There was an interesting BBC Radio 4 item, hosted by Sonia Sodha, on Science in the Time of COVID-19. If you can’t access it, there is a related Guardian article. I’ve listened to it a few times, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It essentially focuses on issues with the science, and with scientists, highlighting how some of the scientific analyses have been flawed, how scientists can have quite contentious discussions on social media, and how some double down even when it’s clear that what they presented was wrong.
My first thought was, haven’t people been paying attention to what’s been going on with climate change? What’s happening now with COVID-19 seems to be mirroring what’s been happening in the climate debate for years. Also, the basic narrative seemed to be that presenter was surprised that the process wasn’t as simple as: the scientists do the science, then they tell the rest of us what to do, and lives get saved. However, few think that that is really how things work, so why do people still get surprised when it becomes clear that the actual process is much more complex than the supposed ideal?
Also, many of the examples of flawed science were things that were strongly called out at the time. I even wrote a post about one the examples myself. Yes, it’s not great that some scientific analyses are horribly flawed and that some double down when challenged, but it is an unfortunate reality of what is ultimately a social process. This is why one should be cautious of trusting single studies, or of paying too much attention to an individual’s credentials. It’s one reason why I think it’s important to have some idea of what the consensus is. It could be wrong, but it’s probably a reasonable guide at that time.
The suggestion was that this is all an example of post-normal science, when science takes place in conditions of great uncertainty, where values are in dispute, stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. My problem is that I don’t think it is; it’s just normal science. Science isn’t perfect, scientists do sometimes promote ideas that are wrong, scientists do sometimes refuse to acknowledge their errors, and scientists are clearly sometimes far less objective than we might expect them to be.
This might be more obvious when the stakes are high and decisions are urgent, but I don’t think it’s unique to these situations. I don’t think we benefit from suggesting that under these circumstances science is different to what it is when stakes aren’t as high, and decisions aren’t as urgent. In some sense, what this seems to do is validate flawed science. We should be calling out flawed science, not suggesting that it’s just a part of post-normal science.
There’s more that I could say, but I realise that this is now getting rather long. This is clearly an interesting, and important issue, and I do agree with some of what is presented, but think some of it missed the point, or was too simplistic. I also tend to think that some of what was presented was essentially knocking down strawmen; criticising a simplistic caracture of science/scientists that isn’t really consistent with reality. I’m going to stop there, though, but would be interested in other peoples’ views.