By Dora Markati
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been witnessing the incorporation of science into politics and vice versa. From the one side, scientific health advisors have become public figures of increasing popularity. Daily, they are called upon to make the latest updates of scientific discovery publicly approachable and to suggest the next steps that will get us out of this crisis. From the other side, politicians support their decisions by simple reference to scientific evidence. Nevertheless, on other issues, politicians conveniently disregard scientific evidence even for serious global phenomena, like climate change.
Policymaking in modern democracies should be evidence-based to the extent that politicians work closely with scientists and experts and consult them in the decision-making process. However, the scenery becomes more complicated when politicians make science the scapegoat of their political responsibility. During times like this, when policies can lead to higher death tolls, freedom limitations, exclusion from education, or unemployment, a simple invocation to ‘what science says’ can authorise actions and make them acceptable by the public. In the worst cases, critical health-related affairs become dangerously politicised, as in US, where mask-wearing became synonym of one’s political identity.
In the post-WWII era in Europe, we have seen several times the rise of technocratic governments. Technocrats take the place of the elected political leaders, when the latter fail, mostly in times of financial crisis. We have seen that in 2011, in Greece, at the beginning of the financial crisis. And we see that, again, in Italy, where the former president of the European Central Bank is being asked to form a government amidst the pandemic.
It seems more and more reasonable for one to ask: should we leave societies to be run by those who are better qualified to design policies in their fields of expertise, especially in times of crisis?
This idea of having scientists or experts, as representatives of impartiality and knowledge, to run the societies could turn out to be reckless; this is because the premise upon which it builds is fragile. The data produced as a result of scientific research do not -at least always- pinpoint towards one ‘correct’ policy. The translation of scientific data into policies is not a definitively objective process because it is not independent of the value judgement of the person doing it. However, the technocratic perspective sees scientists and experts as representatives of objectivity and what we consider to be knowledge. Built on such a notion, their actions are authorised and justified in the eyes of the people; any healthy opposition gets suppressed, coming to resemble a ‘dictatorship of the wise’.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into light the fact that, in times of crisis, dilemmas and ’trade-offs’ are part of the policymaking process. However, it is the role of politics to draw the line between them and make the compromise. A model of society where policymaking is solely based on scientific indication, overly simplifies the essence of political decision. It cuts it from the general social or historical context and the value system of society. The political decision often requires a ‘risk-benefit’ approach, where the impact on multiple fields of social life need to be measured and addressed. Even in Plato’s aristocracy and more evolved interpretations of it, where the rule of decision is given to those who know best, policymaking is not presented as a mere technical management.
A takeover of politics by scientists does not look like a healthy alternative, even at times of crisis. It deprives democracies, among other things, of dialogue and healthy opposition. Democratic politics is based on the acceptance that there is no fixed solution to one problem; creating a policy is a process that requires the active engagement of the public (the ‘demos’), or at least of the most efficient representation of everyone. In these processes, the public needs to be empowered.
Scientists, scientific journals, and institutions of research bear more than ever the responsibility of giving people the choice to understand deeply what ‘science’ is, from how a hypothesis is formed to how collected data are interpreted. Scientists need to present the whole picture of the methodologies they use and their limitations. Instead of claiming that policies are merely ‘indicated by science’, both politicians and scientists are responsible for presenting the reasoning behind their decisions and how they came to their conclusions in a specific context. These, as strategies, would not only make citizens more active, but they would also help people regain trust in both politics and science as processes.