Seamus O'Mahony, 'Experts, Politicians, and Covid-19' -- Part 2

The experts advising the politicians in Europe seem to be mainly interactional experts; there are a few contributory experts, such as Sweden’s Anders Tegnell, who worked with the WHO during the 1995 Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire. This morning, I listened on the radio to Prof. Gerry Killeen, who argues that the Irish government’s strategy is wrong, that restrictions should not be lifted until the virus has been completely eliminated. Killeen was recently appointed “AXA Research Chair in Applied Pathogen Ecology” at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork (of which I am a graduate). I confess I had never heard of Prof. Killeen, so I looked him up. He has an impressive publications record, with a high citation count and h-index. He has worked mainly in malaria control, but also has experience with the Zika and Dengue viruses. My meta-expertise suggests that Prof Killeen is a true contributory expert, but I don’t like his stark message.

Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, is currently the country’s most powerful expert voice. He is an interactional expert, with a background in primary care and public health. He is relatively hard-line on the lifting of restrictions, but nowhere near as hard-line as Prof. Killeen. As I write, he still recommends a 2-metre social distancing, and has also advised the government that visitors to Ireland should be required to self-isolate for two weeks at “a designated facility”. Meanwhile, our economy has collapsed, education is in limbo, and people are desperate to return to “normal” life. Our politicians have used the weaselly excuse of “we took the medical advice” to justify every unpopular decision, but sooner or later they will have to admit that politicians make political decisions.

Lord Sumption, the distinguished jurist and historian, argued in his 2019 Reith Lectures that public confidence in democratic institutions was draining away, that the law courts were increasingly making decisions that should be made by politicians. Writing on Covid-19 for The Sunday Times, he argued that we citizens are partly to blame for this new risk-averse politics:

  • The lesson of Covid-19 is brutally simple and applies generally to public regulation. Free people make mistakes and willingly take risks. If we hold politicians responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our liberty so that nothing can go wrong. They will do this not for our protection against risk, but for their own protection against criticism.

The article provoked a storm of criticism, which he responded to in The Spectator by explaining the basis of his own meta-expertise:

  • One reason why people listen to me is that I was once a Supreme Court judge. But that is because judges, like other lawyers, are trained to analyse complex technical facts objectively, especially in areas where expert opinion conflicts, as it does with Covid-19. I have spent my whole professional life doing that.

What are we non-experts and ex-experts to make of it all? How do we reconcile the science and the politics? I cannot improve on this blog written by Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel laureate and President of the Royal Society (now there’s interactional and meta-expertise for you)

  • At the frontiers of science, there is always uncertainty . . . Given such uncertainties, ministers need to make the best decisions they can now, but also be prepared to change tack later, in light of new evidence. Being able to do that requires an openness and honesty with the public. The public will feel misled if ministers use “the science” as a prop to create a false sense of security and certainty only to change tack later. It will lead to an erosion of public trust precisely at a time when long-term trust is needed to allow the hard choices ahead. Ultimately, as has been pointed out, advisers advise, ministers decide. In these decisions, science advice is often only one of the things they need to consider. Considering science advice is not the same as simply “following the science”. Moreover, there is often no such thing as following “the” science. Reasonable scientists can disagree on important points, but the government still has to make decisions.

In their 2008 book Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans wrote: “In general, the speed of politics exceeds the speed of scientific consensus formation. As a result, too much greed for scientific authority is bad for science, forcing scientists to act in scientifically inauthentic ways.”

Covid-19 has forced scientists and politicians to work together. Science and politics are both human endeavours and thus, fallible; neither can give us the certainty we yearn for. They should be honest about that, and we should be able to handle that truth.

Seamus O'Mahony, 2020

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