Let’s not just follow the scientists out of the coronavirus crisis

Chris Ramsey

Headmaster, Whitgift School

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I’m sure none of us would really like to be running the country’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, and I have to say that on the whole I think those who are, are doing a pretty amazing job. But … (you can sense a ‘but’ coming!)

Well, ok, one of the things which has emerged (and now become pretty firmly embedded) and which I do take issue with, is the quasi-religious, mystical value that seems to be being attached to “the science” (as in “we’re following The Science”).

Cards on the table: I’m not a scientist. Or rather in some ways I am, because ‘science’ of course simply means a systematically organized body of knowledge, and I do have a bit of that.  Mine (a good bit of late 19th century and early 20th century French fiction and rather less German drama) may not be immediately useful here. Except that the German for what we usually call ‘science’ – Naturwissenschaften – makes it clear that this is just one branch of knowledge, namely that which deals with nature, the physical world.

Interestingly, I read today that the German government is enlisting philosophers, theologians, jurists in the equivalent of its Science Advisory Group, surely because what we usually call ‘science’ is only one of the areas we should be taking into account.

And what in any case is “the” Science? I thought the important thing about science (in its usual sense) was that theories were tested against each other, never deemed perfect but always just the best current fit, and that scientists welcomed their hypotheses being challenged.

Indeed, wasn’t it the Catholic Church’s famously pig-headed refusal to admit any Christian fallibility which caused Galileo – to name just one example – to stand up for debate and doubt? He never thought there was ‘one’ Science, and here my knowledge does have an outing, because in Brecht’s play Galileo, the pioneering scientist says “The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.”

Now we’re told there is just one infallible answer: “the Science”. It’s as if we believe – like the central character in Middlemarch – that there is a universal truth, and if we follow it we will be saved. Or, as the Times put it this weekend, as if we just aren’t clever enough to understand. Or question. There, there.

Yet scientists – as far as I can see – disagree over such things as herd immunity, the efficacy of school closures, face masks, the shape of infection curves. I’m obviously not suggesting that the particular experts the Government is listening to are not as right (or wrong) as anyone. I’m just not convinced they represent “the” Science.

So I do question whether we should be living through or emerging from all this with the misty-eyed view that one particular branch of science – virology, say, or epidemiology – should suddenly be the answer to everything. Humanities – moral philosophy, sociology, psychology – these are all crucial sciences which we should be weighing against each other.

And I have an alternative to offer. Surely there are a number of people whom we would all recognise as wise, trustworthy, eminently followable, and who might form an expert group we could all trust. David Attenborough – a scientist, yes, but of a rounded, respected kind. Stephen Fry. Sandi Toksvig. Thoughtful, wise, clever people whose opinions people would follow. Not too many celebrities (some have milked the crisis for their own ends), but a group we could all get behind. And above all – as perhaps the Prime Minister is now doing – involving all parties. A bit of a coalition is what we need.

It’s not just ‘scientists’ who should lead us out of this mess.


28 April 2020