The pandemic has brought science and expertise to the fore in the public sphere, as an anchor of trust—and put the populists on the back foot.
The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.
The Covid-19 pandemic demands we reconsider the role of scientific expertise and the relationship between knowledge and policy-making, giving new life to an otherwise heavily polarised public debate on this theme. The struggle against the coronavirus represents an occasion of contestation for science and politics, on a large scale in a globalised world.
These are two fundamental human enterprises, but their coexistence has historically been complex and problematic: while science aims at an objective understanding of the world that is testable and verifiable (or, in Popper’s view, falsifiable), political activity focuses on making decisions concerning people and societies (from Greek politiká, or ‘the affairs of the city’). The sudden centrality assumed by knowledge and technical expertise in the last few months is already having direct and far-reaching political consequences, within and among states.
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Behind closed doors
The contribution of scientific and technical expertise in relation to policy-making has always been important, yet too often assigned to behind-closed-doors meetings of specialist committees or delegated to ad hoc authorities, at national and supranational levels. Scientific experts have been largely invisible in the public arena, limited to commenting on specific occasions.
The Covid-19 outbreak has however dramatically increased attention and public-health experts—virologists, epidemiologists and other medical doctors—have come sharply into focus. They have suddenly been tasked to inform citizens and to provide policy-makers with science-backed evidence which can limit the ravages of the virus.
Immunologists and virologists, such as Anthony Fauci in the United States and Roberto Burioni in Italy, have become familiar faces to television audiences, providing strict recommendations to citizens often in contrast with the easy optimism and unchallenging rhetoric of governments. The media have contributed to an increased demand for science journalism, asked somehow to ‘scrutinise’ government policies and challenge misinformation but also to distil complex information for citizens unfamiliar with science.
Aversion to knowledge
The new centrality of scientific expertise in the time of Covid-19 has diminished the room for manoeuvre of populist, radical-right parties. They had proudly exhibited an aversion to knowledge and complexity—openly despising technocratic ‘elites’ and ‘experts’, presented as in opposition to the homespun wisdom of ‘the people’.
Notwithstanding a ‘rally around the flag’ effect initially boosting his popular support, the US president, Donald Trump has appeared increasingly nervous and ill at ease dealing with journalists pressing him during briefings; having first fronted these, he redefined them as ‘not worth the effort’. Trump’s disdain for expertise, which may have helped him in the past to address and galvanise his electorate, is now not only hurting his re-election campaign but directly endangering the lives of his fellow citizens—as with his promotion of hydroxychloroquine and other quack remedies for the virus.
Such disdain underlay his executive order limiting legal protection for ‘social media’ in terms of content posted on their platforms. Following a fact-check link posted by Twitter to two tweets in which Trump lied about the safety of postal voting, this again smacked of petulance.
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In Italy, the executive has managed to align itself strictly with the advice of scientific experts: in late April, during his first visit to the northern regions most affected by the pandemic, the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, openly opposed the crowd-pleasing rhetoric of the Liga leader, Matteo Salvini. Conte, once himself close to the populist Five Star Movement, affirmed that decisions concerning the easing of the lockdown in Italy would be taken by consulting the task force of public-health experts (comitato tecnico-scientifico) and not following an electoral calculus.
The role of scientific and technical expertise is having an important impact too on relationships between countries: addressing the pandemic successfully is an undoubted source of ‘soft power’. Germany is gradually emerging worldwide as one of the countries which has managed the outbreak best, with the chancellor, Angela Merkel, hailed as perfectly capable of mixing science and politics to explain lockdown measures in a plain but rigorous way.
Other countries have seen their soft power decline alongside poor policy-making, ill rooted in expertise. The United Kingdom, once a global leader in preparing for a pandemic, surprised the world on March 12th, when its prime minister, Boris Johnson, warned his fellow citizens to ‘prepare to lose loved ones to coronavirus’—only to change strategy a few weeks later. This happened while global experts and the World Health Organization were warning the UK to follow Italy’s example and immediately introduce strict lockdown measures.
Sweden’s decision not to implement a lockdown, resulting by May 28th in 4,200 deaths (in a country of 10 million inhabitants), caused reputational damage and became very controversial, with the Scandinavian state the only developed country to act in this way. Neighbouring Denmark, Finland and Norway (combined population almost 17 million) reported respectively 568, 313 and 236 deaths in the same period—little more than a quarter in all of those in Sweden.
Among top regional players, Brazil arguably exhibited the slowest and least scientific approach to the pandemic, only to opt for a U-turn eventually, a delay costing thousands of deaths in the Latin American country. According to the Guardian, governors of the 26 Brazilian states agreed that the strategy of the president, Jair Bolsonaro—who refused to listen to advice from his scientific experts—was ‘sowing confusion over the need for quarantine and social distancing measures’.
Imperfect and limited
The pandemic has unexpectedly assigned a new centrality and visibility to scientific and technical expertise within public debate. But it would be a mistake to consider science as capable of resolving all the problems afflicting our time, as if technocracy were the alternative to populism. Science is a human enterprise and, as with all human activities, is imperfect and limited—it can even be confusing and advance through serendipity. It offers mankind an evidential foundation on which to make decisions but is no substitute for value-based decisions themselves.
It would thus be a mistake to imagine scientific experts should decide in place of democratically-elected parliaments and policy-makers. Science cannot resolve the cruel dilemma as to whether to damage our economy severely through extended lockdowns or sacrifice the health of thousands of people—this dilemma belongs to politics, which by its very nature requires making judgements in light of and long- as well as short-term considerations.
A new alliance between science and politics, between scientists and policy-makers, is thus fundamental—but it has to identify the reciprocal spheres and their boundaries.