There’s nothing like living through a global pandemic to engender a dawning realisation that real-world science is a different beast from the “hypothesise, test, repeat” science we learn at school. And that just because a claim is made by an eminent scientist it is not automatically elevated to a gold standard truth.
A year ago, I would have predicted that the role of science in a global pandemic would be fairly straightforward. The scientists do the science. Then they tell the rest of us what to do, and lives get saved. I would have been shocked if someone had told me how politicised the scientific debate would become, that people claiming to be informed by science would be arguing on the basis of the same facts that we should take directly contradictory action, when the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The latest example is the different decisions governments across Europe came to about whether or not to halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in light of concerns it could be linked to a tiny number of cases of clotting disorders. The UK and European medicines regulators have said there is no evidence that the clotting cases are caused by the vaccine. Many scientists have said the number of clotting incidents is no greater than you might expect to see without a vaccine, and that the health risks of restricting its supply while these rare incidences are being investigated far outweigh the benefits.
Why did different countries reach such different conclusions from the same information? The most flattering explanation is some governments still thought it better to temporarily halt the rollout, to maintain long-term public confidence in Covid vaccines. The less flattering one is that governments already feeling hostile to AstraZeneca after its recent row with the EU over supply were predisposed to this decision, risking harming public confidence via a stop-start approach unjustified by the evidence.
A helpful lens through which to understand all this is “post-normal science”, a concept that emerged out of scientific controversy around BSE, climate science and GM crops, which I came across when making a Radio 4 documentary on Covid science . It describes the kind of science that takes place in conditions of great uncertainty, where the values around science are in dispute, the stakes are high and decisions are urgent. Covid science is post-normal science on steroids, and it helps in understanding how the science that many of us like to think of as sitting above the fray, churning out wise insights, has become so politicised.
Post-normal science is more vulnerable to bad science. Covid is a novel virus about which we know relatively little: any scientific consensus is fledgling and it is possible to find scientific studies that reach contradictory conclusions. In these conditions, “following the science” easily becomes picking and choosing the science that suits your political agenda. This is not a new phenomenon: tobacco and oil companies have sought to undermine the scientific consensus about climate change and smoking by funding their own studies for decades. But in the empirical ground zero of Covid any amateur ideologue can find a study to wave around. Want to make the case against masks, or lockdowns, but appear to do it based not on values but truth? Look hard enough and there’ll be a scientist out there for you. The result is that the debate about a relatively low-cost, low-hassle intervention like masks has become bizarrely politicised.
The high-stakes, highly uncertain nature of post-normal science also paves the way for scientists’ own bias to creep in. There have been some eyewatering bloopers in the past 12 months. After President Donald Trump wrongly claimed hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment for Covid, the Lancet published a paper by Harvard researchers that claimed it was actually associated with an increased risk of death, based on an analysis of 90,000 patient records owned by a company called Surgisphere. The World Health Organization immediately suspended its hydroxychloroquine trials. But then other scientists noticed serious red flags: there had been more Australian deaths in the study than Covid deaths in total. It turned out the Harvard researchers had not actually seen the raw data, and the paper was subsequently retracted. We’ll never know exactly how or why this got published, but a desire to prove Trump not just wrong, but really dangerously wrong, may well have been part of it.
It might seem odd to be talking about weaknesses in science when it has delivered us several effective vaccines against Covid in just a year. But the politicisation of Covid science has almost certainly affected high-stakes government decisions over the past year, including the timing of lockdowns. And there are important lessons for how we do science in post-normal conditions in the future.
A big part of the problem is that expectations are so high: we idealise science as the pure pursuit of truth, unblemished by politics and profit, and scientists as people who deliver prescriptions so sage they almost eliminate the need for politicians. It is in so many people’s interests to leave this illusion unshattered: the politicians making difficult decisions who want to hide behind “I just did what the scientists told me”; the celebrity scientists happy to blur the boundaries between science and values-based advocacy because it gets them listened to and the contrarians who thrive on sowing unnecessary dissent. The uncomfortable truth is that science has its limits, and is far from value-free. Forget the post-truth idea that expertise doesn’t matter – in the last year, we have enthusiastically embraced the notion that expertise is unassailably everything. That is no less unhealthy.