Chris Whitty (L) Patrick Vallance (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Imasges)
Artillery Row

Experts, know your place

Morality isn’t scientific

Outside total war, political storms have never more buffeted our lives and liberties than during the government’s response to the pandemic. When politicians decide from day to day whether we can visit our families, attend religious services, or even freely breathe our country’s air, it’s comforting to believe that these impositions are based on an objective, impartial authority. Thus the government has claimed from the beginning of the Covid crisis to be “led by the science”. This is a reassuring phrase, but have we thought through its implications? And are politicians performing the fundamental objectives laid upon them in return for enjoying the seats they occupy?

If government policy is led by science, it’s hard to criticise it: this is not a point lost either on politicians or their pollsters. Why shouldn’t science poll well? After all, it drives our entire technological society. It provides us with aircraft, computers, and vaccinations. It is also rigorously tested by peer review to ensure its findings are reliable and undeniably factual. What reasonable person could object to having their liberty curtailed, if the need for these curtailments has been demonstrated by science? Is this not our supreme value, and plain common sense, all rolled together in one happy package?

When the government’s mantra is questioned, it is usually because they have not followed it consistently; that they have not really done what the science requires. For instance, The Covid-19 Catastrophe, published last August by Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, identified a range of “missed opportunities” to reduce coronavirus deaths by imposing earlier restrictions.

In a democratic country, politicians’ job is to make choices about competing value judgements

What is rarely examined, however, is the notion that politicians should aim to “follow the science” in the first place. Perhaps this is because modern society has exhausted or abandoned almost every other kind of authority that might tell a government how to behave. The brush with mortality produced by this pandemic has not led to a noticeable surge in religiosity, while other sources of wisdom, such as the humanities, long ago lapsed into self-absorbed irrelevance. At a time when our leaders need guidance, therefore, to whom can they turn but to scientists? In any case, SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, a biological agent, and it is completely natural to assume that experts in biological science should therefore tell us how to respond to it.

This assumption is an error. Modern science is founded on the Enlightenment idea that there is a drastic difference between facts, empirical descriptions of how the world is, and values, moral assertions about how that world ought to be. Few biologists, for example, now accept Aristotle’s notion, long used to justify restrictions on contraception, that the function of an organ also reveals its moral purpose. Any of those who do hold this belief would be expected to keep it to themselves when doing science, for it’s a belief outside the realm of demonstrable fact. Science is thus a self-consciously value-neutral enterprise, accumulating knowledge about the world without prescribing the values to reform or improve it. When scientists do make such prescriptions, they are not acting in their professional capacity as scientists.

We clearly cannot morally judge an action, such as smoking indoors or building a wind farm, in ignorance of its consequences, and science supplies essential data about those consequences. The problem is that science cannot alone determine ethics, for there is no experiment that could prove or disprove the underlying value judgements that preventing children from developing lung disease, for example, is good and causing small island nations to flood is bad. There is a separate realm of value judgements about which science is, and must be, silent.

Lockdowns prolong society’s dependence on scientific expertise and thus enhance scientists’ power

Politics belongs to this realm of value judgements. Many of us imagine that just as chemists are experts on chemical phenomena and biologists experts on biological ones, politicians are defined by expertise on specifically political phenomena, such as wars, elections, and international institutions. Yet while politicians hopefully know more than the average citizen about such things, they are not required to have much expertise, and their knowledge is generally paltry compared to that of political scientists, who themselves constantly disagree about the most fundamental questions in their field. “Political science”, should we subscribe to such a concept, contains no corpus of objective, scientific facts with significant predictive power, and to that extent, it is completely unlike the natural sciences. The role of politicians, therefore, is something quite different from applying the results of anything that could be called or thought of as being political science. In a democratic country, politicians’ job is to make choices about competing value judgements. They have been endowed with democratic legitimacy for this purpose.

“Competing” is the key word here. In a world of scarce resources and deeply held philosophical disagreement, values are always in competition. Deciding whether to raise income tax to fund a welfare state, for instance, involves choosing whether to prioritise social equality or the taxpayer’s personal liberty. In the case of Covid-19, the choices are even starker. How many lives must be saved to justify depriving millions of people of liberties hard-won over centuries? How much damage to the economy should we accept as a cost of containing the virus? Should we use something the NHS’s metric, which puts a price of £20,000 on a year of healthy life? Or is there something qualitatively different about this pandemic, which demands a different response?

Few politicians have said much about these vital questions. They prefer instead to avoid these hard choices and quibble over whose policies more zealously “follow the science”. Yet it should be clear now that when scientists recommend a policy, they are not speaking ex-cathedra. Instead, they are ordinary private citizens expressing a preference for some values over others: private citizens with as many biases and predilections as everyone else.

It is time we were warier of those predilections. Lockdowns and states of emergency prolong society’s dependence on scientific expertise and thus enhance scientists’ power. Sir Patrick Vallance’s £600,000 stake in GlaxoSmithKline is a crude example of a literal financial interest, but the more subtle prestige and political influence that scientists have acquired during the pandemic is of greater importance. To borrow a Marxist term, over-reaction to pandemics serves scientists’ class interests.

When it comes to moral judgement, experts are just as flawed and fallible as the rest of us

We should listen closely to scientists’ advice, but we should subject it to careful democratic scrutiny, for when it comes to moral judgement, experts are just as flawed and fallible as the rest of us. As Churchill put it, scientists should be “on tap, not on top”. Democracy, when it works, allows society to deliberate on moral decisions. This requires our leaders to make difficult choices. Indeed, properly conceived, it obliges them to make such choices: this is their duty. When politicians abdicate their responsibilities (though rarely any of their prerogatives or perks) by outsourcing it to scientists, it is democracy that they place on the sickbed.

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