Truth vs. Narrative

Determining the Role of Science in Shaping Public Policy

Preston Manning
December 10, 2022
Like “safety” and “racism,” the word “science” has gained a near-magical power providing the right user with nearly unassailable authority. Its invocation often becomes a conversation-ender. Despite infinite repetition and evident failure, “following the science” maintained its awesome psychological power throughout the pandemic. Preston Manning pierces this veil of manufactured conformity by posing some basic questions. If science is to shape public policy, how might society ensure that the full range of relevant science is sincerely considered? And once this occurs, how can decision-makers be given a level of understanding that helps them make responsible decisions? These are questions, Manning reminds us, that our political leaders never bothered to ask.
Truth vs. Narrative

Determining the Role of Science in Shaping Public Policy

Preston Manning
December 10, 2022
Like “safety” and “racism,” the word “science” has gained a near-magical power providing the right user with nearly unassailable authority. Its invocation often becomes a conversation-ender. Despite infinite repetition and evident failure, “following the science” maintained its awesome psychological power throughout the pandemic. Preston Manning pierces this veil of manufactured conformity by posing some basic questions. If science is to shape public policy, how might society ensure that the full range of relevant science is sincerely considered? And once this occurs, how can decision-makers be given a level of understanding that helps them make responsible decisions? These are questions, Manning reminds us, that our political leaders never bothered to ask.
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Our policy is science-based.” “We are following the science.” These and similarly worded claims are increasingly made by politicians and public administrators to justify their policies and decisions, most recently in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This raises two questions worthy of careful public consideration: 

  1. To what extent do we actually want public policy to be “science-based” versus being shaped by other important considerations and factors?
  2. Where we agree that a public policy should be significantly shaped by science, what are the minimal requirements which must be met for that to be truly so?

In the current polarized North American political environment, there will be three likely answers to the first question. Certain brands of conservativism will say that science should have a very limited role in shaping public policy. Progressives will say that science should have everything to do with shaping public policy. And good old middle-of-the-road Canadians are likely to say that public policy should be shaped by a variety of factors. Values, public preferences, costs and benefits, and other factors should all be taken into account, but applicable science should certainly be one of them, especially in determining how to achieve value-based policy objectives such as sustaining our health, the economy or the environment. 

The credibility and prestige of scientists and science has risen in our era – while that of politicians has fallen. When politicians claim to be “following the science,” are they merely riding the coattails of science for political gain? (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

All of this makes addressing the second question that much more important. In our era the credibility and prestige of science and scientists has risen significantly while that of elected politicians has fallen. Thus the status and believability of politicians, especially those who hold office, are enhanced if in pursuing any policy – from climate change to coping with Covid-19 – they can plausibly claim that such policies and actions are “science-based.”

But are such claims legitimate, or are these politicians merely riding on the coattails of science for political benefit? This in turn prompts a deeper question: What are the minimal requirements which must be met in order for a public policy to be truly “science-based”? Politicians and public administrators tend to answer this latter question in ways that serve their political and administrative interests. This makes it even more important to get the honest opinion of credible and representative scientists to help us. Suppose, for example, that a group of scientists of unimpeachable integrity defined the minimal requirements as follows:

  • The scientific method was employed in the policy’s development;
  • The scope of the science relied upon was sufficient – broad and deep enough – to substantively shape the policy; 
  • Alternative scientific hypotheses and evidence were welcomed and allowed to freely compete for application to the policy; and
  • Knowledgeable scientists rather than ill-equipped third parties were in the forefront of defining and explaining the science to decision-makers and the public.
So much for the scientific method: Public authorities never actually tested the hypotheses that population-wide masking, social distancing and vaccination would protect Canadians from Covid-19; such measures were justified as a valid response to an “urgent and immediate crisis.” (Source of image: World Health Organization)

Suppose, further, that to demonstrate the application of these minimum requirements to a real-world policy situation, a panel of our most distinguished scientists were to investigate the extent to which these minimum requirements were met by Canadian authorities in developing and implementing their policy response to Covid-19. What might they discover and conclude?

Employment of the Scientific Method

Employment of the scientific method in the development of a public policy requires the formulation and testing of hypotheses and their verification via experimentation. So, does clear and abundant evidence exist that our health authorities thoroughly tested and verified the hypotheses that wearing of masks, social distancing and related “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” followed by the mandating of specified vaccinations, would as claimed protect Canadians from Covid-19? 

Apparently, very little evidence of this kind exists, but the explanation offered by our governments and health authorities is that they were responding to an urgent and immediate crisis and that there was no time for the direct and time-consuming application of the scientific method to verify the efficacy of the health protection measures proposed. “Following the science” in this instance therefore involved relying on scientific advice based, not on current experimental verification, but on the best judgment of government-selected scientific experts.

