The Pandemic Has Highlighted the Science vs Politics Dilemma: Now What Should We Do?

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Anyone reading the title of this blog might assume it concerns the increasingly obvious divide between conservative or populist views of the world and scientific evidence. The kind of thing that has led to pandemic tragedy in the U.S. under Donald Trump, in Modi’s India and in Brazil under Bolsanaro, as well as in many parts of Africa where populist  leaders are still in denial about the very existence of the virus. Or the kind of thing that has led Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario to have the worst records in the country on a range of pandemic metrics, largely because of their conservative premiers’ stubborn ideological determination to resist implementing proven methods of slowing and controlling the spread of the disease. ( Not to mention the kind of thing that earlier led the Harper government to ignore all evidence to the contrary when implementing many of their pet “tough on crime”, “tough on Immigration” and “family values” policies….)

But no, instead this article examines the lesser-known yet equally serious problems the pandemic has posed for progressive politicians when forced to deal with the emerging scientific evidence on Covid-19. This dilemma was highlighted recently by the controversial report of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization about the relative safety of the viral vector AstraZeneca vaccine. The report’s conclusion that some individuals might be better off waiting for an alternative mRNA vaccine has, not surprisingly, led to a firestorm of criticism from other health experts, the media and members of the general public. In their view the report — and the subsequent inept “clarifications” by the chair and vice-chair of the committee — clearly contradict the oft- repeated statements of federal politicians including the prime minister, and the federal Chief Medical Health Officer, Theresa Tam, that all Canadians should take whichever vaccine they are offered, and that all vaccines are a far safer bet than catching Covid. The apparent disagreement between experts and authority figures has left many Canadians confused, unhappy or furious.  

Yet the two positions are not, in fact, diametrically opposed. Moreover this current kerfuffle is only the most recent, and the most public, example of a long-standing dilemma that has plagued both scientists and progressive politicians since the beginning of the pandemic, and it is important to recognize not only the nature of the conflict but the underlying reasons for it.

To begin with, it is well-known in Canada and in most western liberal democracies that the general public is scientifically illiterate. Despite relatively high levels of education, for example, most people other than scientists have little or no understanding of concepts such as probability and risk. Nor do they understand that scientific research produces constantly evolving results rather than certainty. Yet the recommendations of scientific experts are typically grounded in such concepts. This is why many scientific explanations may be technically correct, but appear to provide little in the way of guidance to ordinary citizens. And this is why, increasingly, the criticism of scientists and public health officials has been focussed on their poor communications skills.

In one sense this is fair comment. With a few notable exceptions, such as Dr. Bonnie Henry in B.C., the inability of most scientists and public health experts in formal positions of authority to explain complex concepts in a simple but meaningful way is undeniable. This lack of clarity, in turn, has sowed confusion and frustration. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Dr. Tam. Sent out by the federal government to do damage control, her response to questions about the Advisory Committee’s report actually left most people more confused than ever.[i]  But in another sense this criticism is both unfair and hardly surprising. People appointed to such positions were selected for their expertise, not their communications skills. And only in extraordinary situations such as this pandemic would they ever be expected to speak often in public, let alone on a daily basis.

An even more thorny problem faces progressive politicians, and none more so than the Trudeau government. Having criticized the Harper Conservatives for their blatant disregard of science, the Liberals campaigned in 2015 on a pledge to restore “evidence-based” decision-making in Ottawa. Since then they have followed through on that commitment over and over again. Clearly they do not want to muzzle scientists and public health experts now, on the most important issue they have faced since coming to power. Nor would they be able to do so without huge political fallout. Hence the forlorn figures of Trudeau and Tam both trying to put out the flames after the advisory committee’s report and the unfortunate comments of its leaders.

What, if anything, can be done to address this dilemma in a timely fashion? It is too late and likely pointless to try to provide emergency communications training for key science and public health officials. Clearly it is also too late to try to educate the general public on the many elements of the scientific method in the middle of a pandemic. And in Canada, with a federal system of government in which provinces have the lead role on the pandemic, it is futile to call for a single “national” voice on such matters to eliminate contradictory views.

But it is surely not too late for officials and politicians to try to explain some of the basic concepts of risk and probability in a way that resonates with the average citizen. Urging people to step up for a vaccine because it will help establish herd immunity is not going to cut it. Nor, increasingly, will the argument that any kind of vaccine is better than catching the disease. There are better and simpler alternatives. The Jean Chretien communications approach is one that comes to mind immediately, epitomized in this case, for example, by the explanation that an individual has a better chance of being in a car accident or winning the lottery than developing blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Another winning ploy by politicians appears to be the use of celebrities to counter vaccine hesitancy in general. A major communications success in the United States, this approach has been used to great effect in BC with pro-vaccination campaigns employing well-known Canadian actors, sports heroes and other celebrities. In Europe, leading lights in fields such as sports or culture have also been employed with considerable success to encourage greater vaccination take-up in a continent where hesitancy is far greater than in Canada.

Last but hardly least the media has a crucial role to play in educating the public. Yet for the most part they – and especially the print media — have abdicated this responsibility, with headlines that have criticized politicians and scientists and seemingly looked for conflict and confusion to fan the flames, rather than offering detailed explanations and information. An exception has been the use of independent scientific experts by some broadcast media. Evidently having taken the time and effort to locate individuals who combine the requisitie expertise with a rare ability to communicate effectively, they have created mini media stars of individuals such as Drs. Isaac Bogosh and Lynora Saxinger.  

At the end of the day, however, it appears that the pandemic has shone a light on yet another important issue of our time. In an era of huge technological advances and increasing reliance on scientific endeavours, it is surely incumbent on educators at all levels to introduce a far more rigorous and comprehensive approach to basic scientific principles in their curricula, so that future generations of citizens are better able to calculate risk and probability themselves and take informed decisions over their own lives.  

[i] Campbell Clark. “Canadians Need to Hear Clear, Useful Public Health Advice from Government.”                      . Globe and Mail. May 5, 2021.