Science of the many, not the few

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrandt (1632)

When Politico magazine asked big thinkers how the Covid-19 pandemic will change our world, some of them heralded the revival of science and expertise: “Science reigns again” and “a return to faith in serious experts” were among their answers. And for a moment that seems like a comforting thought, as nations rally their most erudite scientific minds to assemble their respective coronavirus task forces. We, in turn, have learned to take solace from the wise old (white) men — top epidemiologists, chief scientific advisers — who speak calmly and coherently, often cleaning up after the word salads of world leaders preceding them in press conferences.

But it’s becoming more apparent that some scientific task forces are dealing with the pandemic better than others. The UK, for example, has been criticized for pursuing questionable strategies (such as letting the population develop “herd immunity”), despite taking advise from James Bond-esque teams of experts like Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and Nervtag (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group). On the other hand, countries like New Zealand and Germany are getting recognition for their relative success in tackling the virus.

The discrepancy between these countries’ performance can’t seem to be accounted for by a difference in their scientific advisory groups’ intelligence or experience (most of which are comprised by equally distinguished experts). But there is one thing that can be found in New Zealand’s and Germany’s approach that is absent in the UK’s: the diversity of, and democracy among, their thinkers.

But doesn’t science, which governs, say, how diseases spread or the formula of a vaccine, lie in the realm of absolute truths that can simply be discovered regardless of nationality, age, gender or other irrelevant personal characteristics?

This pandemic shows: it seems less so.

In our craving for the safety of science and experts, and their supposed indifference to the messiness of human affairs — especially when it seems we’re at the height of a fake news and disinformation free-for-all(to the point where it had to be clarified that ingesting Lysol, in fact, won’t cure coronavirus) — we’ve forgotten to ask: whose science? Whose expertise?

In their book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, political scientist Philip Tetlock and journalist Dan Gardner investigate why some people are better in predicting the future than others. They show how teams of ordinary people are better at forecasting than, for instance, a cadre of professional CIA analysts. They also use as case studies special advisory groups — not unlike Sage and Nervtag — who tried predicting the turn of events across history, such as those behind US President John F. Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs Invasion (which spectacularly failed) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (which resolutely succeeded).

According to Tetlock and Gardner, whose book is mostly based on the findings of The Good Judgement Project that evaluated the predictions of several thousands of volunteers over many years, there are key characteristics that set superforecasters apart from the rest, such as actively seeking alternative views, and being open to new evidence. Superforecasters’ ability to make a correct prediction increases when they work in teams (by 23% in fact) — but there are two crucial factors to this: diversity and democracy.

Citing the social scientist Scott Page, author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Tetlock and Gardner write, “diversity trumps ability.” That is because “combining uniform perspectives only produces more of the same, while slight variation will produce improvement.” But the diversity of ideas needs an environment in which these ideas are fostered and heeded: that is, a democracy. This can be understood as a team culture “that encourages people to challenge each other respectfully, admit ignorance and request help,” where it is “‘psychologically safe’ to correct higher-ups.”

The diversity and democracy of ideas can remedy groupthink. Coined by the psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, groupthink means the tendency of teams to “maintain esprit de corps” at the expense of distorting critical reasoning. This is what happened among experts who advised Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, in which no one questioned their plan for US-trained anti-Castro forces to escape by foot to the Escambray Mountains (which turned out to be 80 miles from their location). Since that fiasco Kennedy had appointed special counsel Theodore Sorensen and his brother Bobby as his advisory group’s “intellectual watchdogs” whose task were to act as devil’s advocate in decision-making. This proved effective especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the advisory group were already able to consider 10 alternatives at the end of just their first meeting.

This diversity and democracy of ideas is what the UK seems to lack in its tackling of the coronavirus crisis.

A special report by Reuters reveals that scientists and experts who were part of Sage and Nervtag wrongly predicted how the Covid-19 pandemic would play out in the UK. A deep dive into the minutes of Sage’s and Nervtag’s meetings shows how these advisory groups “played down” initial findings, which suggested up to four-fifths of the population could be infected. Despite evidence building up over the following months that Covid-19 was far more serious than they initially thought, “scientists did not articulate their fears forcefully to the government” — opting to keep the risk warning at “low.”

