A certain modesty for numbers men

Hard problems don’t make behavioural science a hard science

Artillery Row

It is incredible, only a month after Brexit finally ‘got done’, that we are facing down the barrel of a crisis much more vast, rapid and deadly. Or to put that another way, an actual crisis, and not the fever dream that consumed so many for the better part of four fantastical years, after which Brexit felt ever more like some unshiftable, unavoidable blockage in our body politic. In comparison, Covid-19 is a threatening storm rolling in on a rapid wind. Barely a moment ago the sun was shining in a clear blue sky, and now we stand, looking southward towards the horizon at the mountainous black cloud about to break over our heads.

Despite the hysteria among the political classes about Brexit, four years after the referendum there has still been no practical change for the overwhelming majority, and there won’t be, at least until the transition period ends on 31st December this year. Whereas Covid-19 looks set to fundamentally change most people’s way of life in only a few brief months, and mark thousands or possibly even millions of families in the most profound way.

But for all the difference between these crises, their respective public debates share an important feature: they revolve, to a significant degree, around disagreement about the role of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’ in determining the right path.

They revolve, around disagreement about the role of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’ in determining the right path.

Interestingly, the sides have swapped over somewhat. Ever since the Coronavirus became a public issue, Boris Johnson and his government have been ostentatiously wrapping themselves in ‘The Science’, assuring everyone who will listen they are merely humble messengers of the experts in white coats. The government’s critics, many of them like Rory Stewart, veterans from the war over Brexit, have set themselves against the government anyway.

It is tempting to just say, well, everyone is a hypocrite some of the time. And if you consider yourself in the camp that is consistently pro-expert, better to rejoice over the sinner who repents, than to grumble that they have come home. But there is something more fundamental going on here, which teaches a lesson for us all about a certain necessary modesty. Because we have a tendency to reduce concepts of ‘Science’ and ‘Expertise’ to a point that is not just simple but simplistic, something which crosses the political aisle.

Four years have passed years since Michael Gove claimed Britain “had enough of experts”, to the unadulterated joy of Remainer critics, who rarely bother to quote the next part “saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. Elsewhere he made clear he was referring to political issues like the widespread institutional support for joining the Euro. Indeed, in 2016 the experts at Her Majesty’s Treasury predicted a Leave vote would cause an immediate recession, which did not occur. To take another random example from that time, no less an expert than Stephen Hawking argued Brexit would see reduced funding for Science, and lo and behold, no sooner was Brexit ‘done’ than the government announced increases in Science funding to levels far higher than before the 2016 referendum.

Now we have Boris Johnson and Michael Gove clinging to the experts, and a range of critics loudly demanding an alternative approach. But, if we’re honest, those critics deserve a word in their defence as well. People obviously shouldn’t spread misinformation or wild speculation, but Covid-19 is a major public policy issue, and experts worldwide disagree on exactly how best to handle it. Britain’s relative delay in implementing aggressive social distancing is an international outlier. The Government claims it is merely following as “the Science” dictates, but I don’t believe the Irish are consulting leprechauns, or the Norwegians mountain trolls. I suspect other countries have scientists too. Now, maybe our scientists are the best in the world and right where others are wrong—I hope so, after all, I live here—but we won’t know until this crisis is over, and until then it’s legitimate for people to debate the best approach, as with Brexit, or any other public issue that affects all our lives.

Because, frankly, not all experts, or all Science, is born equal, or is equally applicable to every situation. Put like that it sounds trivial, but we don’t take seriously enough just how true this is. I am not anti-science, nor anti-expert. When it comes to Physics, I wouldn’t dream of contradicting Stephen Hawking, and I happily put my life in the hands of engineers several times each day. But there is a fundamental difference between specific questions of the hard, material sciences, and the application of the soft, social sciences to the broad, multi-dimensional issues that occupy society.

The material world follows clear, reliable laws, the same anytime and anywhere. The Newtonian laws that can be demonstrated in a classroom equally govern the orbit of the planets, and with enough skill can be used to send a spacecraft with pinpoint precision across the vast distance to land upon those planets. I could say numerous similar things about Biology and Chemistry too, and their related sub-sciences. But there are no equivalent body of statements to be made about Economics, Sociology, or Anthropology, let alone such things as ‘Political Science’ or ‘Cultural Studies’. This is not due to any failure of those researching these disciplines, rather it reflects the difference between human society and the material world.

The material world is, of course, extremely complex, but its complexity is that of isolatable mathematical laws combining to make remarkable structures, whereas the complexity of human society is that of many multi-dimensional social, psychological and spiritual causes interacting in a manner that is far harder to tease apart.

To put it plainly, Behavioural Science is not a science the way Physics is, or Medicine. And the response to Covid-19 inevitably contains elements of both.

This bleeds over even into a problem like Covid-19. Medicine is, without doubt, a hard, material science, I defer entirely to experts when they tell me what structure this virus has and what chemicals will affect it. But as we get into the social questions of how the population, and through them the virus, will respond to certain interventions over the coming months, we already move into softer territory, where assumptions and judgements come into play that are not matters of strict scientific law. To put it plainly, Behavioural Science is not a science the way Physics is, or Medicine. And the response to Covid-19 inevitably contains elements of both, as well as issues of ethical values and priorities, and political communication and leadership, which will in turn shape how the public respond to any body of interventions.

This is not to doubt the presence of genuine expertise in social sciences, far from it, and within each science there are areas more precisely theoretically and empirically supported than others. It is merely to say that experts in these areas cannot generally dictate the solutions to our problems the way an engineer can dictate how a bridge should be constructed.

And as the world grows ever more complex, interconnected and technical, questions of expertise will continue to shape the debates we must have as a society. Our media and politicians helping us to honestly understand which questions are matters of sharp fact, and which are more issues of judgement, and neither exaggerating or denying the relevant expertise to those questions, would go some way towards helping us reach agreement on what path we should tread from here.

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