I’ve, in the past, suggested that climate scientists could end up being criticised whatever happens. If the impact of climate change ends up being less severe than it could have been, climate scientists will probably be criticised for being alarmists. This will probably happen even if the reason why the impacts were less severe was because we actively did things to limit our emissions and to adapt to the changes that were unavoidable. On the other hand, if climate change does end up being severely disruptive, climate scientists will probably be criticised for not speaking out enough.
I may, of course, be wrong and most commenters may appreciate that giving scientific advice about a complex topic is very difficult and that scientists can’t really be held responsible for the decisions that were made. I have a suspicion, though, that we might be about to get some idea of whether or not this is likely on a much shorter timescale than would be the case for climate change.
My guess is that those giving scientific advice about the coronavirus may end up in a similar position. If the mitigation strategies are successful at limiting the impact of the virus, they’ll probably be criticised for suggesting strategies that were too extreme. On the other hand, if the impact is extreme (as I hope it won’t be) they’ll probably be criticised for not having spoken out early enough, or for not having suggested more stringent constraints.
Again, I may be wrong, but it will be interesting to see what happens once this crisis is mostly over. We might expect some criticism from some of the more vocal media critics, but it will also be interesting to see the response from some of the more vocal policy experts. In particular, from those who spend their time suggesting that scientists are naive for thinking that there is a simple path from scientific advice to policy making. You’d like to think that they would appreciate the complexity of this situation and realise that if there isn’t a simple relationship between science advice and policy, you can’t then simply judge the scientific advice on the basis of the effectiveness of the subsequent policy. You might, of course, be wrong.
We’ll have to wait and see. Whatever happens, it will probably still be an opportunity to learn something about the complex relationship between scientific advice, policy making, and how this is then received by the broader public.