With so much uncertain, scientists should resist being drawn into political dogfights, says Fiona Fox
Are scientists pro- or anti-lockdown? Do they favour South Korea’s approach or Sweden’s? Are they for or against face masks? Did they sign the Great Barrington Declaration or the John Snow Memorandum?
Recent weeks have seen journalists and politicians trying to group scientists into camps. As the debate over how to control Covid-19 grows increasingly fractious, commentators point to different views as proof that they have science on their side.
Meanwhile, some scientists have taken to Twitter to rage against peers they disagree with, comparing them to climate deniers and calling on the media to stop giving them space.
I really want science to resist being put into opposing camps. It feels too early for there to be a ‘mainstream’ view of coronavirus versus a ‘maverick’ one.
Comparisons with climate deniers feel especially divisive. Unlike with climate change, I don’t see any strong scientific consensus to deny. Nor do I see groups of scientists questioning the deadliness of the virus.
There is a difference between misinformation peddled by charlatans and divergent scientific approaches. It’s a distinction we should be mindful of.
The issue of herd immunity is an object lesson in why scientists should resist being politicised. When chief scientist Patrick Vallance used the term in several interviews in March, he was pilloried for proposing it as a strategy to beat the disease—something he has always denied.
Since then, those two words have become ideologically freighted. Scientists have turned down interviews for fear of having their views on herd immunity caricatured. One communications officer described it to me as a “toxic brand”.
All this is unscientific. Herd immunity is simply the term for what happens when a virus cannot spread because it keeps encountering people protected against it. Whether that happens through vaccines, infections or a combination of both is an important scientific question. It is ludicrous to treat it as a dirty word.
It has also been depressing to see face masks turned into a political football—and especially dismaying to see scientists joining in, with some lambasting any researcher pointing out that the evidence is still not strong.
As George Davey Smith and others argued in a recent piece in the British Medical Journal: “Acknowledging uncertainty a little more might improve not only the atmosphere of the debate and the science but also public trust. If we publicly bet the reputational ranch on one answer, how open-minded can we be when the evidence changes?”
I am also unconvinced that joint letters are the best forum for scientific debate on Covid-19. They can be useful when the media presents an area of science as contested when the evidence overwhelmingly points in one direction. But when so little is understood, and the underlying science is so complex, thousands of scientists signing up to a policy position seems a little unscientific.
Filling knowledge gaps
Politicians and commentators are perfectly entitled to take a strong stance, and as citizens scientists can join them. But right now it feels like researchers’ priority should be to fill the gaps in our knowledge and share their growing understanding with the public and policymakers.
I’m not saying scientists shouldn’t thrash out their differences, but they should at least try to resist being dragged into the political dogfights that characterise our polarised national discourse.
When the Science Media Centre raised these issues at our recent board meeting, Lawrence McGinty, the former science editor of ITV news, warned against pushing some views into a maverick camp. Other science journalists said they and their editors thought carefully about how to report the conflicting joint letters and were mindful not to give disproportionate coverage to outliers.
I think the media has done this well. For an organisation that has raged against media frenzies and false balance over MMR, genetic modification, statins and climate change, the SMC has mainly positive things to say about the way science journalists are reporting this pandemic.
When this is all over, the wider public will know a lot more about how science works. They will know that in the first year of the pandemic, the science was uncertain, complex, incomplete and contested—that “the science” is plural, not singular.
We need more, not less, discussion of all aspects of this virus, and that includes the airing of scientific differences. If we get this right, the public will also remember scientists as the people who debated alternative theories in an open and respectful way, and resolved them in the way only science can—by doing great research.
Fiona Fox is chief executive of the Science Media Centre
This article also appeared in Research Fortnight