Five Choices (4): Censorship vs Disagreement
The New Sickness Unto Death

Five Choices (5): The Experts vs the People

Part five of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

5 - Encaustic VioletWho can we trust to make the important decisions? We have a choice. One approach is to stand by the ideals of democracy and, one way or another, let the people decide for themselves. But what if they make the wrong choice? We could be committed to a terrible course of action causing immense harm to public health, political stability, or the ideals of civilisation. Can we afford to let that happen?

The alternative is clear - we can let the important decisions be made by whomever has the relevant expertise. The experts, having had the necessary training, are ideally suited to make decisions, and to abandon expertise would be reckless - especially in a time of crisis. But the nature of every emergency is that the facts are not always evident and prior training is no guarantee of insight into a novel situation. So we face the exact same risks here as in giving the decision to the people - what if the experts make the wrong choice? The risks here are no less grave than with the people, since a terrible mistake is just as disastrous when it is made the well-educated - and it may even be far worse, if only because of the tremendous difficulty experts have in admitting they made a mistake.

But it is here that all this construction of idealised choices as a rhetorical device comes to an end. As every pollster knows, we can mount options deceptively because every time a situation is simplified to a binary choice, we have necessarily abstracted away the context which gives that decision its true meanings. If we come at the question of who we can trust to make important decisions as a choice between either the experts or the people, it looks as if we have to side with the experts. But this is not in fact a choice we should ever face, for the way to get the people to make good decisions is necessarily to share with them the perspectives of all the experts, all of whom are also part of the people. There is no need to nominate a set of 'the experts' to replace the decisions of the people. We are all 'the people', no matter what expertise we possess.

When it comes to the important decisions, the only viable way forward is to discover ways to combine expertise with democracy - because we need expertise to help make difficult decisions, but we also need democracy to ensure accountability and legitimacy, for otherwise there can only be thinly disguised tyranny. Once we realise this, we might begin to appreciate that a crisis is not a time to abandon the people for a tiny subset of experts, no matter how comforting we may find the artificial certainty this provides. On the contrary, when the people cannot question expertise, the experts become as blind to the truth as any other despotic ruler, while the people robbed of discourse with expertise become a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Good decisions do not flow from limiting the availability of expertise, but from ensuring that everyone with relevant experience is allowed to speak. This requires that we not give in to the temptation of premature certainty (the risk of 'The Science'), that we never ignore the harms inherent to our tools and methods (the risk of 'technology'), that we do not eviscerate the immense complexity of good health (the risk of 'disease'), and most certainly that we do not undermine both scientific knowledge and civil rights by saying that anyone who disagrees must be silenced (the risk of 'censorship').

These five choices do not offer different visions of good scientific practice. They offer an understanding of what good scientific practice entails, and of the risks we face when we undermine the work of the sciences through our politics or our fears (if indeed those names refer to different things...). The attempt to make experts into a caste, a priesthood, robs expertise of the democratic foundation that alone can legitimise it. The experts and the people are not opposites at all, but one and the same thing. Only when we accept this paradox can we begin to discover how me might live together.

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


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Hello Chris,

I've been thinking hard about your posts, not least because I was in Spain last week, which has a clear "wear masks inside, sanitise/wash your hands when you enter a new building". It was marvellous. The reduction in stress from these clear guidelines was mindblowing. It was a holiday in its own right.

The way I see it, as social animals, humans have three basic heuristics on how to make a choice:
- What do the rules say?
- What do other people say/do?
- What is the Science (and this could be either with your capital S or without, depending on the context)?

So, for example, if you don't know whether you should take drugs for recreational purposes, you could say "well it's against the rules, but many peers do it and the science seems to say it's not a big deal" and make your decision on those grounds.

During this pandemic, ALL THREE HAVE BEEN ALARMINGLY UNCLEAR. There is no "rules" consensus. There is no social consensus. There is no science consensus.

I am pretty clear that as a social human, I need some certainty. I am very happy for that certainty to be weakly held (i.e. liable to change as new data emerges). I am equally sure that I do not want to invest time understanding the actual science of, say, mask-wearing myself. (I am sufficiently aware of Dunning-Kruger to know that even if I read the papers, I don't have enough context to draw reasonable conclusions from them.)

So in the current environment, the Government's advice (i.e. the rules) are wishy-washy, changeable and untrustworthy, so that's no good. Social cues are also difficult, because this is such a novel situation. That leaves the Science as the only rational thing to cling on to.

