Tackling a pandemic is a highly technical matter, a subject on which most of us will never have comprehensive knowledge. As such, we may have been paying more attention to scientists’ opinions lately. But this has not magically fixed pre-existing societal tensions.
The rise of populism in Europe has exposed and accustomed people to the appeal of simplistic solutions – the exact opposite of expert advice. Yet technical expertise is translated into policies through a moral and political lens, experts being at times blamed for results outside their control. Meanwhile, the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories (including by self-proclaimed experts) makes it more difficult for reliable expert advice to reach the public.
Have the people had enough of experts?
A few years ago, Michael Gove, the then UK Secretary of State for Justice, proclaimed in a TV interview that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. The rise of populist parties across Europe seemed to support his argument. But while we have come to take Gove’s statement at face value, it turns out that, rather than a majority, “the people” may simply be a very vocal minority. In fact, a metastudy by the University of Sheffield found that, despite insufficient evidence for clear-cut conclusions, data suggests a rather high level of public trust in experts. For the COVID-19 times, the situation is even clearer. A recent global research project, which included 4 European countries, placed experts as the most trusted source of information about the pandemic, at over 80%.
Still, we cannot claim that scientists are not facing a reputation problem. As we’ve discussed in an earlier article, populist parties such as the Spanish party, “Podemos,” have been trying, not unsuccessfully, to reframe the public understanding of experts and elites. Instead of masters of their trade, they’ve been depicted as disconnected theoreticians at best, deceitful orchestrators of back-door deals at worst. The past few months, however, have brought experts back in the spotlight: we have seen them quoted by politicians, interviewed by TV hosts, featured on social media. For example, one of Germany’s most popular podcasts these days is presented by a virologist.
The answers we want versus the answers we need
Nonetheless, well-meaning experts are often unable to offer the reassurance and comfort of simple answers professed by populists. In times of uncertainty, we may look to scientists for clear and final answers. Yet their superpower is precisely their readiness to consider a variety of factors and reassess their conclusions in the face of new evidence. Moreover, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, they have to work with a multitude of unknown variables, under exceptional time pressure and public scrutiny. This has led to cautious and qualified statements, at times contradictory advice coming from the scientific community, and evolving policy recommendations.
The best-known example is that of face masks. In Europe, the first two countries to make face-wear compulsory were Czechia and Slovakia. At the end of March, a Czech friend shared a video featuring national experts advocating for the use of masks in public spaces. Like many others, I was confused. I had heard my national (Romanian) doctors and experts tell us there was no need or use for masks. A few days later, the World Health Organization started slowly modifying its recommendations, and by now 11 EU member states have made mask-wearing mandatory at least in certain circumstances, such as on public transportation.
Science’s greatest strength, its ability to adapt to reflect new evidence, turns out to be one of its worst enemies when it comes to PR. As a result of their changing understanding of the situation, experts’ opinions have evolved as well. And it can be understandably distressing to assist in a debate where you lack the knowledge to firmly draw conclusions for yourself. These discussions have prompted numerous people to declare in various online comment sections that “experts don’t know themselves what is going on”. Yet, while scientists do operate under conditions of imperfect knowledge, their methods and educated opinions remain our best chance to get closer to the truth.
Using science as a shield for political decisions
Meanwhile, although we may rejoice seeing politicians publicly referring to and even deferring to scientific advice, we need to be vigilant in monitoring whether advisors are being instrumentalized as scapegoats for unpopular or undemocratic decisions. Health experts may end up being blamed for effects outside their control, such as the economic fallout. To take the example of the podcasting German virologist mentioned earlier, he attracted a mass following but also death threats.
There are many who claim that experts have “too much power” over policy measures, while most scientists themselves reject the idea, arguing that their role is only to attempt to provide information and explanations. Conversely, particularly in cultures where there is a chronic lack of trust in the political class, people may more readily accept a reduction in human rights if it seems to be backed by scientists – even if the decisions have as much a political justification as a scientific one.
Indeed, it is crucial to scrutinize evidence-based decisions also from a values-based perspective. Expert advice does not automatically translate into precise policy measures. There are a number of factors – scientific, economic, social, moral – to be considered by decision-makers. Even though it may be impossible to simultaneously maximise all values, they must consider the minimum tolerable standards.
