‘The science’: some sociological reflections

Liz Stanley

Among repeated buzz terms about coronavirus and UK government responses are ‘following the science’ and the much stronger ‘driven by the science’. Their main use has been to present political policies as embedded in or even required by scientific evidence and advice, thereby giving greater authority to political decision-making through associating it with the assumption of expertise conveyed in references to ‘the science’. ‘The science’ is another of these frequently used buzz terms. It exists in a family-group with the ‘following’ and ‘driven’ ones and is homogenised as single and indivisible and having a kind of absolute authority. Such usages disregard the range of professional expertises involved and not only the differences and sometimes clashes between them but also divergences within particular scientific networks.

In the Covid-19 pandemic context, while there has been public attention rightfully given to political decision-making and its frequent ineptitude, there has been surprisingly little critical reflection upon what is claimed or simply assumed to be scientific expertise, including its use by politicians to justify political expediency. So far as can be discerned from the relatively few public-facing sociological responses currently visible, this includes its absence from sociological attention too, although this may change. It is all the more refreshing then that some political journalists are now turning their gaze in the direction of ‘the science‘ and the political work it is doing.

The Coronavirus News is an online part of the BBC’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic with a magazine format, one aspect of which is ‘The Coronavirus Newscast’ series of podcasts. The high-profile journalists involved are Adam Fleming and Laura Kuenssberg, Fergus Walsh and Chris Mason. On 21 May, the podcast of an interview by Fleming and Kuenssberg with Sir Ian Boyd, a zoologist and polar scientist who was chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2012-19, was published on the Newscast webpage. Boyd is presently a member of the Sage advisory group, which combines high-level members of the scientific community with government politicians, and it is in this capacity he was interviewed.

Interviewers Fleming and Kuenssberg asked Ian Boyd thoughtful questions about vaccine development, ‘test, track and trace’, and in particular ‘the science‘ comments that UK government politicians have frequently made in justifying their decisions and policies. The point was made that divergences and uncertainties and not uniform certainty exist within the scientific community, which anyway is not one and indivisible. However, politicians nonetheless lay claim to ‘the science‘ as justification for decisions that actually include many other factors too. This was an amiable discussion and raised interesting points but did not pursue them in any great depth. Given the practical importance of ‘the science‘, perhaps the interviewers felt they could not push this further, but clearly wider issues about the character of science, its political uses and notions of expertise more generally were hovering, but were not picked up.

At the point this might have been pursued, the interview format gave way to addressing questions from listeners and largely lost its Fleming and Kuenssberg provided critical edge. The questions covered included why taste and smell took so long to be included as indications of COVID-19, when more detail would be given about a ‘social bubble’ approach, shielding, and with hindsight what political actions Boyd wished had been taken earlier. On this latter, however, the journalists did press him harder. Responding rightly that hindsight knowledge is easy but acting at the time in unfolding circumstances is not, Boyd discussed in a careful way whether lockdown policies could have been introduced earlier. In this respect, Fleming mentioned a 17 February official document recognising that infections were even then increasing rapidly, but only significantly later did the political landscape change.

Not named by Boyd nor Fleming or Kuenssberg, at this juncture the mind leapt to earlier ideas about ‘herd immunity’ and permitting deaths to increase to a level where the majority of the population would become immune, for that at that stage scientific and political ideas seemed to combine to see an increase in deaths as not entirely undesirable. It appears to have been the unanticipated scale of the deaths and rapidity of the increase, rather than ‘the science’, that changed the political landscape. Or was something different going on behind-the-scenes?

The podcast is well worth listening to as seriously questioning ‘the science‘ and its political uses; it can be accessed online via the BBC’s The Coronavirus News pages. For those interested specifically in the Ian Boyd segment, this started at 10:42 minutes in and finished at 33:16. The interview was also reported on the BBC news app on 22 May, ‘Coronavirus: acting earlier would have save lives, says Sage member’.

But what of ‘the science‘ and what might the social sciences and in particular sociology be doing regarding it? Or do we just throw our hands up and leave it to perspicacious journalists to offer an analysis?

There is a wealth of excellent sociological theory and research concerned with science, scientific networks and practices. Time for its proponents and other sociologists influenced by this work to step forward. Which kinds of scientists are proposing ‘the facts‘, what variations are there, and how are these changing over time? are there divergences and fault-lines that are not appearing in the public domain? what networks exist to enable such work to be picked up and used by policymakers at all levels of governance? how is ‘science’ being characterised? These and related questions are important for understanding not only to how policy-makers operate, but also how the general run of people respond to unfolding events. If nothing else, the hordes of British people over the last few days crowding onto sunlit beaches and into country beauty-spots indicates that there is widespread doubt about or even straightforward rejection of both political pronouncements and invocations of ‘the science‘ regarding social distancing, indeed regarding the coronavirus as such.

How to explain this? At the least it opens up the ground beneath hallowed science as providing ‘the facts’ that everyone can be expected to act on, and shows that assessments of ‘risk‘ are part of individual/group decision-making. And here another set of sociological thinking and research comes into frame, the interactional sociologies and taking seriously that people are proficient theorisers of their own lives and therefore the how and why of what they do need to be taken seriously in understanding why social life turns out as it does.

Sociological work of these and related kinds need to be embarked upon now, if not already underway; and to appear widely in public fora as circumstances are unfolding, not just three or four years down the line in funded research projects of the kind being badged as ‘opportunities‘ (an ethically dubious term given the scale of deaths worldwide) on numerous sociology websites. Sociology asks complicated questions about why things are as they are and people do as they do, using the lively curiosity about ‘the facts’ of social life that characterises the sociological imagination and its concern with biography, time and social structure. This needs putting into practice now in a new way, given present circumstances, in thinking hard about the changes occurring and the likely reverberations over time.

Please share examples by leaving comments on the Edinburgh Decameron website.

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Liz Stanley

Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology @ University of Edinburgh, email liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk. I’m a feminist sociologist who works on everyday documents of life, particularly letters, to research social change over time.

3 thoughts on “‘The science’: some sociological reflections”

  1. With power and authority comes responsibility, and for better or worse, a large portion of power is in the hands of the UK Conservative Government. So this ‘bigging up’ of scientific authority, as though it was vested in some single source, gives the government someone else to blame for its own failings. No doubt some scientists are flattered by the call on their expertise. But that expertise is useful for both practical and political reasons. The more direct and experiential forms of knowledge you point to are, by their diffuseness, less easily corralled for political purposes.

  2. Certainly agree with this. Interesting that some news media are trying routinely to harness experiental accounts and do so as a kind of counter to the main news items. A covid-continuation of an older practice.

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