April 25, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich
Science, sanity and sanitation
Lots of things keep happening in this pandemic… Two things, in particular, happened over the last couple of days, which made me and many others sit up and think. The membership of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, was revealed at last, and we heard that Dominic Cummings attended meetings. At the same time, roughly, Donald Trump revealed that he doesn’t understand how a virus works and doesn’t understand how disinfectants work.
Both revelations caused some consternation and scrutiny. The first triggered discussions about science and politics, the second triggered discussions about sanitation and sanity. All this will be great fodder to future analyses of science and health policy and I hope Jon Agar will write a book about this similar to his book about Science Policy under Thatcher.
Having offloaded this topic onto others and the future, I’ll turn to what I normally do, i.e. look at some metaphors that caught my eye. I found them in two contributions. One a thread, the other a news article.
The thread is by Alex Andreou who was born in Greece and has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs at Sturdyblog. He tweets @sturdyalex and also writes for The Guardian where I found his short CV. The article is by Marina Hyde who is a Guardian columnist and tweets @MarinaHyde. The thread deals directly with the fall-out from the first revelation (SAGE); the article with the fall-out from the second (Trump), but also comments on the first.
The UK government, like all governments in the world, relies on scientific advice in order to govern in a world transfused with science and technology. This is especially important in the context of matters of public health which affect all our lives. During the current pandemic the advice has been coordinated by two groups, NERVTAG, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, whose membership has never been a secret and SAGE whose membership was shrouded in mystery. This has caused some concern, as SAGE has more power, I think, than NERVTAG and is chaired by the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser.
We all know by now that the daily press briefings about COVID-19 are quite repetitive. They repeat slogans that are supposed to make us act in certain ways (stay home, save lives, protect the NHS etc.), and they ram home the fact that ministers rely on scientific advice ‘every step of the way’….
Recently, people have become a bit weary of this and have started to surmise that this might have various reasons, one of them being to lay the ground for the shifting of blame onto scientists if things go wrong. As Hyde says succinctly: “The one entity everyone wants you to think is in charge, though, is The Science. Of all the seven phrases of magnetic fridge poetry that are rearranged each day to fashion a 5pm briefing, the most ominous is surely ‘We have, at all times, been led by the science.’ This is untrue, no matter how many times they say it.”
So what about the metaphors in Hyde’s article and Andreou’s thread?
Scientists as prophylactic
The metaphors that interested me (but there are many others) circle around using scientists as, what one may call, a cordon sanitaire. At the end of her article Hyde explains what science is and is not (it’s not “some monolithic stone tablet that gets handed to Raab to read out to the masses”), and what science can and cannot do and what scientists can and cannot do in relation to politics. She also explains or rather warns, more importantly, what politicians can do with scientists. They can use them in the way intended – to inform policy and inform the public (see Germany, see New Zealand) or they can use them for political ends.
As Hyde points out, scientists themselves are beginning to feel that they are used as ‘human shields’. Linking back up with the topic of Trump’s advice on disinfectant, she then says that politicians use scientists “as a prophylactic. Call it a nerd immunity strategy…”.
Scientists and sewage
Now we come to Andreou. In his thread he mixes various metaphors of sewage and sacrifice. He points out that Johnson, still away at Chequers, is surrounded by four or five rings of accountability ‘protection’ – which made me think of course of disinfectant! This is important, he points out, as “what the Cummings SAGE story reveals is that Downing St believes the sewage is beginning to splash the Prime Minister’s feet”.
That is bad, as it might contaminate the reputation of Johnson and the government. Now we come to the sacrifice metaphors – which are indeed metaphors of ‘sanitation’. Andreou writes about those rings of protection: “They are (in order of sacrificial preference): Public Health England, Whitty and Vallance, Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings, (Raab or Gove, at a pinch). Johnson, with his long convalescence, is giving himself time to decide which firing(s) would sanitise him from his mess”. (I have slightly changed the punctuation of that tweet)
The thread goes into much more detail about each sanitising ‘ring’, about which you can read on the thread. Andreou ends by saying, using military metaphors: “In the next few days (first shots probably fired in Sunday papers), watch out for what Johnson’s team briefs and in which direction Cummings decides to punch: Back down at PHE, Whitty Vallance, Hancock? Across at Raab or Gove (notionally in charge atm)? Or even up at Johnson?”
Science, politics and sanity
What can we learn from all this? In principle science is there to inform politics/policies. The political decisions based on that information are taken by politicians, who, whether they want to or not, are then responsible for those decisions. There is lots to say about this short description, which some will call too ‘linear’. This is, however, unavoidable when trying to say something simple about something extremely complex and messy (with, I admit, lots of feedback loops etc.).
As we’ll find out in future inquiries, lots of things, including science, but especially politics, went wrong during this pandemic in terms of science informing politics and politicians making science-informed decisions. This does not mean the ideal image of ‘linear’ process shouldn’t be something to continuously aspire to.
We could perhaps try to imitate New Zealand in this respect. As Paul Young, who is passionate about virology and science communication, said in a recent tweet: “Oz and NZ show how it can be done – it’s not been perfect but scientific advice, for the most part, has been advocated and implemented, and community engagement has been positive and uplifting”.
If we don’t aspire to this, things can become a bit insane and unsanitary. Scientists and their expertise can then be misused for political ends, as, for example a cordon sanitaire or as scapegoats when things go wrong. This misuse may include the ideal of the ‘linear process’ of science advice itself, which can be used by politicians to abdicate responsibility for their actions. How do they do this? They can frame themselves as just ‘following’ the science, rather than as using science constructively and critically to inform, not determine, their political decision making.
(Thanks to Bruce Stafford for alerting to Alex Andreou’s thread!)