Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Science and politics should not be at odds
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens

Opinion | Science and politics should not be at odds

The covid crisis highlights the value of a scientific temper in public affairs

The covid-19 pandemic has surpassed 9/11 as the defining moment of our generation. Due to the singular nature of this scare, global heads of state are in need of sound advice from scientists. In these surreal times, it is worth examining the relationship of science with politics, and the importance of a scientific temper. Science and politics are generally at odds. Science proposes hypotheses, develops replicable tools to test them out, and generates verifiable facts. Politicians weave facts into narratives that a majority is willing to buy into. While American scientists like Anthony Fauci have become overnight heroes, they are unelected appointees. Conversely, politicians are answerable to their electorates.

There is no dearth of politics in science, and it is not infallible as an intellectual discipline, but what does science tell us about politics? We belong to the only species that has designed democratic systems and goes beyond physical superiority while choosing leaders. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela led with their soaring rhetoric, strategic planning, empathy, and sacrifice. These traits could be attributed to brain regions like the pre-frontal cortex, which is not only the seat of complex emotional analysis, it lets us understand causal chains and plan for the future. It enables us to suppress primal instincts like fight-or-flight responses, look beyond our self-interest, and appeal to collective humanity, uniquely empowering us to fight off common threats. Good leaders can relieve anxiety, synthesize emerging data, implement public health strategies, and summon our higher angels, so to speak. Populists, in contrast, rarely inspire the confidence needed in the face of an invisible but real threat like a virus.

Consider the response of various countries. By prioritizing national pride over public safety, Chinese leaders downplayed covid-19’s severity, and resorted to what looked like obfuscation (Beijing has just revised Wuhan’s death toll upwards). In the US, the stance of President Donald Trump has been bewildering, to say the least. He has lurched from crisis to crisis, vacillating on several issues, and this pandemic caught his administration first in denial of a health crisis and then unprepared to tackle it. He negated learnings from the 2014 Ebola outbreak and had disbanded the American pandemic response team. He ignored covid red flags raised by US intelligence agencies in January. Despite evidence from South Korea on the efficacy of mass testing, it was too late by the time the US ramped its efforts up. All along, he seemed to have a tin ear for scientists.

India’s fate hangs in the balance too. It remains unclear how well the country had fared against the pandemic. Enlarged dividends from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) would have been helpful in a crisis like this, as also a transfer of some RBI reserves, but the government had already resorted to this device in 2019-20 to cover gaps in public finances. In the early phase of the outbreak, India should have tested 8,000 people a day, but tested only about 100 per day till mid-March. The country’s test count has risen sharply since then, but still remains very low on a test-per-million-population basis. The restrictions put in place before the 21-day lockdown were not properly implemented either.

Another worry is that government authorities do not seem to command everyone’s trust equally, an outcome of divisive politics in the country. This diminishes the state’s capacity for mass mobilization against covid. Announcements by the health ministry of cases being traced to a religious congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi did not help the cause of forging unity among all citizens.

The lockdown in itself was a promising step. It may have achieved some of it goals in slowing down covid’s spread, but when the curve of infections will flatten cannot yet to projected with confidence. Regardless, the pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the government’s desire to make India a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25.

The success of a country eventually comes down to the adoption of a scientific temper in public affairs. The 20th century has shown that societies at the forefront of scientific prowess and fearless inquiry tend to lead the world. After a glorious run after World War II, America’s conservatives appear to be ceding its scientific leadership by doubting the motivations of experts. Trump’s antics embody the abandonment of a scientific temper. His mismanagement has worsened the US covid crisis. Indian conservatives, on the other hand, seem intent on glorifying their past even before the country can demonstrate beyond dispute that it is home to a truly forward-thinking society. What we ought to expect are daily updates on the spread of the coronavirus, and technical details of our efforts to address the crisis, backed by health experts, rather than exhortations to clap and light candles. The apparent lack of public pressure on the government to answer specific queries on covid-19 reflects the state of scientific temper in India.

State-level leaders are filling the void. In sombre tones, they are providing facts and figures, announcing plans for the needy, or conveying the latest from scientists. It takes such straight talk to unify all constituents. People empowered with verifiable information are willing to make collective sacrifices. Some leaders will ride out the pandemic’s aftermath, and some will not. Let us hope the politics of tomorrow restores science to its rightful place in society.

Mauktik is a, neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author and filmmaker. He is the author of ‘A Ghost of Che’ and ‘Packing Up Without Looking Back’.

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