicted. An early consensus about how to manage the spread of the virus has disintegrated. We see scientists splintering into factions. In the UK, the breach began with the formation of an independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), chaired by a former Chief Scientific Adviser to the government. Independent SAGE holds weekly press briefings and produces reports that frequently differ from advice given by the official SAGE. The rupture continued with increasingly personalised attacks. Oxford University’s Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson wrote that “It is unfortunate that Mr Johnson is surrounded by mediocre scientific advisers”. Heneghan, Jefferson, and others went on to publish an open letter to the Prime Minister arguing that his existing policies, based on the advice of the current Chief Medical Officer (Chris Whitty) and Chief Scientific Adviser (Patrick Vallance), were causing “significant harm across all age groups”. A counter-letter expressed strong support for the policy “to suppress the virus across the entire population”. The motives of government scientists are now being questioned in ways that are sure to erode public trust still further. Dingwall has suggested self-interest—“Laboratory scientists…need to justify their research funding”. Another commentator has written that “the priority for the Government’s army of boffins is to safeguard themselves”. And it seems that some scientists advising the government have substantial financial interests in diagnostics and pharmaceutical companies working on COVID-19. The Mail on Sunday‘s headline last week was “Government test tsar has £770k shares in firm that sold us £13m of ‘pointless’ kits”.
What are politicians and publics to do when they see scientists disagree? They will likely be perplexed that the evidence causing such catastrophic economic consequences seems so uncertain. That perplexity may quickly turn into mistrust when they hear scientists vigorously criticising one another or see scientific advisers with lucrative financial connections to industries likely to profit from the pandemic. For most scientific disagreements, time usually provides an answer as more evidence is accrued. But time is exactly what we don’t have. What is the solution? First, it is not constructive for scientists engaging in debate to vilify colleagues with whom they disagree. The scientists advising government are certainly not “mediocre”. Second, scientists with financial relationships to industries that are part of the COVID-19 response should consider either divesting those interests or removing themselves from their roles as advisers. And finally, when disputes about evidence do arise, scientists should do more to explain why those disagreements exist. Tzvetan Todorov, in his book In Defence of the Enlightenment (2006), was surely right that “debate rather than consensus” characterises our modern era. We should not be afraid of disagreement. “Humanity”, he wrote, “is condemned to seek truth rather than possess it”. But Todorov also warned that “Too much criticism kills criticism.” And worse, “Indiscriminate scepticism and systematic mockery have only an appearance of wisdom.”
Published: 03 October 2020
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