Revenge of the nerds

25 Sep 2020

DRD Partner, Duncan Fulton, writes on who the public are to believe when it comes to Covid.

With every scientist becoming an armchair politician, and every politician becoming an armchair scientist, how do we know who to believe when the government doesn’t seem to know either?

Have you picked your tribe yet?

Are you Greenhalgh (we think Roundhead) or a Heneghan-Gupta-Sikora (definitely Cavalier).

Does your social media feed lead you down rabbit hole of self-reinforcing and selective science like ours does? Snapshot admittedly needs to get out more. Oh, wait … we can’t.

This isn’t a piece on the rights or wrongs of the latest Covid restrictions (although with an A* in GCSE Chemistry, awarded in the days when you couldn’t just choose your own grade, Snapshot does have some pretty strong views), but on the question of ‘who should we believe’?

This week Whitty and Vallance were back with their science, while Downing Street was treated to not one but two letters from rival gangs of “leading” “experts”, some, even, from the same institutions, presenting diametrically opposed policy recommendations based on the same data. Depending on who you choose to believe, either the measures introduced are needless and we should instead shield the vulnerable and let the rest get on with their lives, or they don’t go nearly far enough and, unless we immediately bolt the front door and bury our heads in the sand, we’re all doomed. Or words to that effect.

An out-break of science

If we think the outbreak of ‘science’ was bad back in the Spring, now it really is a pandemic. Everyone is an armchair scientist. Every scientist is an armchair politician. Every journalist has a Sage. Every Sage has a journalist. If only our politicians could start being politicians – but instead there has been zero debate or opportunity for our elected representatives to question these extraordinary measures, let alone challenge them.

Instead we are treated to the scientific credibility fruit machine: Ching. Ching. Ching. The formula is simple: Add [university] (preferably something Oxford or Imperial, but if it proves a sensationalist point consider St Andrews or, in extremis, a ‘newer university), add centre for, insert adjective [experimental/mathematical/theoretical], add medicine. Pull the lever.  Ching. Ching. Ching. No-one will ever know the difference, not least the armies of production assistants lining up to “get a scientist” on Zoom.

In parallel, we have Sage, Independent Sage, former Sage members, Sage members talking independently and…Piers Morgan. None of them are exposed to the full breadth of information or implications but all are perfect headline fodder. What’s good for the epidemiological goose, almost certainly isn’t for the economic gander. But no matter, some sage will have spoken.

Revenge of the Nerds

Snapshot has a theory. These lab rats have spent careers talking to each other through the medium of scientific journals – now they are released unfiltered and non-peer reviewed onto our morning TV shows and into our social media feeds. These scientists are just loving the limelight. Take Neil Ferguson. If his increasingly frequent media appearances are anything to go by, he seems to have had quite the redemptive arc. No mean feat for someone whose modelling bore little relationship to what transpired, and was caught with his breeches down breaching the very lockdown his modelling brought about.

Harnessing fear

If the Government seems to be struggling to know who to believe and which science to follow – how, as punters, are we supposed to make an informed decision? Snapshot’s fear is that the answer is: we’re not. The Government’s primary appeal to the public is emotional rather than rational. It may be dressed up as science and plotted on a graph – but fundamentally fear is what put and kept people in lockdown first time round, and fear (they hope) is what will help us avoid it again.

The problem now is that having been told to ‘eat out to help out’ and get back into the office, we’re now being told we are not afraid enough, and the Government is reduced to threats and the genuinely unpleasant invitation to shop-thy-neighbour. It’s also true that, whisper it, we might not have been on our collective best behaviour after all – with Kings College, London research suggesting that out of every 5 of us presenting Covid symptoms not even one whole person has self-isolated. Only 1 in 9 of us has isolated if required to by NHS test and trace.

Herein lies a Covid paradox. If YouGov is to be believed, 45% of the public think this week’s measures don’t go far enough – with another 32% saying they are about right. 13% say they go too far, with only 10% brave enough to say they don’t know. This is the unholy mess that happens when science, politics and reality collide.

Who should we trust

So if science hasn’t given us the definitive answer, who should we believe? The politicians? Oh God no…

Snapshot has missed the once monthly spectacle of Nicola Sturgeon trumping Boris with every announcement on new Covid measures. Like one of those fairground guess-the-weight games, she’ll always say what he was about to say, but one more.

In our Information Age it’s not supposed to be like this. Against a backdrop of increasing restrictions on our lives, dire economic forecasts and the prospect of a bleak Covid-winter, our powerlessness is something which invests in this government an extraordinary responsibility to act in our best interests and make sound choices for good reasons. But when we have a PM with a complicated relationship with the truth, and a media still seemingly obsessed with finding cock-up or conspiracy at every turn, where should we turn?

Parliament in particular needs to step up, and find a way to have a say and ensure that the liberties being taken with our liberty over Covid should not be regarded as a licence to push the boundaries of what the public will tolerate in other spheres of our lives. Just because we may be prepared to live with the rule-of-six doesn’t mean that the People’s Republic of Kent is acceptable.

So the Government has defaulted to fear. Perhaps it must do. Fear does mask a fundamental failure in testing and tracking. Fear does mask an absence of strategy. Fear means that when the government says trust us- we have no choice but to do so or face the consequences.

Snapshot sometimes feels as though we’ve had enough of experts.