It’s the end of the world (as we know it)

There is a tune for everything in life. Literally. Anything you can think about, you can find a song that plays along really well. Half of the world is quarantined due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Myself included. The radio, of course, knows it and plays the the most appropriate song it can find: R.E.M.’s It’s the end of the world. But is it really the end of the world as we know it? Just like, last Christmas, Losing my religion prompted my reflection on atheism, this time I have had plenty of time to think about the situation we are in.

This time, however, I want to focus on one aspect in particular. As most countries are planning on easing some of the restrictions imposed in the last weeks, people are going to adapt to a new reality. Some people, possibly most of us, are disappointed about the situation. At the beginning of this emergency, we were asked to stay at home ‘for some weeks,’ ‘to flatten the curve,’ to avoid overloading hospitals. It seemed as if it was going to be just a brief interruption before resuming our normal lives. Governments claim they have been following scientific advice all along. But who has illuded us – politics or science?

I can’t quite work out how we got to this point. It is evident, nevertheless, that the omnipotent modern, technological world has been forced to slow down because of an invisible submicroscopic infectious agent, i.e. a virus. Perhaps, after all, we weren’t quite omnipotent yet. This is certainly a good lesson we should learn and it would help us re-think human relationship with nature and with our planet. If I were a Christian, I would thank God for including this in his supreme Design, for giving us the time to save Earth and save ourselves. As I said, however, I am not going to talk about religion but science, not philosophy but politics.

Politics is carrying the heaviest burden in this historical moment. Politicians have to make decisions – no one else, in fact – and be held accountable for these. Every time a politician says that their political moves in this context are based upon scientific advice, we must be very careful. Is science to blame if things go wrong? Is science responsible for political decisions? I believe that we are running the risk of undermining the work of scientists and offering an easy solution to politicians who have taken controversial resolutions. Remember when scientists said that we needed the herd immunity to put an end to this crisis. Well, that is still true whether we reach it through a vaccination campaign or because 66% of us get ill and hopefully recover. The lockdown measures were meant to limit the damages caused by the first epidemic wave – we hope it is also the last – not to defeat coronavirus once and for all. The illusion that this would be over in some weeks was not created by science, but by politics.

I am not a scientist and I do not claim any expertise. My perspective is that of a regular citizen who, inevitably, wonders about the future. Recently, I have heard many opinions about scientists and science, and about scientists in power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been praised for her scientific background – most of us have seen the video of the press conference in which she explains the scientific problem with overconfidence in lifting the lockdown. Someone would say we need more scientists in the governments. However, this blend of science and politics is not working particularly well, for specialists and for citizens.

“As a scientist, I hope I never again hear the phrase ‘based on the best science and evidence’ spoken by a politician,” Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian. “This phrase has become basically meaningless and used to explain anything and everything.” I add that this phrase risks becoming dangerous for politics, for science, and for culture in general. At the moment we are justifying restrictions on our personal freedom on the basis of scientific claims. I am in no way trying to say that this is wrong or shouldn’t be so. Lockdown is really proving effective in most countries. Nevertheless, politicians are using science to motivate their (legitimate, in this case) decision. But the regular citizen cannot avoid thinking that this may happen again in the future. What are politicians going to implement ‘based on the best science and evidence’? Moreover, science is always developing and evidence can be contrastive and not conclusive. This is absolutely normal! Science is not dogmatic.

For this reason, political decisions should rely not just on scientific advice (which may change and develop), but on many other factors, which involve social, financial, and cultural reasons (which may change and develop, but no one expects them to be set in stone). This is why the claim that we need more scientists in politics is not necessarily true. A good politician – whatever their studies – has to be responsible for their decisions, considering all the factors involved equally, with an open mind and an eye towards the future. Moreover, I hope that the current situation will not be another opportunity to undermine non-scientific studies and fields, claiming that more scientists around will save the world from future pandemics!

As far as I am concerned, I happened to study the Antonine Plague whilst the coronavirus was spreading around the globe. The Antonine Plague was an epidemic event that happened between 165 and 180 AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. I do not want to get into details – the extent of the Antonine Plague is debated, some scholars argue that it killed one third of the population of the Roman Empire (total 60 million), some scholars instead argue for a less destructive impact. What struck me is that the Plague went on for about 15 years and came in waves. Since the beginning, I have had the feeling that the situation we are living will not end soon and will perhaps hit more than once. I am not trying to say that I saw what other people could not see. I am trying to make the point that all knowledge (both scientific and non-scientific) can be helpful in assessing a given situation without creating dangerous illusions.

The example I have made makes us think about the distorted idea that we have of science. Somehow, most people were brought to think that science could offer immediate and quick solutions to most problems. Science will indeed offer a solution to this crisis, a vaccine. And we are lucky, because the Romans could not hope for a vaccine. But this may require time. Perhaps we are still astounded by the quick development of personal technology in the last decade. Every year we get several new models of smartphones, computers, TVs, videogames, and new versions of apps with improved features. It seems as though every bug can be fixed in a few hours. If the old version doesn’t work, there is a new one available. However, technology and science are not necessarily the same thing – or even better – commercialised technology is not science.

Politics is also trying to implement the use of technology in our fight against coronavirus. Some countries are designing apps to trace people’s movements and contacts to help contain the spread of the virus. Obvious concerns regard our privacy and the vast amount of data gathered through this means. Are they going to justify it on the basis of scientific advice? Is this enough for us not to request reassurances about these technological implementations? We do not want political elections to be manipulated through the obscure usage of data made available to the highest bidder.

What is the role of science and what is the role of politics then? The role of science is to keep doing research to find a vaccine, trying to avoid politics and business as much as possible. Scientists who argue on TV risk causing damage to their own work, just like politicians who do not want to be held accountable for their decisions in this historical moment. Scientific dissemination cannot be limited to social media and TV interviews. It is a difficult job and needs to be done carefully to avoid creating illusions. Indeed, these illusions help politicians create further illusions to cover up their responsibility. A sound democratic system cannot allow this. Has science failed us? Not at all. Has the illusion we had of science and scientific research broken apart? Yes, and for the better.

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