False Idols

For an administration that once derided experts, the Government’s reliance on scientific advice through the C-19 crisis has marked a stunning revision.  Whether it’s Boris Johnson’s supplication to be ‘guided by the science’ or the flanking of ministers by the high-priests of public health every evening, the ruling class have clung to the authority of experts to shore up their credibility.

But the unnatural alliance between politicians and medical experts is beginning to fray, raising interesting questions about the true value of scientific knowledge in public policy-making.  UK work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey suggested this week that mistakes made in the government’s handling of the pandemic were down to politicians receiving the “wrong” scientific advice.  Questioned on whether in “hindsight” the government had made mistakes, including over the spread of the disease in care homes, Ms Coffey told Sky News: “You can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time. “If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong.  I’m not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision. We are getting advice from the sc   ientists. It is for ministers to decide on policy.”

Sir Paul Nurse, eminent geneticist and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, put the case for the defence on Friday, when he criticised the government’s communications strategy on the Today Programme (2hrs 9mins in), suggesting that a reluctance to publish the evidence used to determine C-19 policy was undermining public confidence in it.

In the scientific community, the principle that you should always show your workings is immutable.  What’s less clear is whether presenting a range of scientific opinions to the public enhances confidence in the government’s decision-making, or simply gives people the licence to pick and choose whatever opinion best works for them.

In some respects, government has created this rod for its own back.  By hiding behind the scientific community, it has undermined its own authority and forgotten the maxim that ‘to govern is to choose’.  It is consequently unelected officials in public health who are now driving policy that will shape the social and economic future of this country for decades to come.

The tension between government and clinicians also highlights the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  Scientists may have knowledge, but we expect wisdom from our elected servants in how that knowledge is deployed.  The condescension handed down by the likes of Sir Paul Nurse ignores the fact that politicians have to square the circle between the science, what the public will accept, what is politically achievable and what is financially affordable.  Scientists bear no such responsibilities.

What’s clear from this growing spat between church and state, is that both are now calculating how their contributions will be viewed through the lens of a public inquiry.  Scientists are therefore desperate to have their advice (with all its nuance and caution), made public to shift accountability to government.  For their part politicians are displaying their own expertise in sophistry, by taking a once convenient press conference soundbite and turning it into an apparent article of government.

As the acrimony and finger-pointing grows, there will inevitably be those that question whether the experts have become just as much the false idols as the populists they replaced.

Nigel Fairbrass

Nigel Fairbrass