May 19, 2020 11.13 am This story is over 26 months old

Barry Turner: Following the COVID-19 science

Tread carefully

Celebrity particle physicist Professor Brian Cox has made some well-deserved criticism of politicians using the “we are following the science” mantra. His point is well made that this could damage the public perception of science in general, especially where the science we are ‘following’ is incomplete at best.

Professor Cox remarks that the often-conflicting messages broadcast by ministers and government officials are being used as a shield where they have no easy answers. It is far easier and of course far more honest to simply say we do not know than send out a message, based on little data that then turns out to be inaccurate or simply wrong. We are following ‘the scientists’ makes it look like the scientists are wrong and they only have to be wrong a couple of times for public trust to be undermined.

What Prof Cox perhaps could have added is that the press and media are in large part responsible for this mythologising of ‘the scientists’ as the oracle with all the answers. It is clear from interview after interview that it is often the journalists who pre-empt this somewhat blasé assurance with a question along the lines of “are you listening to the scientists?”

There has long been an uncomfortable interface between the press and science, in large part due to their very different philosophies and ethos. Science is a search for the truth, not the possession of it, and those of us who work in a scientific environment know that that search is often long and sometimes disappointing. Scientists do not have all the answers, the science is never, as the press and politicians like to suggest to us, ‘settled’.

Having read very many scientific papers over many years, this writer can testify to the frequent use of the expression “we are at present unclear about the mechanism” often repeated in them. This means in ordinary speak “we do not fully understand what is happening here.” It is that of course that is the driving force behind all scientific endeavour. The press of course wants answers now, the scientists may still be looking for them.

We have an excellent body of distinguished scientists across all relevant disciplines advising the government and the media. From virologists to epidemiologists, from pharmacologists to medical physicists, we have many distinguished experts and of course we should listen to experts, whatever Michael Gove once may have told us, but we need to understand the dynamic here. Experts know much more than us ordinary folk, but they do not know everything.

If we are to follow the science, then we should be honest about that very science. The reality is in this case that there is a lot of science yet to be discovered for all we may now know. The pandemic is far from over, even if we are now talking about easing the lockdown — it will not be over until there is a vaccine and an effective treatment and that they are deployed for use in the community. We do not know when that will be, following the science on that point is not likely to get us very far.

We still do not understand the mechanism of this disease. We know the infectious agent is a coronavirus but there is far more that is unknown about how or why it has such a massive variation of effects from fatality at its worse, though mild respiratory symptoms, to possibly no symptoms at all. There is little to follow there yet.

We do not know for sure if this disease will be effectively a one off as many of the pandemics of the recent past have been, or whether it will be from now on a seasonal blight with inevitably tragic consequences. Scientists have openly disagreed on its origins, and even if we ignore some of the more fanciful notions about it being planted or broadcast by phone masts, there is no real consensus on point of origin, aetiology and prognosis or effective pharmaceutical intervention or treatment. Once again not a direction that we can as yet confidently follow.

Science will of course find the answers, it’s only a matter of time and effort, and then we will be able to be confidently reassured when our politicians tell us they are ‘following it’. Until then it might not be quite as bad as the blind following the blind, but it is certainly the uninformed following the partially sighted with only half of the road map.

So, the path we must follow is a steep learning curve and one with many obstacles yet to be encountered. Of course, our politicians must show effective leadership and of course they must listen to their advisors. They should also, hope springs eternal, be honest with us. Saying we are “following the science” is far from honest and as Brian Cox warns us, can do damage to the very thing and the very people we are now so reliant upon.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.