John Lee John Lee

Where is the vigorous debate about our response to Covid?

A schematic diagrams of the 'spike' used by the novel coronavirus to force its way into cells (Wrapp et al. / UT-Austin / NIH via Science / AAAS)

After a career as a scientist and clinical academic, I have been struck by how often they (we!) have very complicated and exceedingly well-reasoned ways of getting things quite wrong. That’s why I have always thought it best for the recommendations of experts to have ‘advisory’ status only. Experts’ roles are to examine the minutiae of a small subject area – with a view to gaining or advancing understanding. It is the job of our politicians and civil servants to develop appropriate policies. 

Experts can be guilty of being monomaniacs, interested only in the thing they are studying. That’s understandable, of course, because many of these things are hard to comprehend. And having put so much effort into their work, it’s also not unexpected, and very human, that most experts put a lot of weight on their conclusions and are convinced of their importance.

That’s exactly why, when scientists call for their findings to be implemented by government, we need politicians and civil servants to moderate their enthusiasm, examine contrary views and express appropriate scepticism. And, in short, judiciously weigh all the other factors that come to bear on any given set of conclusions. The Covid-19 crisis took the world by surprise, and the world (Sweden excepted) has reacted in roughly the same way: with lockdowns. In the rush, the usual checks and balances have not been applied.

Certainty in science is a variable feast depending on what you’re looking at. In the physical sciences you can often be pretty sure of the numbers. Stresses in girders, for example, can be accurately calculated. But in the biological sciences, things are a lot messier. Living organisms have endless layers of mind-boggling complexity and this makes getting clear-cut answers difficult. You have to make many assumptions before you start your investigation, and then it’s very difficult or impossible to predict and control all the factors that could inadvertently influence the results.

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