Follow the science. It has become a mantra for Boris Johnson and senior ministers throughout this crisis. There are variations. One of them is: ‘We are guided by the science.’ Sometimes it’s ‘the best scientific advice’.
Rather as in the Star Wars movies when the goodies constantly say ‘May the force be with you’ to bolster their own spirits and buck up those who are rocketing off into the unknown, ministers go around chanting that they are following the science.
Except for one, that is. An obscure Cabinet minister, Therese Coffey, had the gall to suggest on Tuesday that scientists are not always correct, and that when the Government has got things wrong this could be because it has received duff advice from the boffins.
All hell broke loose. No 10 instantly disowned Miss Coffey, insisting it loved its scientists, while the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, yesterday described her remarks on BBC radio as ‘unproductive’. I certainly wouldn’t choose to cross the Sahara desert with Mr Buckland if there were only one water bottle between us.
An obscure Cabinet minister, Therese Coffey, had the gall to suggest on Tuesday that scientists are not always correct, and that when the Government has got things wrong this could be because it has received duff advice from the boffins
Meanwhile, at the daily media briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the Ministry of Defence, sounded a bit shirty. She said she and her ilk ‘have been focused on trying to give good-quality advice, completely rooted in evidence’.
I shouldn’t describe the Work and Pensions Secretary as ‘Miss Coffey’. She is Dr Coffey, having obtained a PhD in chemistry at the respected University College London. Her scientific background makes her almost unique in the Cabinet.
The only other senior minister who can lay claim to a scientific training is Business Secretary Alok Sharma, who studied applied physics with electronics. International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan read maths. The other 19 members of the Cabinet studied non-scientific subjects, or nothing at all.
Now it seems to me that if anyone in the upper echelons of Government is qualified to point out that not all the scientific advice it has received has been flawless, that person is Dr Coffey. Yet the poor woman is being treated as a pariah for opening her mouth.
She has the scientific knowledge, and therefore the intellectual confidence, to enable her to point out deficiencies and inconsistencies in the advice of those the Government continues to venerate while it ‘follows the science’.
Look at the ‘quad’ of senior ministers who have been running the show with Boris Johnson during the Covid-19 crisis while Dr Coffey has been busying herself at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is a very long time since any of them last peered into a test tube
Look at the ‘quad’ of senior ministers who have been running the show with Boris Johnson during the Covid-19 crisis while Dr Coffey has been busying herself at the Department for Work and Pensions. It is a very long time since any of them last peered into a test tube.
The PM read classics at Oxford. Michael Gove studied English, also at Oxford. Dominic Raab buried his nose in law books at Oxford and Cambridge. Both Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock read politics, philosophy and economics (the ‘must-have’ degree for many aspiring modern politicians) at Oxford.
Not a single scientist among them. And not many scientists, I would wager, among the senior civil servants and ‘special advisers’ who surround and counsel them as they try to make sense of the mountains of scientific advice put before them by bodies such as Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).
We are governed by non-scientists during a crisis in which the enemy — the coronavirus — must be defined, fought and beaten by methods devised by scientists. How well suited are the humanities graduates who rule us to lead us in this battle?
Let’s leave that question unanswered for a moment, and consider some of the errors the Government’s scientific advisers have made since the beginning of the pandemic. You don’t have to be a scientist (and I’m not) to be clear that these people have not always given good advice.
Back in early March, we were told that closing schools would only be of marginal benefit. Large gatherings were said not necessarily to be dangerous — and Cheltenham races went ahead with disastrous results.
The Government’s scientific advisers also ruled out quarantining some 18 million incoming air passengers in the three months before the lockdown even though their counterparts in countries such as Australia and New Zealand were urging the shutting of borders — with highly beneficial results.
Another piece of fatal guidance given to the Government was that it was ‘very unlikely’ care homes would be affected. Talk about famous last words. Sage debated for weeks whether masks would be useful, long after most other countries had commonsensically decided that they were.
The PM read classics at Oxford. Michael Gove (pictured) studied English, also at Oxford
When the Government foolishly abandoned ‘track and tracing’ testing in mid-March, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jenny Harries, declared: ‘There comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention.’ She wasn’t speaking off her own bat. Her views were those of Public Health England, and probably Sage.
I could go on. There are numerous examples of poor advice being offered by reputed experts. My purpose is not to chastise them. I only suggest that scientists are not gods, and that they can get things badly wrong, particularly when their adversary is a previously unknown virus.
If the Government had had a Margaret Thatcher (a chemist) or an Angela Merkel (an even more distinguished chemist) at the helm, would it have interrogated and examined the scientists more exhaustively than our current rulers have, and discarded bits of suspect advice more readily? I believe it almost certainly would.
There is a fissure in modern society which the novelist and scientist C. P. Snow highlighted in a famous 1959 Cambridge lecture, The Two Cultures, later turned into a book. Snow, who unusually had a foot in both camps, maintained that mutual incomprehension existed between the realms of science and the arts, each of which thought itself paramount.
There were, he argued, two distinct ways of looking at the world, and each by itself was incomplete.
Some accused him of over-simplification (while the literary critic F. R. Leavis dismissed Snow’s theory on the dubious grounds that he was a bad novelist) but the rift he identified was surely correct. It endures.
Our rulers are clever people who, being intellectually at sea in the unfamiliar world of science, are apt to bend the knee too readily to its practitioners. In normal times it would not matter because it is rare in politics for a major problem to be defined exclusively in scientific terms.
In the past few weeks, though, Boris and his colleagues have been required to make quick-fire decisions on all manner of issues which they have not been trained to analyse. They have been too deferential and credulous because, understandably enough, they lack the intellectual confidence to challenge the scientists.
Now that Therese Coffey has let the cat out of the bag by pointing out that some scientific advice has been deficient, No 10 feels obliged to jump on her. To agree with her would be tantamount to conceding that mistakes have been made, as they undoubtedly have. The Government dare not risk such an admission.
We need more scientists in politics to avoid deifying scientists — that is the message of the past few months. Hurrah for Dr Coffey! The dangerous rupture recognised by C. P. Snow has come to haunt us in a way that he could never have predicted.