If we have a government which was trusted to set clear rules that are not "we wash our hands of this; you decide", the Science might not be so needed.

But it is not. So people cling blindly to the Science, as you say.

In the end, I do too. I wear a mask often because there are enough scientists who say it is a good idea, and frankly I trust them more than the rule makers or the social context around me. Do I know this is right? No.

But I do know that it is a social signifier of "people who take Covid seriously", so are more likely to wash their hands, take lateral flow tests and so on. I do know that if gives me a sense of agency (which might be flawed, but at times of uncertainty, a semblance of control is appealing). I also know that of the three groups (govt; the populace at large; scientists), I trust the third group most.

So I cling to the Science, because the alternative is, for me, too unbearable to contemplate: that there is no rationale to choose between doing nothing and doing something, and that uncertainty sets up an unpleasant anxiety loop in my brain.

So I support following the Science. Until it changes :-)

Hi Nicholas,
The need for certainty, as you say here, has been one of the key drivers of most of the problems that have disrupted the scientific discourse in the last 18 months. People want answers - and they want them now! That's toxic to open scientific investigation and discourse, but it's par for the course in politics.

You say you support "following the Science. Until it changes", albeit partly in jest. It changed. Several times, it changed. I've updated my position on community masking at least three times in the last eighteen months as new evidence came in. SAGE did not. Instead, they ejected Robert Dingwall because he continued to read the research and was willing to deviate from the 'party line'. That makes SAGE less of a scientific advisory board comprised of experts, and more... well, I'll leave that aspersion blank. Yet if SAGE won't change its position on the basis of new evidence, what makes you so sure that you will? Are any of us sure that, having politicised a research topic, it is capable of changing, ever...?

I do have enormous sympathy with your position - both in desiring some solid foundations to deal with the ambiguities, and in the desire for agency. I feel like we could have done all this in a way that might actually have saved lives, but we will have to wait for the imaginary future point whereby we can actually have the open discourse before we will know anything about these possibilities in real terms. And there's little point in my expressing what I think would have been an effective plan now, but I think there were several options that actually would have saved some lives, reduced the severity of at least some infections, and brought us out of the pandemic much faster. Too late, alas, and never possible without first allowing the discussion.

I also think that the social signifier aspect of the community masking is a much bigger factor than has been acknowledged. In the early days, when I was still waiting for the evidence on microdroplets vs aerosols to be resolved, I had some debates on social media with people whose arguments in favour of masking were, on the evidence at that time, very weak. But ultimately, they retreated to a position that was essentially "even if all the masks do is signal that we're taking this seriously, it's the right thing to do."

I have sympathy for that position: from my personal political position of solidarity with everyone, I am obligated to respect others' positions. Unfortunately, what taking that path also does is introduce political bias into a scientific topic, making it harder to investigate, and destroying the open discourse required to resolve the ambiguities. Worse, this is path that by acting on incomplete evidence inevitably produces a counter-movement in opposition, such that a measure intended to show solidarity ultimately undermines that solidarity. Back to the culture wars yet again... As a result, I worry that we will never get to the truth of the matter on community masking, although I believe the most recent update I posted into the comments here at Only a Game on this matter is mostly accurate. I won't share a link; I think it's clear you don't want to go down that path, and there may well be no point right now.

One of the key reasons we ended up with the community masking being advocated in the first place appears to have been precisely a desire to take action - any action - to mitigate risk, even if the consequences and efficacy of the measures was not fully known, or fully justified. In the case of community masking, this has eroded political and scientific discourse, and caused a few minor health harms (especially in children, alas) but it has not been a catastrophe so much as it has been one of the driving forces in the balkanisation of scientific discourse - the maxim of "follow the Science" has ended in "the destruction of the Science".

The community masking isn't even the big problem here. But in driving that breakdown in scientific discourse, the community masking has contributed to unleashing far, far bigger disasters. This coming Tuesday's blog-letter to Chris Billows, the bookend for my blogging this year, will address this topic.

I greatly appreciate you laying out your position. I think your position is well reasoned and sensible, and your understanding of your own position is admirable. I disagree with it on a scientific basis - but I defend to the death your right to take up that position. And oppose, with equal vigour, the attempt to enforce this one position upon everyone else against their will. For it is one thing to choose to act in this way, and quite another to force everyone to do so under conditions of massive scientific ambiguity.

Many thanks, as always, for engaging with me! There is so little thoughtful discourse today, that I treasure every iota of it, from you and from anyone and everyone else.

With unlimited love and respect,


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