Following the science

Probably more than usual, we have been hearing more of the phrase “we’re following the science” since the start of this Covid pandemic. This phrase may be deemed crucial to reassure the public in these uncertain times, as well as quell any criticism.

Throwing back “science” at critics is a rather easy way out. However, as with many things, the devil is in the detail – what does “following the science” really mean?

Science is not a guidebook. It is not a list of instructions. Decision makers are not provided with a step-by-step approach on how best to manage a pandemic, for example. Rather, science is an ever growing body of knowledge, which can inform decision makers on the state of the current situation, and the effects certain measures could have. It is then up to the decision maker to design the most effective plan. While the raw science itself is objective, the application of that knowledge is necessarily based on subjective choices, which in turn are based on principles and values.

This distinction between the subjective and the objective is not merely a theoretical concept – it has a practical impact on the management of this pandemic. The government has been using science as a shield, to protect itself from legitimate criticism. The press conference, in the beginning of March, on the day Malta registered a record number of new cases is a case in point. The government had decided to take action because the number of cases spiked, and the UK variant had become the leading strain. We were told that Malta was once again following the science – except that it did not.

Science does not only allow for the analysis of past trends, it also allows for projections. For probabilities and foresight even with incomplete information. In Malta’s case, the total number of active cases had been steadily rising since the end of summer, and the variant had been spreading for weeks. While projections are never fully accurate, it was becoming clear that things were worsening, and that something had to be done to prevent future harm. This preventative form of decision making is not a wishful concept, but rather a principle used the world over and a Green principle, the ‘precautionary principle’. Lest we forget that Malta had successfully controlled the pandemic a year ago precisely by applying the precautionary principle and by basing itself on expert judgement. Had the government waited as it did now, goodness knows how many more people would have died. Some may say this was based on luck. Of course ‘luck’ also comes in but ‘luck’ has to be planned for too.

The precautionary principle is crucial both because Covid spreads rapidly, but also because infected persons can infect others without showing symptoms for up to two weeks. Time to analyse past figures and establish trends is also crucial. Before you know it you could be identifying a problem which has been increasing exponentially for weeks. Hence, you can “follow the science” and still record terrifying infection numbers. Hence the importance of applying the precautionary principle.

I only hope that the current government will learn its lesson, and start adopting a more pro-active and precautionary approach from now on. Medical experts and statisticians need to be trusted, as they have the ability to provide the necessary expert judgement. Decision makers have to take timely decisions, explain their reasoning and avoid triumphalism and careless statements. The Public Health risk assessment report which is ridiculously empty of any real risk assessment and science makes one wonder if the civil service is up to scratch, or if there was any Trumpian-style editing of scientific and technical reports. At this point, any further political intrusions will have deadly consequences.

Ralph Cassar
ADPD Secretary General
Published in The Malta Independent – Friday 19 March 2021