‘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.


Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

COVID-19 & the (dis)proportionate case for lockdown

The Government has been criticised for doing ‘too little, too late’. But is this fair? One of the issues I identify here is the way mortality statistics have been recorded. This is important because mortality rates are fundamental to assessments of risk to public health, which in turn are fundamental to any rationale for lockdown.

For example, the case fatality rate (CFR) is most often cited. However, this is a method of measuring fatalities amongst those who have sought emergency care. This clearly amounts to a form of ‘selection bias’ by only measuring extreme cases. Conversely, the infection fatality rate (IFR) is far more useful because it helps to account for all (or most) cases of infection, including asymptomatic infections, in the wider population so we get a more accurate assessment of populational risk.

IFR alone is still not enough however. The single most influential study in the UK (Ferguson et al, 2020) –which provided the rationale for the  UK Government lockdown on 23rd March – suggested that UK fatalities could be in the region of 500,000, in the UK. This figure was erroneous by any measure. These were revised down somewhat, but the damage has already been done.

There has also been a huge issue with death certification practices based on new procedural guidance (in the UK and elsewhere). For example, it allows for a diagnosis of COVID-19 death based on a ‘positive test’ of COVID-19 alone, irrespective of the co-morbidity or direct cause. Further, in terms of reporting, ONS clarified that ‘it will not always be the main cause of death, but may be a contributory factor’ mentioned ‘somewhere on the death certificate’. But this doesn’t stop them presenting the data as a COVID-19 death.

We therefore have a perfect storm of errors. On the one hand, the mere presence of COVID-19 through testing is enough to certify it as a cause of death, and on the other, a clinical assessment based on symptoms is seen as sufficient ‘[w]ithout diagnostic proof’. Similar issues have been noted in Italy, the US, and even Germany. Naturally this puts the whole methodology for any assessment of risk into doubt because the very basis of risk (fatalities) is hugely misleading. This is an issue that has also been recently raised by Francis Hoar QC who has undertaken a timely analysis of the relevant evidential grounds for lockdown and the ‘questionable’ scientific basis for lockdown.

No matter what you see in the media, the advertised figures are likely to be significantly overstated rather than understated, bringing COVID-19 closer in line with the rather standard risks associated with seasonal influenza.

Although the Government must rightly do everything it can to protect the public, it must do so in ways that are proportionate to the risk, striking a balance between respect for civil liberties and the legitimate aims for the protection of public health. If Government justifications for lockdown are predicated on misleading mortality statistics and poor methodological practices, then perhaps we need a rethink.

For a fuller analysis of the issues raised here, please see Eri’s UKAJI post here.

© Eri Mountbatten-O’Malley

Profile bio:

Eri is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD at Edge Hill University. He has been active in specialist advice and casework, social welfare law and mental health policy research for many years, notably through his work for Citizens Advice, NAWRA, NUS and the Centre for Welfare Reform. In recognition of the impact of his advice, policy and campaign work, he was awarded Student Money Adviser of the year 2016. He is a qualified Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and has spoken internationally about scientistic and reductionist accounts of well-being and flourishing in public policy.

Twitter handle: https://twitter.com/EriMOMalley