It often happens that a casual remark encountered on social media or in the news will trigger a fruitful train of thought. Commenting on the announcement of an easing of Covid restrictions (I prefer the term ‘precautions’.) someone observed that the First Minister was “just following the science”. It immediately struck me that despite being offered in praise and/or defence of her decision, these words actually encapsulate precisely what is wrong with what has come to be the standard approach to tackling the pandemic. I hasten to point out that the problem is not with the word ‘science’ but with the word ‘following’. And it’s a huge problem.
It is perfectly fitting and proper that the Scottish Government should be listening to the scientists. Not because they are always right, but because they are always knowledgeable and informed. We should attend to them not because they are scientists but because they practice science and practicing science means questioning and testing everything. Scientific conclusions are never final. They are always amenable to challenge even when they are not vulnerable to challenge. Conclusions may be so persuasive and such a good fit in the matrix of existing knowledge that nobody has found the means by which they might be challenged – yet! Even these firm conclusions are not immune to challenge. They are just particularly capable of withstanding scrutiny. Science may be wholly or partially wrong at some point. But the scientific method ensures that it will get closer to being right with time and testing.
This is the important difference between scientific knowledge and superstitious belief or religious faith. When science gets it wrong, it changes. If a belief is wrong it is wrong forever. Or at least as long as faith persists.
In following the advice of scientists Nicola Sturgeon is basing policy decisions on the best information available to her. The trouble is that this information relates to what the virus is doing or has done. The politicians are following the scientists and the scientists are following the trail left by the virus. The virus is always ahead. The response is more reactive than proactive. By definition, if the virus is being followed it is not being stopped. If it’s always ahead, it isn’t being stopped.
To beat the virus it is necessary to take action not where it has been but where it is going to be. Viruses pretty much all behave the same. They may have a range of different effects, But they behave in highly predictable ways. Scientists have gathered a great deal of knowledge about the behaviour of pathogens in human and other animal populations. Mostly, that behaviour involves transmission – moving from an infected individual to a new host – and mutation, or forming new variants. More transmission means more mutation means more variants means more chance of the ‘Big One’ making an appearance. All of which means more illness, more suffering, more death and more strain on healthcare services – and all that this implies in terms of further suffering and death not directly by the virus but following in its wake.
Of course, we are using the term ‘beat’ in a rather special sense here. Not the sense of ultimately defeating the disease-causing agent Although it is at least theoretically possible to ‘beat’ a virus in the sense of eradicating it completely (in a closed population!), In this context, ‘beat’ means prevent or limit the spread of the agent. Rather obviously, action taken after the virus has spread isn’t preventative. Just as obviously, the ‘solution’ (another term that must be used with great caution) is to get ahead of the virus and put up barriers to stop it being transmitted.
That is not what is happening. Decisions are being made about the level and form of precautions on the basis of what has been rather than what will be. And we know what will be. We know with something approaching certainty that absent adequate and appropriate precautions the virus will spread. If it is not prevented from being transmitted we can be sure that it will be transmitted – with all that this entails. Ease precautions because the data says the spread has slowed and the spread will just speed up again as more gaps in defences appear.
The only truly effective weapon against pathogens is isolation. Creating physical or spatial barriers which break the chains of infection. Easing precautions is like repairing those chains. Which makes no sense at all. It is a choice informed more by political expediency than by scientific reasoning. It’s a bad decision. It’s the wrong choice. So long as we are following the virus we will follow forever.
If you find these articles interesting please consider a small donation to help support this site and my other activities on behalf of Scotland’s independence movement.