Covid-19: trust the public on scientific uncertainty | Letters

Sonia Sodha (Bias in ‘the science’ on coronavirus? Britain has been here before, 23 Juy) provides a welcome reminder of the BSE crisis and government science advisers “confusing a lack of evidence of risk or benefit for a lack of risk or benefit”. However, scientists are not the only people who assess risk. People make risk assessments every day, and the Covid-19 crisis has shown how people do this. Risk assessments are socially constructed and these different assessments need to be considered in public policymaking. For instance, where were any representatives of older people or people with disabilities when the decision was made to send a text asking them to stay indoors for three months?

This crisis will be characterised by the absence of public health expertise, but a second defining feature will be the lack of public input into policy decisions affecting millions of people. Scientific experts must not only be able to explain the strengths and weaknesses of evidence, but must also debate the implications of the evidence, with the public coming to a consensus. Democratic expertise is needed, rather than leaving experts to solve these problems alone.
Dr Jane Lethbridge
University of Greenwich

Sonia Sodha makes valid points about the importance of independent scientific advice and the dangers of political bias. She suggests that the lessons of the BSE crisis remain unheeded. The BSE crisis of the 1980s and 90s devastated our farming industry and wiped out our beef exports. Most importantly, it put people at risk and eroded consumer trust. On the back of that, the Food Standards Agency was established as an independent, consumer-focused, non-ministerial department. Ever since then, the FSA has operated transparently, put consumers first and been independent of politics. We base our advice to consumers and to ministers on the most current science and evidence available, which we publish, and we take care to explain the uncertainties that sit alongside our judgment.
Heather Hancock
Chair, Food Standards Agency

It’s good to see the philosophy of science putting in an appearance in a major newspaper, and even better that the article contained the admission that scientific knowledge is “rarely black and white”. But I worry that readers may have the impression that the converse of “certainty” is “bias”. It isn’t – it’s “uncertainty”. Bias must be dealt with, but uncertainty cannot be eradicated, due to the nature of science itself. There is no need to be concerned about that – scientific results need only be precise enough for the matter in hand.
Jim Grozier
Department of physics and astronomy, University College London

Boris Johnson’s defence of our poor response to coronavirus is revealing (Boris Johnson says coronavirus could have been handled differently, 24 July). He homes in on the high levels of transmission by those who were asymptomatic, something unknown in March. It was apparent from advice given by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling in February that there was no clear evidence one way or the other on asymptomatic transmission. There was a choice to be made: apply the cautionary principle and make decisions on the basis that rapid asymptomatic transmission was occurring, or take a chance. We know which option was taken, and the result.
Bruce White


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