Science and politics are often viewed as being leagues apart. Politics is fallible and led by an agenda, while science, on the other hand, is regarded as being free from any outside influence.
However, science, like politics, is also flawed and shouldn’t be viewed as unrelentingly reliable. During this crisis, we’ve seen the return of the science and politics debate, symbolised by the government’s flippant attitude towards it.
Boris Johnson during the herd immunity strategy was keen to reassure the public he was following the science. During the early days of lockdown, daily press briefings witnessed repetitions of “sticking to the science” as the common rebuttal.
Politicians across generations have turned to science to reinforce political agendas as it can be used as a tool for legitimacy and to enhance authority. With Boris, science has become the tool of justifying the lockdown and loosening it, but his relationship towards it has never been straightforward.
The status of science during Britain’s experience of this crisis has been inconsistent. The role of Britain’s scientific advisors including Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance has diminished in recent weeks, with the last daily press conferences largely being chaired by stand-alone politicians like the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. The status of scientific advisors has declined, which reinforces the idea that science has been used inconsistently, as the challenge posed by advisors convolutes Johnson’s path to normality.
In being used as a tool by politicians, science’s unchallenged status of impartiality comes to force. The trend of using science to enhance political legitimacy can be seen throughout the twentieth century as Western nations fought to continue control over colonies, in the wake of emerging independent nations.
Britain and America used the promise of science and its advances to re-claim legitimacy over East and Southern Africa in the middle of the century. Western implementation of science has a long history of being used as a tool of exploitation and to enhance political legitimacy.
It was also assumed to have unquestionable benefits on less-developed nations. Britain commissioned the Kariba dam, situated along the Zambezi river in 1958, and heralded it as the solution for eradicating poverty. It was funded by the World Bank and was meant to encourage economic development, however, it resulted in a huge amount of environmental and cultural destruction, displacing over 57,000 people.
The symbolic meanings behind the construction of dams illustrate the power of science, but also, using it as justification for impinging Western knowledge on indigenous cultures. The West historically imposed their science of betterment on developing nations to make a political statement and claims to dominion.
Although we’ve moved on from the paternalistic ideologies behind the development era, science has remained a tool of political authority during this crisis. The herd immunity strategy was meant to increase resistance to the disease by gradual exposure.
This policy poses a risk to the most vulnerable members of society and scientists have since argued that there’s no evidence that any declines in transmission in other countries were due to a herd immunity strategy. Declines in cases and deaths are argued to be due to lockdowns, behavioural shifts and social distancing.
Ironically, in the early days, Johnson was keen to say his government was following the science by leaving a lockdown until the last minute. Now, when normal life is expected to resume, the policy of herd immunity seems to be back on the cards.
The presence of scientific advisors has dipped since the loosening of the lockdown. Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, has always been the voice of reason when the government strays from its path. Nevertheless, they have been taken away when seen to pose a threat to government decisions.
It was reported by The Guardian that Whitty has diverged from the government at least eight times during the crisis, his declining appearance suggests the government are not keen to expose his sense of caution during the unlocking. Science is continually picked up and put down whenever the government sees fit – therefore, its use is far from apolitical.
Gone are the daily briefings and public exposure to Britain’s chief scientists. In the loosening of the lockdown the government has diverged from following the science and it’s been given a second precedence over political agenda.
The Tories, despite the inevitability of a recession, are ardent in their fight against an economic crash. Preserving the economy has become a justification for abandoning science – at the moment when it really matters.
As we emerge into the ‘great awakening’, science has evidently taken a back seat. It’s no coincidence that the daily briefings and the presence of scientific advisors have diminished – this is a political tactic in itself. The general public now has less exposure to science and the data around the virus, thus, it’s our responsibility to seek the latest information.
History has shown that science and politics are fallible and subject to performing agendas of many kinds, they are more alike than it initially seems. This pandemic has blurred the lines between politics and science, but the essential point remains – neither is perfect.