I was listening to the a Received Wisdom podcast. It’s a podcast by Shobita Parthasarathy and Jack Stilgoe, which I have written about before. At the beginning of the podcast, the hosts were discussing the Great Barrington Declaration, and Jack Stilgoe said something that I found quite interesting. He suggested that – in the UK – the Great Barrington Declaration has been taken up by certain groups to generate an alternative scientific narrative and went on to say
oh god, is this like climate change all over again? A vital debate about policy options actually gets had in the language of science.
I agree that this there are many parallels with what is happening now with respect to COVID-19 and what has been happening for many years with climate change. I also agree that it’s very unfortunate that debates about what we should do, end up being debates about the scientific evidence. I think both in the context of climate change and COVID-19, it would be much better if the public debate were more about what we should do, than about the science itself.
However, one thing that motivated my rather uncharitable previous post was that the research field that could help us to understand how to do this, is the very field to which the hosts of this podcast belong. Researchers in this field have had many years to study this in the context of climate change and have, in my view, largely failed to come up with suggestions as to how to mitigate this.
In fact, in my experience, some of the contributions from researchers in this field have been less than helpful. One way you might help to limit the policy debate degenerating into a discussion of the science is to stress where the consensus lies. That way it might be obvious who is basing their arguments on fringe views and who is basing them on the views held by a majority of relevant experts. However, researchers in this field have explicitly argued again consensus messaging, because it’s, apparently, polarising and narrow.
Jack Stilgoe himself suggested that the Lancet letter (a response to the Great Barrington Declaration) was potentially an example of stealth advocacy. I should acknowledge having signed the Lancet letter, but given the signatories, who has endorsed it, and the list of those presenting similar arguments, it would indeed seem to be presenting a consensus position.
So, if someone is going to undermine attempts to highlight the consensus, then it seems a bit ironic to then complain when the policy debate degenerates into the language of science. It seems like an obvious consequence of a situation where the scientific evidence suggests that we may need to do things that some would find inconvenient, or that might challenge their ideologies. They will clearly then be motivated to promote any evidence that seems to support their preferences and the debate will degenerate into one that’s more about the science, than about policy.
Maybe there are ways to avoid this without highlighting the consensus. If so, I’m not quite how this would work. I may well misunderstand the basic issue, but that the debate about COVID-19 has degenerated into a fight about science is unsurprising, given that this has happened in the climate context too. I do think that this distracts from the discussion that we should really be having: what should we do?
Would be nice if there were a way for scientists and those studying the science/policy interface to work together to find ways to address this issue. This, however, hasn’t worked all that well in the climate context and I suspect it’s going to be no better in the COVID-19 context either. I hope I’m wrong.