by Paddy Bettington
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the relationship between science, ideology and politics has moved centre stage. Paddy Bettington traces the Tory government’s use and abuse of scientific opinion, and how this has fed into a wider ideological battle across British society.
‘People in this country have had enough of experts’, pronounced Michael Gove four years ago, in place of an answer as to why Brexit would not be the economic disaster that economic models were predicting. No doubt in response to the growing acceptance of such a sentiment, last summer the comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted, ‘The world began to crumble when feelings started overruling facts’. Here, in the throwaway comments of two equally galling public figures, we see a microcosm of what Horkheimer and Adorno termed, the dialectic of enlightenment; two absolutist positions that have come to define our politics.
Collections of knowledge coalesce into a single mythology – be it religion or political ideology – which subsumes and warps further understanding, blinding its adherents to reason and independent thinking. The reaction against this force is enlightenment, the rejection of dogma and the encouragement of reasoned, analytical thought. However, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, we became so enthralled by the language and logic of reason, that it, in turn, became myth. Science or economics are treated by some as sacred as God once was. Reason became instrumentalised; we began to use it as a means to optimally achieve given ends but stopped using it to consider, determine or challenge what those ends should be. In their eyes, this development – the use of reason, logic and science as tools, without questioning the purpose of one’s task – facilitated the Holocaust. To summarise their view in Gervais’ terms, the world began to crumble when facts started overruling feelings.
The two extremes of this dialectic epitomise political discourse over much of the world over the past five years but, it has been particularly visible in the UK across the Brexit debate. On one side, informed heavily by Johnson’s now chief aide Dominic Cummings, we saw the outright rejection of expertise in favour of faith in abstract notions of sovereignty and British exceptionalism. On the other, an irrational fetishisation of the rational; economic modelling consistently held up as fact and the continual privileging of monetary values over millions of people’s negative experiences of living within the EU.
The results of this ranged between inefficacy and farce. Remain activist Femi Oluwole trying to catch Tory MP Mark Francois – a man who openly rejects the primacy of reason over belief – in a logical trap. An interview between Andrew Marr and Arron Banks after which Europhiles and Eurosceptics both took to Twitter to pronounce on how the exchange evidently validated their views. Or, James O’Brien having the self-defeating arrogance to publish his book How to be Right in a World Gone Wrong, seemingly oblivious to the reality that while right and wrong are subjective, his LBC counterpart Nigel Farage is objectively the victor in achieving his stated aims.
The pandemic begins
And so, in 2020, with the Brexit debate pushed to the background, it is this backdrop – a bifurcation of society which has pitted rationality against feeling and led each half to reject the very form of the others argument – against which we were suddenly exposed to a global pandemic that produced crises of both science and politics.
It is difficult to say with certainty what the most prominent driver during the Government’s initial response was; the absolute dominance of economic logic, or the willingness to dismiss establishment experts that had proven successful in a referendum and a landslide election. That said, in 2016, ‘post-truth’ was Oxford Dictionaries word of the year. The turn towards post-truth politics has been met with liberal commentators content with cleverly pointing out what they see as idiocy, rather than trying to understand the phenomenon as a failure of reason. It is implausible to think that the above context did not hinder the authority of medical science going into the pandemic.
In a now-infamous interview on popular daytime TV show This Morning, Johnson’s statement that ‘one of the theories’, was to ‘allow the disease to move through the population’, smacked of Cummings’ penchant for unorthodoxy. Being neither young nor cool enough to work for a tech start-up, Cummings seems intent on running the country as if it were one. However, the effects of moving fast and breaking things, when applied to the lives of people’s loved ones, would soon become politically untenable.
Over the coming weeks, Johnson stuck with the tactic of unorthodoxy intended to imply courage, greatness, exceptionalism. Yet the death toll continued to climb, data analysis – particularly that of the Financial Times – made it apparent to everyone that the UK was charting a similar path to Italy, and the nation began to lock themselves down – despite the reckless advice from their Prime Minister.
The return of ‘The Science’
Finally, on 23 March the Government bowed to the inevitable and gave explicit instructions for the country to go into lockdown. But Johnson’s rhetoric was designed to make clear to the public that the decisions being taken – running in stark opposition to whatever semblance of an ideology he has – were not being made by him and his cabinet, but by ‘The Science’.
There is, of course, no such thing as The Science; there is science. Within it lies a multitude of competing ideas, almost none of which are unanimously agreed upon. The Government knows this. Advice published by SAGE – The UK Government’s scientific advisory group – is littered with caveats and expressions of uncertainty. SAGE’s early advisory documents typically provide a list of potential interventions, a range of possible outcomes and a summary of sometimes contradictory suggestions. The tone of some documents becomes decidedly strained and frustrated, one noting they have ‘pointed out repeatedly that trust will be lost in sections of the public if measures witnessed in other countries are not adopted in the UK’. Ultimately though, as one report explicitly states, ‘It is a political decision to consider whether it is preferable to enact stricter measures.’
This ambiguity is not a failure of science; it is an honest representation on the part of SAGE that all modelling is a simplification of the real world, that within theirs are unconfirmed assumptions and unknown variables, and that other considerations – economic, social, political – are significant but sit outside their remit and fields of expertise. Faced with such complexity and uncertainty, we have to remember that members of SAGE are not democratically elected officials, so are in no position to take life-shattering, historic decisions that impact the entire nation.
Nevertheless, watching any government press appearance in the weeks following the commencement of lockdown would suggest a memo had been circulated with Government forbidding the use of the word science if not directly preceded by the definite article. The daily press conferences now featured a rolling cast of Tory MPs symbolically flanked by a scientist on either side. ‘Following The Science’ became the Government’s catchphrase and central defence against whatever modicum of scrutiny the media could muster.
