‘… have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?’ – Banquo, Macbeth, Act One, Scene Three
ANNOUNCING yet another U-turn lockdown on Saturday evening, Boris Johnson repeated a familiar mantra: ‘I know how disappointing this will be. But I have said throughout this pandemic that we must and will be guided by the science.’
There are two ways this assertion is false. The first is that science without values cannot tell you how to act. The second is that to be science at all, a prediction based on it must meet certain standards.
It is complicated, of course, but simple examples can clarify. Take the first error. Let’s say there is some evidence that wearing face coverings may prevent transmission of the virus and some evidence it may not. After discussion, government advisers make face coverings compulsory in indoor public areas.
Now let’s say that there is some evidence that transmission of the virus in schools happens at a similar rate to hospitality venues. After discussion, government advisers mandate that to ‘control the spread’ schools should stay open and pubs must close
How are these decisions reached? In neither case is the evidence decisive, therefore the claim that ‘we are following the science’ is false. It should surely be apparent to any educated person that such choices are based first on value judgments and only secondarily on science, if at all
The second error is less obvious, but equally serious. To qualify as scientific, a theory must be testable to the extent that it can distinguish between cause and coincidence.
Nick Triggle, a BBC health correspondent, claimed yesterday that the supposedly more transmissible ‘new strain’ ‘may explain why, during the second lockdown, cases started to increase in London, while in Kent the Tier Three measures appear to have had little impact …’
This assumption is a perfect example of the second error. The flawed logic is this: There has been an increase in reported cases in London and Kent in the last month, a new variant of the virus has been found in about half these cases, therefore this variant has caused a 34 per cent increase in hospital admissions.
It is possible that this is true, but there are so many assumptions and variables in play that you cannot derive a causal relationship without a great deal more work. At the very least there are questions over the reliability of the testing, what a ‘case’ is, and what the reasons for increased hospital admissions are.
You might just as well say: There has been an increase in the reported cases of infection in London and Kent in the last month, at the same time there has been a strict lockdown preventing social mixing and disrupting normal human interactions, therefore the lockdown has caused a 34 per cent increase in hospital admissions.
The virus or the lockdown? To establish which has caused the growth in admissions, or whether there are different reasons altogether, we need a hypothesis and a means of testing it. Without this, all we have are data associated with, but not necessarily causing, outcomes.
And yet there is evidence of causation everywhere. You do not need to be a scientist to see it. When you close pubs, for example, there are predictable, testable consequences.
The pubs cease to trade. Sooner or later, the people who work in them lose their jobs. This is not a coincidence. It is a cause: Action A (purposefully shutting hospitality outlets) has effect B (loss of work and income).
Unlike governments’ speculations, the hypothesis that forcing the hospitality industry to close causes jobs to be lost meets accepted scientific criteria. Experiments to test it are potentially refutable and can be repeated by independent researchers.
What cannot be shown with anything like the same level of certainty is the impact of forced social changes on a mutating virus.
To invoke science as a justification for guesswork, while imposing your values on other people, knowingly causing them to suffer, undermines genuine science.
It plagiarises science’s name to propagandise, nothing more. True science requires open-mindedness, principled experimentation, detailed analysis, and the humility to accept one’s ignorance. True science invites falsification, since this is how scientific understanding progresses.
And what of Banquo? In Macbeth, Banquo was fatally damaged by the prophecies of three witches. They probably did not intend it, but their predictions so affected Macbeth that he was driven mad by desire and ultimately dread, choosing to kill his friend rather than let slip the chance of the greatest power.
In Macbeth, the weird sisters’ prophecies turned out to be true, but that should not offer any encouragement to our three contemporary hags.
As our three witches whirl more and more frenziedly, their shiny rags fall away. The more their science fails, the more they are convinced it is working, and the more incantations they chant.
Fair is foul and foul is fair. Truth is what we say and what we say is truth.
If governments really were to follow science, and if their aim really were to protect their populations, then they would not knowingly cause people to lose their livelihoods. It is increasingly difficult not to hear cackling through the fog and filthy air of government doublespeak.