The Breadth and Depth of the Science Relied Upon

Even if we accept the standard explanation of urgency and the related claim that this pandemic was unique, for a public policy to be science-based the scope of scientific experience and expertise relied upon must be broad and deep enough to justify such policy measures. When asked about the scope of the science relied upon in devising health protection measures to cope with Covid-19, Canada’s health authorities have advised that they relied most heavily and appropriately on the life sciences – biology, microbiology and especially the medical sciences such as virology, epidemiology, immunology and genetics. 

But what about other highly relevant scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology and economics? Were psychologists and sociologists asked what might be the psychological and social effects of prolonged social distancing or the closing of schools? Were economists specifically asked what might be the consequences of business and workplace lockdowns on employment, incomes, supply chains and GDP? And where is the scientific evidence that the health benefits resulting from the adoption of these measures would outweigh the psychological, social, economic and medical harms created by them?

Relying heavily on the medical sciences in developing Covid-19 response measures, health authorities largely ignored other highly relevant disciplines such as psychology and economics. They failed to accumulate the needed evidence that the health benefits of lockdowns would outweigh their social, psychological and economic harms. (Source of bottom right photo: Indrid Cold, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

If the authorities only “followed the science” in a limited number of selected disciplines – those with which the health care bureaucracies were most familiar – and could provide little evidence that the benefits of the protective measures adopted outweighed the harms identified by a broader range of disciplines, might not our science panel be obliged to conclude that “the science relied upon” by the health authorities was too narrow and shallow? If so, this would be insufficient to verify the claim that Canada’s Covid-19 response policies were truly science-based.

Governmental and health authorities might of course respond by saying that their science perspective was not narrow but focused. That they regarded the Covid-19 crisis first and foremost as a health crisis and that, therefore, they understandably focused on securing guidance primarily from the medical sciences rather than from a broader range of science disciplines. 

But upon deeper examination, might it not be found that this focus on the medical sciences was too narrow? While there is evidence that the authorities consulted experts in virology, epidemiology, immunology, and to some extent genetics with respect to the mRNA vaccines, little evidence appears to exist that advice from the broader range of medical science was sought.

Our science panel might well point out that the medical sciences include more branches than those most often referenced by the authorities, among them psychology and psychiatry, gerontology, and pediatrics. Where is the evidence, it would be asked, that scientists in these fields were consulted as to the foreseeable harms of social distancing on mental health, of prolonged isolation on the wellbeing of seniors, and of closing schools on children and young adults? And where is the conclusive evidence that the benefits of these measures would outweigh the harms? 

Loneliness and social isolation are profoundly damaging to physical and mental health, especially of seniors (top). The medical science considered in adopting Covid-19 measures was insufficient, worsening the mental health crisis among the elderly (bottom). (Sources: (top chart) Mount Royal University; (bottom graph) Government of Canada)

In the absence of such evidence, might not our distinguished scientific panel again be obliged to conclude that the medical science relied upon by the health authorities was too narrow – insufficient to provide a scientific basis for the health protection measures adopted? It is also unlikely that scientists well-versed in interdisciplinary research would accept the bureaucratic excuse that impacts outside the health field were not seriously considered because impacts on rights, freedoms, schools and the economy “are not the responsibility of our department.”

The Freedom to Express and Consider Alternative Scientific Hypotheses

As even a cursory survey of the history of science reveals, science thrives and advances on the basis of competing hypotheses while its advancement is obstructed, not facilitated, by dogmatic insistence that only one explanation of the phenomenon under investigation is permissible. In the 20th century, for example, a great debate occurred over the interpretation of observations that under certain circumstances light appeared to behave as a particle while under other circumstances it appeared to behave like a wave. Some of the world’s most eminent scientists – Bohr, Planck, Maxwell, Einstein, de Broglie, Compton, Schrodinger – were lined up on one side or the other and/or applied themselves to finding an explanation which either proved, disproved or reconciled alternative hypotheses.

Science thrives and advances through open inquiry and debate over competing theories, as in the 20th century work on light by Alfred Einstein and Max Planck (top left). During Covid-19, only one scientific narrative was recognized as valid, with alternative propositions subjected to censorship or cancellation.

Were any of these scientists dismissed from the faculties of their universities, or barred from the meetings of their national scientific societies, or denied publication rights merely for maintaining one hypothesis or the other? Not to my knowledge, and eventually the new scientific discipline of quantum mechanics emerged to explain the dual nature of light.

In the case of Canadian authorities “following the science” in responding to Covid-19, however, a strong majority have insisted there could be only one valid scientific narrative to explain the nature of the virus and the most appropriate measures to combat it. Alternative scientific propositions were not only unwelcome, but medical and scientific personnel advancing them were subjected to censorship or “cancellation” and accused of distributing misinformation. 

Those insisting on a single-minded perspective may have been guided by ideological or administrative considerations, but in doing so they were certainly not thinking scientifically. In fact, would not our distinguished science panel declare that approach to be distinctly unscientific if not anti-scientific?

