Nicholas Agar examines the subtle ways in which the relationship between politician and scientist can misfire

Neal Stephenson’s recent sci-fi novel Termination Shock describes a near future transformed by climate change. It’s a world of droughts, floods, and extreme heat. Coronaviruses get mentions too. Covid-23 and Covid-27 have joined Covid-19 making Stephenson’s future an even more hostile place.

If the future is anything like Stephenson’s novel, then we should expect to see many more press conferences featuring politician-scientist double acts. The pandemic has taught us how costly in lives it can be when politicians fudge the science.

Perhaps the coming decades will see pairings of politician and chief health officer alternating with double-acts of politician and principal climate scientist. It’s important to think carefully about what makes these pairings work and how they can go wrong.

The pandemic delivered a peremptory rebuke to politicians who plain ignored or overrode unwanted scientific advice about the coronavirus. But there are other more subtle ways in which the relationship between politician and scientist can misfire. 

When politicians bright-side scientific advice

Aotearoa’s double-act of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashely Bloomfield assumed iconic status in the first two years of our pandemic. Politician and scientist kept to their own lanes. Ardern did not try the populist move of ignoring or overriding inconvenient scientific advice. She didn’t suppose that she could beat the virus with bluster. Bloomfield understood that he wasn’t making policy.

But we mustn’t forget that politicians and scientists are different animals. As elections near, politicians can be increasingly tempted to win votes by bright-siding scientific advice.

I take this term from American writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2010 book Bright-sided in which she describes her experiences with cancer and her anger at the American cultural imperative to always look on the bright side. She was supposed to celebrate her cancer as an opportunity for personal growth.

Politicians bright-side scientific advice when they report it accurately, but selectively. They emphasise the politically helpful parts of this advice but omit the careful but politically-awkward provisos that scientists pair with their advice.

In December 2021, Australian politicians opened borders based on modelling that showed it should be safe “so long as Delta remained the dominant variant”. It’s this proviso that bright-siding Australian politicians chose to omit. Their bright-sided justification was simply that scientific modelling had shown it would be safe to reopen. After the uncontrolled spread of the Omicron variant Australian scientists were left to protest that their recommendations said nothing about this new variant.

Sometimes we see evidence of political bright-siding in the awkward body language or absences of chief health officers. In Australia the occasional absences of NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant have been the subject of much speculation. Signs of discord between politician and scientist in Australia didn’t achieve the extremes of former US president Donald Trump’s relationship with his scientific advisors. In a now legendary politician-scientist pandemic performance, Dr Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, seemed to be trying her hardest to shrink to the point of invisibility as the President peppered her with speculations about injections of disinfectant or bringing “ultraviolet or just very powerful light” inside the body to kill the virus “in one minute”. But they are a sign that all is not well in the pairing of politician and scientist.   

Australia’s Omicron outbreak is a sign of what can go wrong when we oversimplify scientific models. Chris Hipkins, the Minister for Covid-19 Response has recently expressed caution about scientific models. He compares pandemic modelling with weather forecasts – “I’ve always been pretty sceptical about the models.” This caution suggests he won’t be tempted to bright-side scientific advice.

But an even better response is to trust the models but understand that they come with conditions that limit their application. In an increasingly dangerous future, we need an increase in scientific literacy from our politicians that matches the crash course in viral transmission and epidemiology that most of the rest of us have gone through. Rather than distrusting scientists’ models, politicians and the rest of us need to get better at understanding that they frequently come with provisos such as “this assumes that the Delta variant will remain dominant” or “this assumes that we reduce carbon omissions by 5 percent”.

Politicians and scientists “joined at the hip”?

If the pairings of politician and scientist are to be regular features of Aotearoa’s future, then we should not overlook the fact that politically, this is not a relationship between equals. In September 2021 the then NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian responded to speculation that she had overridden Chant’s disagreements about reopening her state’s borders with the assertion that she “would never” do such a thing. She and Chant were “joined at the hip.” Politically at least, it’s clear which of these conjoined twins was dominant.

There are circumstances in which scientists can temporarily gain the upper hand in this relationship. Politicians are getting used to fact-checking by debate moderators when they campaign for office. It’s going to be increasingly important to elect leaders who understand the scientific basics of the climate and of epidemiology. Why not include debate moderators who check candidates for scientific literacy? “Candidate A, you assert that New Zealand could have safely reopened its borders by mid 2021. Here are some established facts about viral transmission that you seem to have overlooked.”

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment