‘Follow the Science’: Is it time to reaffirm the intellectual virtue of inquisitiveness?

Covid Anniversary Blog

Last April I wrote a short piece for ISR discussing my views on what appeared to be systemic post hoc errors in statistical and reporting practices on COVID-19 mortality. I also suggested that proportionality should be an important principle helping the Government to strike the right balance between respect for civil liberties and the legitimate aims for the protection of public health.

Over the last year it seems that ‘proportionality’ and critical thinking have been marginalized. Yes there have been heated debates from all sides. Yet, the debates on ‘risk’ have often framed within intense moralising discourse where counter-narrative views, no matter how well-founded or evidenced, are often couched within political arguments of left and right. Yet scientific and/or normative views are not independent ‘facts’; they operate within contexts. Nor are they neutral, although often presented as such; cue the Government’s mantra: ‘following the science’. Science is framed and influenced by human beings with biases, agendas, and differences in ways of seeing the world.

Even the WHO has acknowledged that high mortality areas in the world attract more attention in the media. Those who have recorded fewer deaths and infections, and the reasons therein have received comparably less airtime. Subtle, nuanced and insightful research tends to get side-lined within the sea of talking heads and the incessant flow of 24-hour news and sensationalist soundbites. And Abbasi (2020), executive editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a charged and critical piece highlighting the problems with science ‘being suppressed for political and financial gain’.

Sociologist Professor Robert Dingwall (2021) has recently suggested, ‘science and policy are supposed to be driven by rationality and evidence, not personal anxieties’. Whatever mess we have gotten ourselves into, applied hope in the endless possibilities of human reason should be a central strategy for any remedy to our current societal predicament. Consequently, what is much needed is a reaffirmation of the intellectual virtue of inquisitiveness.

It is only by ‘educating for good questioning’ that we can begin to cultivate intellectual virtues like inquisitiveness. This is no trivial thing. Education is the living heart of a thriving democracy and, if we value our wonderful British way of life, we should do our best to preserve, nurture and advance it.

Eri Mountbatten-O’Malley is a Fellow of the Centre for Welfare Reform and senior lecturer in education policy at Bath Spa University. He is a former GTA at Edge Hill University. This piece is written as a follow-up to a post originally published in the COVID-19 blog on 29th April 2020 by Eri which can be found here.

Twitter@EriMOMalley

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