Following the science

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the efficacy and efficiency of the UK government response to the Coronavirus epidemic. There are many strands to this, but one concerns the speed with which policies of social restriction were introduced. And a lot of the debate has focused on two sporting events that were held shortly after lockdowns were introduced in many European countries, but before they were introduced in the UK: the Cheltenham Festival and the second leg of the Champions League tie between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid.

The Liverpool game was especially controversial because it had been known for some time that Madrid was already a focus for the Coronavirus outbreak in Spain. And while most other Champions League fixtures that were held that week were held behind closed doors, the decision was made to hold the Liverpool game with spectators, including 3000 travellers from Madrid.

The picture from both Cheltenham and Liverpool after each event is concerning, since both locations appear to have a higher rate of infection than would be expected (see here and here). But it will take careful analysis of the data to establish the extent to which these apparent effects can be properly attributed to the associated sporting events, and an even fuller analysis to determine whether the decisions to hold the events were anyway reasonable or not.

One argument, for example, that’s been presented to justify not holding matches behind closed doors is that there may be more transmission if people watch a match in many pubs rather than in a stadium. And in any case, it’s perfectly valid to argue that a higher rate of infection due to holding a sporting event has to be offset against the economic and other social costs of not holding it. So, even if it turns out that the 2 events in question are genuinely likely to have increased infection rates, this doesn’t in itself imply that the decisions to hold both events were wrong.

But here’s the thing… as with all aspects of planning for and responding to events connected with the epidemic, Science – and Statistics – provides a framework for decision making. In particular, it will give predictions about what is most likely to occur if different actions are taken and, in the case of statistical models, most likely also attach probabilities to different possible outcomes, again dependent on the course of actions taken.

Crucially, though, Science will not tell you what to do. It won’t tell you how to balance costs in terms of lives against that in terms of money. Or jobs. Or something else. That’s a political decision. Moreover, ‘Science’ isn’t a fixed static object that unveils itself in uniform and unchallenged forms. There are different sciences, all of which are constantly evolving, and any combination of which might lead to conflicting conclusions. Even different statistical models might not be in complete agreement. Science will help you understand the costs and benefits of actions that are available to you; but you must take responsibility for the choices you make on the basis of that information.

However, I’ve lost count of how many times politicians – especially in the UK – defend their actions by arguing ‘we followed the science’.  Here’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock in defence of the decision to hold the Cheltenham festival:

We followed the scientific advice and were guided by that science.

And here in defence of holding the Champions League cup tie:

This is of course a question for the scientists and what matters now is that people in Liverpool and across the North West get the treatment that they need and get the curve under control.

Neither comment is likely to be completely untrue – it would obviously be outrageous for any government in any situation to completely ignore scientific evidence – but both seem to be distractions from the fact that decision-taking is a political process which balances the various risks and costs involved.

The most Science can do is to provide an assessment of what those risks and costs are.

Here’s Brian Cox’s take on the same argument:

When you hear politicians saying ‘we’re following the science’ then what that means is they don’t really understand what science is. There isn’t such a thing as ‘the’ science. Science is a mindset, it’s about trying to understand nature.

And here’s the full section with video:


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