The Scientific Qualifications of the Interpreters and Communicators of the Science

In Canada and in most countries around the globe, the “we’re following the science” narrative was first and most directly communicated to the public not by working research or clinical scientists with directly relevant expertise, but by politicians, civil servants and media commentators very few of whom were adequately equipped to thoroughly understand, explain or apply “the science” to which they were referring. 

After all, as our science panel might inconveniently point out, in Canada it is possible to get an undergraduate degree – even an advanced degree – in public administration, journalism or political science without training in any of the basic sciences fundamental to understanding, communicating and applying the scientific aspects of Covid-19. Thus, it would be concluded that yet another of the proposed minimum requirements for determining a public policy to be science-based was not satisfied.

Being Ready Before the Next Crisis

To be clear, nobody – least of all me – is claiming that amidst a pandemic in which a plethora of alternative viewpoints are being put forward, not only by public administrators, politicians and the media but by doctors, scientists and other experts, that it is possible to assemble a balanced, rigorous, non-political panel to ask and answer the questions raised above. The time to do this is before the next crisis. It must be clearly established in advance what it means to have a science-based policy, if that is indeed what is called for.

In calling for scientists themselves to take a bigger role in defining the minimal requirements that must be met in order for a public policy to be science-based, let us also acknowledge that scientists themselves are not without their uncertainties, biases and preconceived notions. Notwithstanding that fact, I would rather initially assign the definition of such minimal requirements to scientists than to public administrators and politicians with limited scientific expertise and, quite likely, ulterior motives. 

Is Following the Science a Reasonable Justification for Limiting Freedoms?

Science is not values-free nor does it claim to be. Science as practised since the beginning of the Enlightenment in the late 17th century values objectivity, honesty, tolerance of uncertainty and accountability. Science also values freedom – freedom of inquiry, association and expression, without which the application of the scientific method is limited and can even be perverted.

It would therefore not be surprising if our scientific panel identifying the minimal requirements for a public policy to be truly science-based added the requirement that such a policy must respect and enhance individual freedom to the maximum extent possible. In other words, limiting people’s liberties in the name of science cannot be “following science.” What then might be the conclusion of our distinguished panel if this minimal requirement were also applied to the analysis of policies adopted by Canadian authorities in responding to Covid-19? 

Science values honesty, objectivity and freedom – of inquiry, association and expression. Imposing Covid-19 mandates that erode freedoms, without persuasive evidence and demonstrable justification, abuses not only law and ethics but science-based principles as well. (Source of photo: Adam Melnyk/Shutterstock)

The panel would observe that the mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, vaccinations, and the closing of schools and businesses imposed severe limitations on the constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of Canadians – including freedom of assembly, association, expression and mobility, the right to pursue a livelihood, and the right to equal treatment before the law. 

Under our Constitution the imposition of such limitations is lawful if the government in question can show that those limitations are “reasonable” and “demonstrably justifiable” in a free and democratic society under the circumstances. And what is one of the principal arguments that our governments used in the public arena and the courts to demonstrate that those limitations on freedoms were reasonable and justifiable? That they were faithfully “following the science,” and that surely nothing could be more reasonable and justifiable than following the science in coping with a viral pandemic.

Our scientific panel would then need to decide whether or not “following science,” which itself values freedom, can be used as a convincing rationale for limiting freedoms in this instance. If the answer is no, then yet another of the minimal requirements for certifying Canada’s Covid-19 response policies to be truly science-based would not have been fulfilled.

Next Steps

As citizens, we need to give more thought and direction to policymakers as to the extent we actually want public policy to be shaped by science and the extent to which we want public policy to be shaped as well by other important considerations and factors. When it is determined that science ought to be brought to bear on public policies, what must be done to ensure that the minimal requirements for claiming such policies to be “science based” are truly satisfied? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Public and media understanding of “the scientific method” as it actually is needs to be vastly increased, starting in the educational system, reducing the vulnerability of the media and the public to believing that “science is being followed” with respect to a public policy when it is not.
  2. The minimal requirements that must be met before the developers and administrators of a public policy can claim it to be truly “science based” must be clearly established, with scientists taking the lead in defining those minimal requirements.
    Public and media understanding of the scientific method needs to be vastly increased so that people will not mistakenly believe that public policy is “following the science” when it is not. (Source of cartoon: New Scientist/Facebook)
  3. Our scientists must be encouraged and better equipped to directly communicate their science to decisionmakers and the public – including the scope and depth of the relevant science required and the need for the freedom to consider alternative hypotheses – rather than having that science filtered, censored and misinterpreted by ill-equipped third parties. 
  4. Our politicians, civil servants, media communicators and legislative caucuses must be better equipped to more ably and effectively “bring science to bear” on public policy, while also appreciating the limitations of science as an exclusive guide to policy development and implementation. 

Preston Manning was founder and leader of the Reform Party of Canada, and was a Member of Parliament from 1993-2001, including Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition from 1997-2000. He was also his party’s Science Critic and is the author of several books, including Do Something! 365 ways you can strengthen Canada.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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