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Science - but not Science Alone

Scientific research should influence public policy, but not in a vacuum.

Recently the ceaseless updates from news cycles are usually brushed with the First Minister pestering us to follow the rules, an immanent investigation into that very First Minister’s conduct, or the less intriguing weather reminder that indeed it is still raining. What might have been missed among the hyperbole was that a study from the University of Stirling had been published, concluding that pubs may not be able to stop the spread of Covid-19.


The hospitality industry hit back saying that they had been unjustly targeted by the study. Indeed, there may be some credence to this, considering that the Scottish Government funded the project. However, the news cycle continued warning the public that the beloved free house may be unable to keep the reaper away. After all, what can we do in the face of a scientific study?


The almighty seat of science has declared a new encyclical, and we the faithful enlightened must read and bend to its demands. This study can now be used as more ammunition in the gun, pointed at a hospitality industry that has bent over backwards to comply with reasonable Covid-19 regulation, only to find themselves forcibly closed for months on end. Any hope of reopening is not in plain sight.


Hospitality has been disproportionately hit by the excessive measures of Nicola Sturgeon’s government. Who generally works in hospitality? Small business owners, independent traders, part-time employees, and almost exclusively young people at the beginning of their careers. Suffice to say that hospitality is an industry full of committed, hardworking people who need the next paycheck. So, in light of one published study and the economic risk of closing an entire industry, have we found a proportional middle ground that preserves the safety of the public without obliterating the livelihood of an entire sector? Nope.


We have read science’s commandment and inscribed it in stone. There is a word for that: scientism. It is defined as the belief that everything can be described and stipulated by the methods of science. For example, if we buy into this worldview then the love you feel when you look into your spouse’s eyes or play with your kids at the end of a long day is not love, it is a byproduct of chemical processes in your brain that you have been conditioned to experience. The world of joy, love and grief that you experience is a façade covering mere atoms and the void. It is a fairly grim view of life.

Now, the philosophical conversation can be left to the philosophers, but what does it mean for us - for the regular person living their life? If the government decides to ascribe to this confessional scientism, then public policy is not a well-considered attempt to preserve the common good. Instead, it becomes a list of regulations stipulated to us by almighty science. Cigarettes? Well, they are bad for you so let’s make them illegal. Agriculture? It has a negative impact on the environment so let’s ban the consumption of animal products.


These are exaggerations, certainly, but they stand to prove a point. In most areas of public policy, the government does not take one conclusion from one study as the sole arbiter of the truth. We do not generally take experimental conclusions and implement them as law. Now this is not to say that Covid-19 is not a real and imminent threat to public health and, ultimately, the common good. The good in our lives certainly includes our physical health and there is widely available evidence that Covid-19 is deeply harmful to physical health. It is a pervasive and highly infectious virus that makes people incredibly ill. It presents some of the most visceral human suffering the Western world has experienced in quite a while. No wonder people are comparing it to the War. People are dying, loved ones are apart from one another, and we worry about our most vulnerable parents or grandparents. It is entirely justifiable to take action to protect people from something like this. We should have public policy that seeks to preserve people’s health and this writer has no argument with that.


The real bone of contention is what should inform our public policy. Do we only care about what science has to say on a matter? One should hope not, considering that science does not always present universal conclusions on what one should do in response to a new scientific finding. One need only think about atomic energy. Science cannot tell you whether atomic energy ought to be used to make an atom bomb or to provide environmentally friendly energy.


This is the place where other considerations must come in. When we seek to preserve the common good, the government must remember that there is more than one interest involved in every policy decision they make. The study that tells us that pubs may be a breeding ground for Covid-19 transmission is just as important as a study or an industry analysis telling us that if we shut the doors then thousands lose their livelihoods.


This is the hard work of governance that Nicola Sturgeon’s regime seems unwilling to entertain. As she wags her finger, telling us once again that if we only stayed home and followed the rules we would not be in this mess, it becomes harder and harder to listen. Incomes are plummeting and many are left worrying that the next bill may finally break the bank. In forming public policy, leaders must take a holistic view of the human person and the common good, they must do more than read a few studies or decide on one action point. Scientific research should be considered, but not in a vacuum. People live lives that include scientific findings and health advice. These lives also include economic influence, loving relationships, social interaction, meaningful work, adventure, achievement, and so many other things that are essential to human flourishing.


So, in the case of the pub, we acknowledge that there may be an increased risk of spreading the virus and implement public health safety measures such as limiting numbers, requiring distancing, and penalising those establishments which do not comply. However, we do not adopt the scientism that would tell us our lives are just about what can be measured, quantified, and counted. We live holistic lives that include so much more than just a negative Covid test. The Covid -19 era has shown us that we have a government that puts little value on much beyond basic survival.


And what kind of Scotland will we wake up to? What will happen after this is over? Will we find - upon being told that our cultural institutions, our religious houses, our social hubs, our friends, even our families were not as important as simply living another day - that we believed it? And how will we retrieve it then?


Emma Mutch


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