Guided by the continual pursuit of power, and accustomed to governance by public relations, Cummings and Johnson calculated to present themselves as powerless to an external force. British exceptionalism, a stiff-upper-lip and some out-the-box thinking had allowed the UK to keep our shops, schools and offices open for longer than our European counterparts, but once the death toll rose, it was the ‘unprecedented’ situation and ‘The Science’ that forced the closing of the economy and the massive state interventions that were so at odds to Conservative values.
In terms of political power, not human life, the strategy proved largely successful for Johnson. The Tories’ approval rating surged to 52% at the beginning of lockdown and held at 49% into May. This surge coincided with an inevitable focus on the importance of public health: the portion of the public listing Health as one of their three most important issues jumped from 41% to 75% in four weeks, far outstripping the economy at 45%.
A test of vision
For six weeks, the instructions to the UK public we’re reasonably clear: ‘Stay at Home’. In the second week of May, as right-wing commentators’ moralising judgements of the public gave way to their instinct to protect capital, Johnson announced a series of relaxations to lockdown measures accompanied by a new, anything-but-clear slogan: ‘Stay Alert’. Yet even as the innate marketism of the Conservative Party began to re-emerge, and the struggle between wealth and health became visible, Johnson attempted to maintain an apolitical veil of science over the decision-making process. He introduced a system of ‘COVID alert levels’ which, along with their accompanying infographics, were received for the patronising pseudo-science they were. The most laughable component, an image tweeted by Johnson, revealed the supposed formula that would be used to calculate the current alert level:
COVID alert level = R (rate of infection) + number of infections.
Data later published by the Office for National Statistics show that at the time, on a scale of 1 to 5, the UK’s COVID alert level was somewhere between 62,000 and 250,000.
But polling showed no clear public support for relaxing lockdown measures and Government approval ratings started to drop significantly. Whether purposeful or an emergent result of conflicting interests, the confusing messaging no doubt appeased aspects of his conservative instincts and supporters by beginning to open up the economy. However, rather than taking ownership of a challenging, intractable political decision, this turn towards business-as-usual was performed whilst hiding behind a thin façade of science, all the while letting a significant amount of press attention – and at times public scorn – be deflected on to the scientific advisors around him.
Only days later, politics returned abruptly to our screens when it was reported that Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown rules by travelling from London to Durham while likely infected with Covid-19, before driving to a castle for a birthday-celebration-cum-eye-test. After days of calls for his resignation, with even the right-wing press becoming critical of cummings, Johnson was forced to re-acknowledge the distinction between politics and science when he repeatedly refused to let his scientific advisors answer journalist’s questions on the matter.
On 25 May, the Prime Minister’s absurdist tendencies shone through when, after his own attempts to ‘draw a line under the issue’ failed, he offered up No. 10’s rose garden to his aide, from whence Cummings proffered a full admission of his transgressions, but embellished with irrelevant and unconvincing details. This performance served only to fuel interest in the story and so to distract from it – or possibly to legitimate it – two days later, an aggressive drive towards normality began. Johnson announced that tomorrow an unfinished track-and-trace system would be rushed to launch and the final #ClapForOurCarers event would take place. The following day, Rishi Sunak announced the winding down of the job retention scheme. By 2 June there were announcements that some competitive sports would restart, outdoor markets, car showrooms and sports facilities would open; Tory MPs were widely reported to be lobbying for a reduction of the 2m social distancing rule; and, MP’s voted to return to Parliament.
The economy strikes back
By the beginning of June, it was clear that the Conservative ideologies temporarily set aside for the sake of public health – or to stem the outcry at the UK having the second-highest death rate in the world – had regained their primacy. We now began to see a visible rift in Government as the scientists, who had a public platform hoisted on them just weeks earlier, used it to warn against such a rapid easing of lockdown. Approval ratings had, by this point, returned the low 30s from which Johnson still comfortably won an election. Most importantly for Johnson, by mid-June, the numbers citing health as their most important issue, versus those opting for the economy had met in the middle at 60% and have mirrored each other ever since.
When the UK’s alert level was lowered from 4 to 3 on 19 June, it was with none of the transparency purported at the system’s initial introduction. While it is unclear precisely what triggered the change, it is clear that despite protestations and reports of advisors being silenced, just four days after it was lowered, a consultation had been completed drawing the expected conclusion that it was now safe to reduce social distancing measures to 1m. On the same day, Johnson gave the final daily press briefing, and two days later on 25 June, it was announced that pubs and restaurants could re-open. For most people, this marked the point at which lockdown effectively ended, with the Government actively encouraging people to leave their homes soon after.
This story is undoubtedly one of a Government willing to abuse science; to dismiss it when it goes against their aims, to use it as cover from political flack, and then discard and suppress it when economic ideals dictate. But there was a critical prequel, co-starring an equal and opposite force that facilitated this behaviour; an evangelical rationalism so impenetrable to any language but logic that it left those that opposed its conclusions little choice but to reject it wholesale.
More recent events offer us a glimpse into the far-reaching contemporary consequences of not grappling with then relationship between politics and science: The chaos ensuing from Scotland’s and England’s algorithmically determined A-level results, the Home Office’s climbdown on the use of a biased algorithm to process visa applications, or the steadily growing ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement.
Science is fallible and contestable. By treating it with absolutism, we bestow on it unwarranted qualities of rigidity and opacity which allow it to be both pushed aside and hidden behind. This crisis has made all too clear how vital ‘hard’ sciences are to our very survival. But, it should also show us the importance of presenting sciences honestly and transparently, as imperfect tools which merely assist us in much more challenging political determinations.
Paddy is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia, focusing on our relationship with work, employment and technology. He is also a member of the 4 Day Week campaign group.