Harry Collins: science is a pillar of democracy

Responses to the coronavirus touch on the deepest issues of the kind of society we want and need, says distinguished research professor

May 31, 2020
A laboratory technician wearing full PPE (personal protective equipment) works at a new Lighthouse Lab facility dedicated to testing for the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow on April 22, 2020.
Source: Getty
Clear-eyed: science is valuable because ‘as an institution [it] tends to produce people with integrity’

For Harry Collins, the coronavirus crisis raises crucial questions about the future of science – and so the future of democracy.

Distinguished research professor in Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, Collins was a pioneer in what he calls “Wave Two science studies”, which explores how science is a deeply social, and so fallibly human, activity. More recently, he has been concerned with how one can reconcile this critical perspective with a firm but realistic commitment to the value of science.

Furthermore, for more than four decades, Professor Collins has been carrying out sociological research among the scientists who erroneously believed they had detected gravitational waves in 1972; he was still there for the successful discovery in 2015. Despite “a lot of pressures on science to lose its integrity”, such as “demands it should contribute to the economy”, he said, he still believed that “science as an institution tends to produce people with integrity”. That made it “the least worst way” of gaining insights into the world “because the people involved are doing their very best to get the correct solution without being driven by hidden interests…Even in circumstances where science can’t reach ‘the truth’, because it’s too complicated, you still want to go to those people because they are the best bet.”

Yet beyond the utility of its insights, Professor Collins also saw science as “a desperately important institution” because it offered “an object lesson against the political argument that the only right way of making decisions is through the market” and represented “one of the checks and balances you need in a democratic society”.

So what does this mean in the current situation, when scientists have been given unprecedented public prominence and most governments claim to be deferring to them?

Professor Collins has already posted a blog on his website titled “Can Covid save science?” and was happy to share further thoughts with Times Higher Education.

“I would rather have politicians say they are following the science than not following the science,” he explained, “because it gives science a higher profile and more legitimacy, which is what I want for it.” Nonetheless, he would prefer to hear them saying, “‘We’re taking into account the science’, rather than following it, because it’s not clear what ‘following it’ means when there’s scientific disagreement”.

This is more than a trivial point. There has always been deep disagreement among economists, so it made little sense for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to claim that expert advice clearly pointed to particular policies. Today, as Professor Collins saw it, predictive epidemiology seemed to be just as divided, so governments had to “take a lot of responsibility for what they do, because there isn’t the kind of consensus we have about whether gravitational waves have been discovered in the case of where Covid is going”.

Although Professor Collins regarded the British government’s pandemic response as “completely inexcusable”, arguing that it relied on secrecy and spin, he suspected that politicians “are trying to take notice of the science” while also (or instead) “looking to use scientists as scapegoats if things go wrong”.

It was here that he foresaw a huge possible danger. “If the government decide they need scientists as scapegoats, you can see the Daily Mail and other such newspapers saying: ‘Science has let us down. We used to think science was perfect, but now we see these people are fallible, adulterers and so on. We can’t trust it any more.’ And the public might end up with that view, which would be very dangerous indeed.”

But if the situation in the UK was worrying, what we are witnessing in the US was far worse.

“If Trump gets re-elected in the autumn, that would be a disaster for science,” said Professor Collins. “He has displayed a total lack of regard for any kind of reasonable decision-making or science. If he gets re-elected, that means that there’s no safeguard in democracy for science and reasonable decision-making.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Science as an institution is a vital pillar of democracy

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Reader's comments (1)

This reaches into the fundamental levels of what you think a government is actually FOR and how it ought to operate in any given situation. If you regard them as being hired to adminster the country on behalf of citizens and to provide support as required, then they ought to be getting the best possible guidance from appropriate experts whatever the situation. After all, most politicians are not experts in anything - they've dedicated their professional lives to getting into power (or, at the lowest end, mastering the arts of self-interest, secrecy and spin), so they need to find out what is required as a response to any given situation from those who do know about it... and then take that into account when making their own recommendations. However, as seen by the current debate on children returning to primary schools in England, there is conficting advice from different groups of experts to be taken into consideration. Educationalists will say that it's better for children to be in school, psychologists are likely to argue that school attendance is better for their mental health. Epidimologists are likely to be more cautious about whether it is safe to do so right now or whether we should be more cautions. Economists want the childcare aspects of school to be restored so that parents can return to work and get the economy moving. It all goes to show why we need a far higher quality of individual going into the public service that politics should be, people able to balance these up as they put the overall 'general good of citizens' at the centre as they put forward recommendations as to how the nation should act.

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