Morality in times of pandemic
Value judgments on acceptable trade-offs are part of a policy-makers’ job description. The pandemic, however, has created exceptionally difficult circumstances for them as well. When there are not enough resources to save everyone, decisions have to be made to either prioritise those most likely to survive or to provide equal access to care for all, regardless of odds of survival. There are many morally wrong ways to decide who lives (say, based on race) but no universally accepted right way to decide who does not deserve access to critical healthcare. And certainly, no morally neutral way to do it. Any attempt to rely on “objective” algorithms is doomed to fail. While we may increasingly rely on data-driven models, we must remain aware that we do not only input numbers but also our values and biases into the system.
Moreover, technical solutions do not exist in a vacuum. The power of narratives is particularly relevant in the current context. For example, contagion needs to be prevented and the consensus among experts is that social distancing is one of our most effective tools. Although the Schengen space made them invisible for most Europeans, national borders remain an infrastructure we (mostly) have in place. They can technically and conveniently be used to enforce social distancing. But they can also be politically used to reinforce nationalism.
The porousness of these fault lines, in reality, transpires in the agreements reached between different European member states to accommodate trans-border workers. Public political tensions between Romania and Hungary have increased in recent weeks, but people still travel across the border for their daily commute, even as both countries have theoretically closed their borders to foreigners. Thus borders may be a pragmatic way for us to limit population movement for a defined time period, or a way to protect “our people” from a “foreign” virus. The story that gets told will shape our post-pandemic world.
The good old days of bendy bananas and cucumbers
We do hear many fanciful stories these days. Although they are usually most associated with the US, conspiracy theories have become very much part of the landscape in Europe as well. We may now look back with fondness to the more innocent days of Euromyths and accusations of absurd EU regulations on the shape of fruits and vegetables.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories have been a feature of most past pandemics. The difference nowadays is that technology allows information to be spread more easily and in a more targeted manner. Moreover, false information is easier to spread under the current circumstances. It needs little adjustment from place to place – this may in fact be the first infodemic with a global reach, as it’s happening everywhere, at the same time. The most wide-spread conspiracy theory in Romania has a “popularity” rate of 40%, to which we add 17% of the population who admit to not knowing whether it is true. But these theories are also prominent in Spain, Italy, and France.
They have caused protests in a number of European countries, including Germany and Poland, but also Romania and Bulgaria. The participants do not believe COVID-19 poses real risks and are hence against government protection measures. In the case of the newer member states, these manifestations were clearly linked to pro-Russian parties and to people promoted by the Russian-backed Sputnik news agency. We’ve talked more at length elsewhere about the dangers of fake news during the pandemic but gatherings such as these, where people intentionally break all social distance guidelines, pose an obvious threat to participants’ and their communities’ health.
A never-ending battle against disinformation?
There have been a number of debates on whether this crisis will weaken populists in Europe. The optimistic view is that in the end, we will see conspiracy theories didn’t work and charlatans didn’t protect us. Yet the “beauty” of conspiracy theories is that they either can’t be disproven or one needs to have very specialized or insider knowledge to do so. Moreover, productions are getting more and more elaborate, featuring videos, maps, and graphs. Meanwhile, deep fakes are just around the corner. This makes it more difficult for the average citizen to disentangle the web of information out there but also for experts to gain and maintain people’s trust. They have to compete with those who illegitimately claim to possess specialized knowledge and with the appeal of the exciting yet simplistic stories told by conspiracies.
The optimist view also assumes that we can see clear causal links in the evolution of the pandemic. Yet we often cannot. It is often the case that there are a number of factors, with different weights, playing varying roles at different times. For example, preliminary studies show that between 9 and 20% of people in different European countries would refuse to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. However, this would not necessarily make the vaccination programme ineffective, as herd immunity is achieved when around 60-70% of the population has been immunized. Therefore, anti-vaxxers could still claim that “they” (the antagonised elite, the rich and powerful, the other) had some shady interests in timing when “to start” and “to end” the hoax-pandemic.
Where do we go from here?
We are all experiencing information overload to unprecedented levels. In fact, to a point where psychologists advise us to take a break from the news cycle. So there’s never been a greater need for us to both check our sources and to stop devouring all information we can find on a subject.
In the end, we have two essential tools: trust and critical thinking. Although it may sound as if one precludes the other, we need them to become a complementary pair. By definition, experts possess specialized knowledge laypeople lack. Therefore, while we need them to break down complicated issues for the public, most of us can follow their arguments only up to a point.
We can, however, scrutinize evidence-based policy from a moral perspective. We must also engage in genuine and constructive dialogue. More than a top-down act where politicians or experts point out false information, the people need to be empowered and equipped with skills such as critical thinking and media literacy, in order to be an active agent in shaping the societies we live in.