Every profession has its terminology: law, accountancy, medicine, IT, economics, even management. The intent of such nomenclature is to provide precision yet too often it descends into jargon — technical nouns, verbs and adjectives deployed merely to show off. Instead of delivering illumination, the words help to obscure, which is occasionally the purpose of excessive technical language.
Few government ministers, MPs or mainstream journalists have much in the way of scientific qualifications. Many would have stopped studying scientific or technical subjects when they were 16; while they may have university degrees, these tend to be in the humanities. This means their ability to comprehend much of the science around the coronavirus is limited, and their confidence in interrogating the scientific advisers is likely to be negligible.
The problem is compounded because science and medicine are priesthoods, full of ritual and specialist language. It is easy to get the impression that the reason for much of this rigmarole is to mystify and intimidate non-professors.
Scientists are human and want to do good, but they also want to earn money, status, grants and promotion. A recent book, Calling Bullshit by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, discusses the challenges.
Scientific research works via the publication of papers in specialist journals. These are meant to supply the methods and results of studies, and be peer-reviewed by relevant experts. A scientist’s career progress in such fields partly relates to how many of their papers are accepted by prestigious journals, how often they are cited by others and the overall impact they have.
Covid-19 has led to an explosion of published research — much of it probably rushed and of low quality. PubMed, a free online repository of biomedical literature, suggests about 100,000 studies of Covid-19 have already been published. Has anyone read them all? Which of them are truly important and which are trivial? How much of the information they contain is duplication and how much is contradictory?
Clinicians and scientists might argue that the public does not need to grasp the meaning of scientific concepts, language or texts. Indeed, most people do not have the temperament to undertake the rigorous training required to interpret scientific knowledge. Yet the lack of transparency and the exclusion of the substantial majority of the population creates confusion, suspicion and mistrust between the experts and the rest. The vast torrents of data often serve to obfuscate.
This really matters when we are all subject to unprecedented and onerous restrictions in every detail of our lives. Unfortunately, many aspects of Covid-19 are unclear, and the effectiveness of treatments is debatable. There are few easy solutions and only hard trade-offs. There have been serious policy mistakes. But our political leaders admit to none of that, and too often present probabilities and educated guesses about this epidemic as definitive truth.
Many people — even clever, highly-qualified people — do not write well. They cannot craft a narrative, their documents lack structure and they use long words when simple ones would do. Some of the best research scientists I have known were brilliant at explaining complex issues in accessible ways. Sadly, all too many academics don’t possess such a skill — or perhaps don’t care.
In one area, however, the state has communicated very effectively. Since last March, our government has been the UK’s biggest advertiser and has spent tens of millions of taxpayers’ money on propaganda designed to scare us. These campaigns are superbly crafted and horrifyingly effective. Instilling fear and anxiety into the population has kept us passive and obedient, despite the grotesque impact that restrictions and stress are having on our mental, physical and financial well-being.
Thanks to lockdowns, we are atomised and exist in shrunken echo chambers. Conspiracy theories about vaccines and other aspects of Covid-19 are flourishing. I suspect that, isolated and unable to have nuanced conversations, millions of people feel discombobulated, unsure whom to trust. Hysterical broadcasters only fuel the dislocation.
Society needs better general science education, and more public scientists who are able to disseminate scientific concepts to average citizens. We need far more politicians in senior positions with medical and scientific backgrounds, especially in areas such as health.
A better-informed populace will come closer to understanding the tough choices facing our country during a crisis like this.