In the past few years, the idea that we should do what the experts tell us has lost some of its power. For example, a majority of British voters chose to defy economic experts and vote for Brexit while commentators fretted over ‘the ailing relationship between experts and citizens’. Politics itself, in the sense of conflicting visions of the future, and even clashing interests, has made a comeback.
And then came Covid-19, a new disease that rapidly became a pandemic. At UK government daily press conferences, the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officers speak alongside the prime minister or Cabinet ministers. Epidemiologists and complex computer models have been a driving force of government policies, including confining people to their homes and the closure of businesses, both of which may help protect us from the virus, but which also have unprecedented effects on people’s lives – not least a huge increase in unemployment.
Experts are welcomed as the guiding hand behind political leaders. A YouGov poll after the lockdown announcement found that 93 per cent of Britons support the government’s measures to contain Covid-19. And while 58 per cent think the government’s actions are about right, 87 per cent think other people – our fellow citizens – are not taking the crisis seriously enough. It would seem that we’re prepared to trust our leaders, and the experts, more than each other.
It’s easy to forget that it is a political decision to follow expert advice with the goal of reducing pressure on the NHS, while accepting social and economic damage. Dominic Cummings has long argued that experts should play a bigger role in deciding policy, and may see this crisis as the opportunity to embed a more technocratic approach to other questions. This unique challenge requires scientific, medical and mathematical expertise. However, recently some experts have voiced their frustration at the claim by ministers that they are ‘led by the science’. One scientist said: ‘I hope I never again hear the phrase.’ It ‘has become meaningless and used to explain anything and everything’. Are ministers evading responsibility for making choices and placing experts in the firing line for what are in fact are political decisions?
Some experts admit that there was, perhaps, a belief that the science was more definitive than it actually is. Even on the core advisory group, SAGE, there are significant differences of view amongst scientists, from the core understanding of the biology of the new coronavirus to estimates of how far it has spread, and over the rules informing social distancing and the efficacy of facemasks. How, based on ‘the science’, can Sweden take measures that are radically different to the UK? Which expert advice should prevail? One minister reportedly remarked, that ‘scientists are as bitchy as a bunch of lawyers’ and admits that they didn’t realise quickly enough that ‘epidemiology was more like economics than physics: lots of variables, lots of assumptions, and no one right answer’.
To what extent is or should our response to this threat be regarded as a scientific question, or as moral or political choices? What is the place of expertise in politics? How will the relationship between politics, expertise and democracy change in the future?
Watch the debate
Dr Clare Gerada
medical director, NHS Practitioner Health Programme; former chair, Royal College of General Practitioners
journalist, writer and broadcaster; presenter, Radio 4’s FutureProofing and How to Disagree; comedian, Take A Risk; author, Big Data: does size matter?
senior research fellow, Brexit at UK in a Changing Europe; senior fellow and former programme director, Institute for Government; former civil servant
chief medical officer, Rutherford Health plc; founding dean and professor of medicine, University of Buckingham Medical School; former director, WHO Cancer Programme