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Following the science (May 17th) by Oli

"We are following the science” assertively repeats the figure on the television.

Following the science…

Like many others I want UK policy to be informed by good science and I believe that research is essential for public health and public mental health. But for me, the phrase “following the science” raises suspicion. Throughout periods of history, particularly in the history of psychiatry, people have used the authority of science to sneak in hidden value judgements. Science is crucial for telling us why things are as they are, and how they might be different given some action, but on its own science tells us little about what we ought to do.

There are of course many scientific problems to solve right now, such as figuring out the number of people who have truly had Covid so far, developing and testing a safe and effective vaccine and working out the best way to medically manage sick patients in hospital.

But the central problem might not be a scientific one. In a recent interview regarding children returning to schools, a scientific advisor said: “there is always going to be some risk, the question is; is that a tolerable risk?”

I think this question nicely demonstrates that the problem the government now faces is primarily a social and moral dilemma. What constitutes a “tolerable risk” is mostly a value judgement that can be supported by, but not resolved by science and research. I believe that acknowledging this is a core element of accountability and responsibility.


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