One senior politician attributed this to the scientists’ and experts’ “cognitive bias”: they found it hard to take into account new information because they were so invested in their original plan. Groupthink was also manifest: in a meeting where the advisory group decided against imposing a lockdown, in contrast to the strategies of other countries at that time, “no dissension [was] recorded in its summary.” This is a perfect example of what Tetlock and Gardner describe as “groups that get along too well” who “don’t question assumptions or confront uncomfortable facts. So everyone agrees, which is pleasant, and the fact that everyone agrees is tacitly taken to be proof the group is on the right track. We can’t all be wrong, can we?”

This lack of diversity in ideas and the dangerous adherence to the British norm of “not rocking the boat” is in part likely due to members of these “secretive” advisory groups being too “narrowly drawn as scientists from a few institutions.” A Guardian investigation revealed that Sage is comprised of 23 members — 21 of whom are scientists mostly from ‘golden triangle’ universities (in Oxford, Cambridge and London); with only seven women and barely any persons of colour. It took an open letter from 200 other scientists pushing back against the UK’s original plan for the country to change its course.

Compare this to the cases of New Zealand and Germany, whose coronavirus responses have been hailed as successes. Half of New Zealand’s scientific advisory group, PITAG (Pandemic Influenza Technical Advisory Group), are women. They also have Jacinda Ardern, their female Prime Minister, at the helm, whose leadership approach exemplifies democracy par excellence: she frequently hosts Facebook Live chats with the public to answer their questions and get feedback; has never been hostile to journalists who ask tough questions (unlike other world leaders); and has run public online meetings with members of the opposition party, in which government officials receive “critical but constructive questions about the crisis response, holding [them] to account, as they should.” Meanwhile in Germany the government, headed by their female Chancellor Angela Merkel, is taking advise from a 26-member expert group comprised not just of scientists, but also historians and philosophers. At the same time, owing to the devolved nature of Germany’s federal government, public health services and decision-making are done “not by one central authority but by approximately 400 public health offices, run by municipality and rural district administrations.”

The diversity and democracy of ideas in New Zealand no doubt contributed to the country “not just flattening the curve, [but] squashing it” with only 12 deaths. In Germany this helped to drastically prevent deaths, with only over 4,000 fatalities out of more than 147,000 cases — a 3% mortality rate compared to approximately 13% in the UK, France and Italy. Many attribute New Zealand’s and Germany’s success to having women leaders — and there is evidence for this claim. But that is only part of the picture: in both these countries, their leaders received advise from teams of experts who exhibited diversity and democracy.

This is at the heart of why there is a growing movement that calls not just for a more diverse scientific community, but a more democratic understanding of “science.” Diversity of ideas come from diversity of lived experience; and democratisation of science and expertise relies on dismantling existing power structures, which prop up the gatekeeping of scientific knowledge. That is why there are campaigns to increase the number of women and people of colour in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); and why there are calls to “decolonise science” through, for example, recognising indigenous knowledge, or increasing access to resources of Global South universities and institutions. Making science more diverse and democratic is not mere tokenism: this makes scientific expertise qualitatively and empirically more effective. This is evident not just from existing research, but in real-world cases like the coronavirus crisis or the 2019 Australian bushfires, where indigenous people’s expertise have been invaluable.

Science and expertise — far from the belief that they are universal absolutes — are, in fact, not wholly above the messiness of human affairs. To be very clear, this is neither an endorsement of pseudoscience nor a sentiment of having “had enough of experts”; ingesting disinfectant will always be a terrible idea, and evidence-based advise from an expert will always weigh more than uninformed opinions. This is instead a profound recognition that scientific knowledge is situated within our very human — and very fallible — societies: there is always someone conducting the research or setting the scientific agenda; and they will always be human beings with particular lived experiences, which — for better or worse — may influence the scientific knowledge they produce.

Our brains are wired in such a way that we are likely to believe those who look, sound and think like us — upon this biological quirk society and culture first began. Making scientific advice and expertise more diverse and democratic — and, in turn, more effective — therefore requires epistemic humility. That is, acknowledging that no one has monopoly on scientific truth; and being more open to the wisdom of others outside of our own tribes. The big thinkers’ prophesy of a return to science and expertise is, of course, welcome — especially against the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in recent years. But in the ashes of our post-pandemic society, it’s time to renounce false idols, and usher a science of the many, not the few.

Humanitarian — by nature and by profession. Altruism, behavioural science, complexity, decolonisation, development, economics, philosophy, systems thinking.

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