Pathogens before Politics

As the emotional earthquake of COVID 19 begins to settle, as the tremors subside so two things, over the coming months seem inevitable. It is just the human state, how we as a species behave. 

The first is that we will ask questions and seek to find one of our own species who was responsible. 

The second, equally inevitable is that some, who may have held some political decision making  responsibility, will try to deflect or divert that away from them. 

We hear that “ now is not  the time” and of course it isn’t, immediately , because the data hasn’t settled and that is needed if we want to make rational, and in the long term,  meaningful deductions . 

 But at the same time we  need to realise that for some, now , will never be the time. 

If politically, you think you might face a challenge to your career ambitions, you need to avoid or hide “ a time.” Something convenient, something more emotionally compelling that commands the tabloids. Royal deaths are useful,  and perhaps equally predictable might be some future natal outcome of our present PM’s evident virility . Or to reach in to the utterly unbelievable, UK winning Eurovision . 

We are already seeing it. Trump reckons, without showing a scintilla of evidence and in absolute contradiction of his own scientists that “ it, the bug, was made in a Chinese Laboratory .”  

As an aside, has it ever occurred to you  that dissembling demagogues and political lunatics share something in common? There is always something odd about their hair,  pate or facial. Think about it, perhaps the old left wing – right wing paradigm is outdated, maybe in our voting intentions, we should consult the current  Vidal Sassoon’s of this world  rather than Andrew Marr. Analysis of coiffure may be the new political bellwether.

I digress, but of course so do they . 

At the moment  with the PM taking the rostrum we are being pulled back to the notion of British exceptionalism. We have the best, the very best scientists, our science leads the world, we are at the forefront . I could continue but  I sense I don’t need to. Cut Brexit off the title, insert, C19 and you get the picture. 

Now as it happens, I have met and worked with some of the leading scientists in the UK who are at the forefront right now. 

These folks are good, very good, some are brilliant some are genuinely world leading, absolutely no question . But they have two other qualities.

Not every idea that a scientist has , works. Very crudely,  a theory becomes a law following empirical  research, it relies upon the capacity of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment . 

Equally a vaccine becomes usable once you prove its efficacy and safety. Sadly some don’t meet that mark. It happens. That doesn’t make the pursuit of science wrong, rather it proves it. 

Self confidence,  is a positive quality that you find in  really good  scientists. Occasionally is is more than that . 

Sadly, and to our discredit,  clever but meek scientists rarely get invested in. So I really don’t mean self confidence as a negative , the words “ it might work” don’t really deliver . Great scientists, and some of the scientists we have,  are very much in that category, have the capacity to inspire confidence . Their science may be genuinely ground breaking, but often it is their explanation of their science that is just as compelling . 

It helps also, that sometimes, they are right . But there is an obvious corollary . Sometimes they are wrong. 

That is why I am not in any sense taken in by the phrase, used again and again by politicians that ; “we are following the science.” 

Which science? The right science or the wrong science ? The factors you use to discriminate and to achieve success are not necessarily scientific. 

Herd immunity is a scientific concept, something as a non scientist I was exposed to very early on in my job . I sense we won’t hear these words again for a while in polite company, but just because politicians chose to follow it in the wrong circumstances,  doesn’t discredit the theory . It is credible in vaccinology .

It isn’t a scientific choice that causes you to abandon it, the decision is political and reflects many other factors, economic, humane etc . So the question to politicians on the degree to which they followed  this science,  is a legitimate one . It was their choice not to ask questions earlier . Don’t blame the big bad scientist . 

The statement “ We took the right decisions at the right time, based on the science” therefore has the logical mirror image  “ Because at one point evidence showed us we were making the wrong decisions .” The challenge here is not that as human beings they began by following the wrong advice, but working out what motivated them to do so.

At the end of the day if you are leading a country you make choices. You don’t follow the science , you make decisions based upon it . You  don’t abrogate responsibility to scientists . You may make mistakes. Thus far I have only heard one  leader in the UK step up to the  podium and be clear and honest on that . Nicola Sturgeon. 

But back to British Exceptionalism . 

One of the things that gives me hope at this time is the approach that I heard from scientists themselves when I was still working but which I hear just a clearly right now . They are committed to collaborative work across national boundaries. 

You hear nonsense from them like “ in no way is our work competitive.” 

Money counts, and unless you have that sorted and you have clarity on intellectual property then, yes actually, it can be competitive . Money makes the world go round and Science has two outcomes, the betterment of human knowledge and product. The British psyche is, for some reason, rather squeamish on the latter so we hide behind more acceptable shibboleths . 

Also, I could be wrong but the last time I looked there was no Nobel  Prize for Modesty. 

I am optimistic for a vaccine, partly because I know the brilliance of some of the people involved but also because I know,  at a theoretical level , science thrives on collaboration. That  is a very clear commitment of all the leading scientists who have given voice to what they are doing here and abroad. The world is currently ablaze with collaboration and co-operation facing down this crisis. 

Set against this; dogma about British Exceptionalism appears what it is, politically motivated and crass.   

Disease knows no boundaries and neither does genius observe geopolitical qualities. The most brilliant scientific communicator  I met in my career didn’t come from Oxford or Cambridge  or for that matter Yale or Harvard, but from Kinshasa. 

A final word to one of the word’s leading examples of exceptional coiffure . 

The PREDICT programme of USAID looks at disease modelling and pandemic hotspots linking human behaviour and zoonotic infection . By March of this year they had detected 931 novel viruses including MERS and SARS like coronaviruses . Nature is doing a fine job of creating its own pathogens without the need of a Chinese laboratory .

Perhaps,  Donald, you might more  effectively turn your attentions to the factors that enable and encourage zoonotic infection, such as human consumption behaviours that are inflicted by  global poverty? 

Perhaps the message to us as a species is that we should be more concerned about our pathogens than our politicians . 

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3 replies »

  1. Steve, the experiment must be capable of being replicated and the same results obtained by other scientists.

  2. This is very good, Steve – really, very good. Cogent, is the word for it. It’ll take reading a few times.

    And yes, I noticed that when Boris Johnson re-claimed the podium, his hair had become Trumpian. Keep an eye on Putin!

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