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Corona Diaries: which science?

April 10, 2020

2020 is shaping up as the Year of the Expert. To me, that’s a welcome turnaround from the days of 2016, when we in the UK were encouraged to be sceptical about expert opinion, especially when that opinion contradicted our political beliefs in the Brexit debate one way or another.

The trouble is that this year we’re learning something we seem to have forgotten about experts. There is no single version of the truth. Just as the theologians of Constantinople in the first millennium would argue endlessly about the nature of the Holy Trinity, and scientists have for decades been disputing the meaning of climate data, a bewildering array of doctors and epidemiologists are popping up on a daily basis to offer opinions on the efficacy of our coronavirus suppression measures.

Arguments and contrary views are meat and drink to the media, especially those that major on health and medicine. Not a day goes by when the results of one piece of research seems to contradict those of another. Butter’s good, butter’s bad. Cholesterol keeps us healthy. No it doesn’t – it kills us.

In the same way, consensus on coronavirus containment is wickedly hard to find. Don’t wear face masks, do wear face masks. Two metre separation? Nonsense – seven metres and hit the deck with your face buried in your clothes whenever anyone close to you coughs. Depending on whose opinion you read, the potential final death toll varies by a factor of ten.

Both the mainstream and the social media seem to be playing that game enthusiastically. In the UK, a bewildering array of professors from lesser-known universities are popping up to add their tuppence worth. Heads of quangos most of us never knew even existed before the emergency are giving interviews, each with a slightly different take from the other.

Then we have the medics whose credentials are only slightly distinct from those of David Icke, such as the guy who convinced Donald Trump that chloroquinine is the answer to all our problems – provided, as it turns out, we’re prepared to endure heart attacks and fearsome headaches in our desire to suppress COVID-19.

I suppose you could say that the blizzard of divergent information and opinions makes us all experts now, though some of the stuff you can read I find utterly decipherable.

I give you as an example a Mail Online article that I stumbled upon this morning via Twitter. Now I recognise that the readers of the Daily Mail are experts in many things, not least health, sport, the evils of socialism and the continual visitation of Unidentified Flying Objects. But this piece, which goes into some length about a Cambridge University study into three variants of the COVID virus, while interesting, will probably leave its readers, however expert, none the wiser about the implications.

It does have some value, I suppose, in that it will allow Mail readers who have survived the virus to compare notes with their peers over their privet hedges on whether their version was Type A, B or C. At this point it’s not clear which strain carries most cachet, but no doubt, being experts, they’ll figure that one out and add the distinction into their social hierarchies. Perhaps they’ll also be able to explain why, since we’ve all been taught to refer to the bug as COVID-19, the Mail is using another name: SARS-COV-2. Oh well, God has many names, so why not His instrument, the coronavirus?

All of which goes to show that our government was somewhat naïve in claiming that in its approach to dealing with the virus, it was “following the science”.

If we’d known then what we know now, perhaps the obvious question in response would have been “which science?”.

One more thought: from Ancient Greece through to Age of Enlightenment, what we now call science was bracketed under the label of “philosophy”. The squabbling philosophers of the ancient world would have watched our various differences of opinion with knowing smiles.

Some things never change.

From → UK

  1. Hi Steve, I met you a few years ago in Philly at WordCamp. I want you to know I read your blog frequently and enjoy your perspective from across the pond. Thanks for your voice! Stay safe!
    – Christina

    • Thank you Christina! I hope you’re well, and that the plague isn’t taking too much of a grip where you are. It sure is a compelling subject. Stay safe and well. S

  2. Claims to be “following the science” have always struck me as a tad dishonest. Science never (or very rarely) provides a definitive answer to what needs to be done.

    What it can do, is provide some indication of the pros and cons of a given course of action. It’s then up to politicians to decide whether or not the pros outweigh the cons — and to have the courage to defend that decision.

    This is not helped by the fact that media reporting of science is abysmal. Science tends to be an ongoing and incremental learning process with each study needing to be interpreted in the context of what was previously understood. Yet the press insists on reporting each study, no matter how significant, as some major game-changer.

    It’s really no surprise that people end up confused.

    • Thanks Paul. If it’s not a game-changer, nobody’s interested. for most of us, under most circumstances, scientific studies are deeply boring, unless they offer us some major potential benefit. At the moment, we’re waiting for a Messiah… S

      • That’s the thing: If it’s not a game-changer nobody is interested.

        So the media presents everything as a game-changer.

      • Absolutely. Especially the Daily Mail, in between stories about alien invasions. S

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