During the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become a mantra that politicians are following the science. What could this mean, and is it an unequivocally good thing for science and society?
Firstly, I’m somewhat baffled by the term the science. Yes, there’s generally a scientific consensus on many things; and there’s a thing called the scientific process. The latter is what many of us are currently involved in, applying a set of procedures to improve understanding of something that is not yet completely understood. And the scientific consensus is the sociological outcome of the scientific process, which is subject to revision in the presence of compelling new evidence when a further round of the scientic process is undertaken.
Using the science to answer questions that aren’t purely scientific, or even entirely well-formed, is cloaking a necessarily political decision in order to protect the messenger from any adverse effects. For instance, how is it possible to give a scientific answer to when to stop lockdown, without giving any criterion of success (pondering the trolley problem for a moment should quickly relieve one of the notion that there’s an obvious definition of success). The problem of balancing e.g. economic with medical impact of such a decision is necessarily deepy embedded in how that question is answered; the outcome is multi-dimensional. It’s possible that, contingent upon a lot of assumptions, a prediction could be made of the different components of the outcome (political, economic, medical, societal, …). But even assuming the associated uncertainties of these components be not prohibitively so large as to render them meaningless, using the science to entirely justify a decision is a disingenuous simplification of what is a complex question.
There’s a common fallacy that a question which is simple to state demands, and is capable of, a simple answer. It is hard for the expert to refute this hidden assumption without appearing to either dodge the question or appear to be gatekeeping. Stating “I don’t know, but I do know that anyone claiming to know is probably wrong” isn’t always going to help, but is possibly honest. If the question is answerable using our current knowledge, then giving a reply that includes all the assumptions and quantifies the uncertainty is already optimisitic; giving a reply when we have known unknowns is pre-judging the outcome of the scientific process - those gaps in our knowledge can only really be filled by careful inference from experimentation and observation.
I suspect what is frequently happening is that the views of a scientist, or a group of scientists, is being taken into account, and then through a process akin to Chinese Whispers any accompanying context, subtleties or caveats are lost when it is turned into policy. This is perhaps unavoidable, given the need to make decisions, but greater public understanding of the scientific process and of uncertainty would help.
When we are caught in the rain when a forecast said there was a 10% chance of rain, it is possible to feel let down - only when we find out that 90% of people experienced no rain that day (or that of the many times that forecaster said 10% chance of rain, it didn’t rain on approximately 90% of those occassions - see, even in such a simple ‘prediction’ there is room for multiple interpretations) are we justified in claiming the forecaster be wrong.