Throughout its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government maintained the position that it was “being entirely science-led.” While such an assertion might seem like welcome opposition to climate change deniers and pandemic conspiracy theorists, beneath this verbalism lies a misunderstanding of what society can and should expect of scientists.
The scientific method is a process of creating hypotheses, and then verifying or falsifying these using evidence. The word process is especially important to this definition: science does not provide instant and absolute truths. Instead, it is characterised by constant and open disagreement among researchers.
One of the issues with the kind of rhetoric used by the UK Government is that it presents the scientific community as one unified body, which it simply isn’t. While some scientists have advocated a strategy of herd immunity, others have promoted strict lockdowns. Negating such discourse presents society with a hugely distorted image of science. Specifically: one that considers being wrong or not knowing as a flaw, rather than an inherent part, of the scientific process.
Behind such rhetoric lies of course the desire to use science as a tool of political legitimacy. By claiming that ‘the science’ advocates a certain path of action, politicians are able to paint their decisions as the only logical and viable solutions. Though problematic in itself, the most troubling consequence of this is the subsequent outsourcing of political responsibility to an institution which is unsuited to carry such responsibility.
Political decisions will always be questions of priorities. While science plays an important role in shaping these priorities, they are ultimately determined by underlying values. Taking the example of the current pandemic, science can help determine the costs and benefits of pursuing policies such as herd immunity. However, the weighing of different policy options will come down to our evaluation of their consequences based on our values.
Democracy was designed to reflect people’s priorities in political decision-making. It is a system in which the power of decision makers is mandated by the people. Scientists are not and should not be bound by popular mandate, but as a result they also cannot legitimately make decisions that are fundamentally political.
The prominent role of science in political debate reflects the growing complexity of challenges society is facing, including – but not limited to – artificial intelligence, biotechnology risks, climate change, and, of course, COVID-19. Scientists play a crucial role in informing public debate on such issues, but the underlying political questions that arise out of these issues should be answered by politicians, both for the sake of democracy and the standing of science in the long run.