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29 April 2020updated 30 Apr 2020 8:21am

Politicians must do more than simply listen to expert advice – they need to challenge it

The soothing phrase “guided by the science” means very little.

By Ian Leslie

Would you rather our response to this pandemic was led by politicians or experts? I suspect most of you would plump for the latter. The terms have contrasting connotations. Politicians are self-seeking, deceitful and full of bluster. Experts are disinterested, honest and authoritative. It’s tempting to punt the big decisions to them. But experts cannot decide what to do in this crisis any more than politicians can author scientific studies on it.

One definition of an expert is someone who understands better than most how little he or she knows. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has remarked that his scientific advisers preface every answer with “I don’t know”. The scientists know little about how infectious Covid-19 is, why it kills some people and barely bothers others, whether it returns to those whom it has already visited, whether and how it will mutate, or the best way to treat it. They are desperately trying to work out the best way to handle it, but it is like navigating in a snowstorm when every instrument is faulty.

That’s why the soothing phrase “guided by the science” means very little. When the problem is as new as this one, there is no such thing as “the science”, just a spread of informed opinions which often contradict each other. On 16 January, Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, publicly urged governments to take Covid-19 more seriously. But on 27 January, Wang Linfa, a professor of infectious diseases in Singapore, said his “gut feeling” was that the Covid-19 outbreak would prove less dangerous to the world than Sars. You might have thought he would know, since he co-discovered Sars.

Critics of the government accuse it of taking radical action too late because it ignored the scientists. But up until 12 March, the UK’s risk level, which is set by medical advisers based on scientific advice, remained at “moderate”, even as the virus devastated northern Italy. On 11 March, the government’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries suggested that banning mass gatherings was largely pointless. Two days later Downing Street banned them – not because new evidence had emerged but because that’s what other governments were doing. If anything, you might argue that Downing Street followed the advice of its experts too closely for too long.

Experts have a crucial part to play in policymaking, but for their value to be realised politicians must know how to get the most out of them. That means, first, ensuring that their experts are cognitively diverse. Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, has remarked, “I am an epidemiologist and I worry that the response is based too much on epidemiology alone.” This was a wonderfully self-aware thing to say. Every academic field has its blind spots – the mathematical models used by epidemiologists are not very good at accounting for the empirical realities of human behaviour. The government also needs to listen to public health officials and frontline physicians, who can highlight dangers that aren’t showing up in the data.

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Second, it means getting the experts to argue with one another, and with the politicians (or their advisers). Psychologists who study group decision-making talk about the problem of “shared information bias”: groups tend to spend more time discussing what everyone already knows than they do exploring each individual’s knowledge and perspective. The main reason for this is politeness; people like to get along and have a low tolerance for conflicting views. In a crisis, experts may be particularly keen to be helpful by reaching consensus quickly, which increases the pressure to swallow doubts and questions. In his novel Amsterdam, Ian McEwan describes a meeting in which “everyone nodded, nobody agreed”. Arguments flush out the opinions that people are too polite to express at first.

Third, experts should be encouraged to sound the alarm when they feel it is warranted. At least some of the government’s scientists believed early on that an epidemic was imminent. In a meeting of the government’s expert panel on 21 February, John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had a problem with his broadband and could not be heard. He later emailed to say that he thought the threat should be “high” instead of “moderate”. His email was noted but it did not shift the group’s decision. What if somebody had stood up at that meeting and shouted? What if Professor Edmunds had sent his email in all caps? “I do think there’s a bit of a worry in terms of you don’t want to unnecessarily panic people,” he said later. We put a great premium, in this country, on calmness. But somebody needs to risk sounding like Chicken Little. Sometimes the sky really is falling in.

None of this is to blame the scientists. The point is that politicians should not accept their advice at face value. Matthew Cavanagh, a political adviser to Tony Blair’s government, has observed similarities between the slow response to Covid-19 and the planning of the 2006 British-led campaign in Helmand, Afghanistan, in which hundreds of soldiers lost their lives. “Our failure,” he said, “was not (as the media always assumed) that we were ignoring or overruling military advice. It was that we failed to challenge it, to interrogate it enough, to expose the differences within the expert community and have a proper debate.”

Cavanagh notes that one of the consequences of a culture in which politicians are held in low esteem is that they are nervous of being seen to question experts. It’s crucial that they do so, not least because they will carry the can either way. Both politicians and voters should recognise and respect that profound responsibility. We are all flying blind, but somebody has to land the plane.

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This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave