The Conservatives have often been accused of being driven by an ideology that serves the interest of dominant elites rather than those who need the most help. For example, despite the infamous proclamation that “we’re all in this together”, it is poor people who have been the most affected by the austerity policies that were introduced by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Similarly, the coronavirus health crisis that we face today may appear to be a great leveller (even the Prime Minister himself is not immune), but structural inequalities remain important – not least because more people from poor, black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are dying from the virus.
Led by the science or ideology?
Those in government have repeatedly asserted that they are being “led by the science” perhaps because they believe science provides them with undisputed authority. Some commentators, however, argue that attempts to tackle the current crisis continue to fail because the government is being driven by the same ideological commitments that put profit before people. Although I do not disagree with this claim, I will draw on sociological understandings of science in order to argue that science alone cannot be expected to provide solutions to the current crisis primarily because the limited and provisional nature of the knowledge that it produces cannot satisfactorily contribute to the political and moral challenges that we face.
The limitations of scientific knowledge
The main reason why science does not provide indisputable authority is that it is extremely difficult to establish what the ‘facts’ are and how they should be interpreted. This point was made clear by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet – the world’s leading medical journal – in his strong criticisms of the government’s ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Writing in the Guardian he laments:
Something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19… somehow there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending. We had the opportunity and the time to learn from the experience of other countries. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the UK missed those signals. We missed those opportunities.
Horton’s comments, deliberately or otherwise, draw attention to the limitations of scientific knowledge. To elaborate, scientists cannot record unassailable facts directly from the ‘natural’ world. They can only produce “signals” that are always able to support more than one theoretical interpretation. Thus, there will always be disagreements between experts, especially when the issues being addressed are emerging and changing rapidly.
The debate about whether face masks should be worn by the general public to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus also illustrates this point well. According to a report produced by Delve – Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics – face masks, including those made at home, could be an important tool in the fight against the transmission of the virus. However, other experts, including Dr Ben Killingley, consultant in acute medicine and infectious diseases at University College London Hospital, are critical of the report. He asserts that, although wearing a mask may offer protection to the wearer, there is “no good evidence” to support the main claims made by Delve.
Scientific disagreements are to be expected when the relevant evidence is wide-ranging or difficult to obtain, but ‘lay’ publics start to suspect that the scientists employed by corporations or the government may not be acting in a way that is truly impartial. For example, when Jenny Harries – Deputy Chief Medical Officer – was asked why the UK did not implement the World Health Organisation’s advice to “test, test, test” her response was more political than scientific, according to some observers. On other occasions, scientists have criticised the government because they feel they are being used to provide cover for political decisions. Although one has to be very careful about making comparisons between the coronavirus and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, it does reveal what can happen when there is a lack of trust between ‘the public’, ‘experts’ and politicians.
Establishing trust is crucial
It is claimed that a vaccine would be the most effective weapon against the coronavirus and some commentators are optimistic that one could be available before the end of the year. However, previous research – particularly on the controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine – indicates that the uptake of any new vaccine will depend on how much trust ordinary people have in what Giddens (1990) calls ‘expert systems.’ Trust can only be established between ‘lay’ and ‘expert’ publics if there is more space for genuine dialogues to take place so that diverse perspectives and concerns can be heard. This is something that needs to happen now, not next year or the year after.
Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.
Tony Shenton is a PhD Researcher at the University of Nottingham and is a social scientist with expert knowledge of cultural and sociological theory. Twitter: @shentontony