The experts are back in fashion. So the story went during the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis as UK ministers’ disparaging of experts was brought to an end by a crisis whose reality would defy the attempts of populists to spin and deny. Science was restored to its rightful place at the heart of government decision-making, with the UK’s top scientists flanking the Prime Minister in daily briefings to the nation that provided the latest analysis of the unfolding epidemic. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), containing multiple FRS, OBEs, FMedSci and so on, achieved national prominence.
No place here for the unruly and uninformed trolls and bots of social media platforms that had so regularly cast doubt onto scientific expertise in the past. The only way to get through this crisis would be with the experts not quite in the driving seat (after, all scientists advise and politicians decide), but at least climbing out of the boot and getting to hold the map again. That was the story anyway, and a comforting one at that…
…yet the oak-panelled press conferences of 11 Downing St would only go so far to reset the UK’s epistemic balance. In early March, rumblings began to emerge on social media about the UK government’s strategy, and its lethargic approach to introducing policies for the suppression of the virus. But this discontent did not split down party political lines. For example, some politically progressive members of the science communication community defended the Conservative government’s science-led strategy. Mindful, perhaps, of politically-motivated attempts to discredit science in the past, they adopted a position echoing that of Oreskes and Conway’s hugely influential book Merchants of Doubt: “we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative” (p.272).
A stunning intervention
This turned out to be an unsustainable position. On March 10th, the dissenting, disparate murmurs coagulated in a spectacular fashion, with the publication of the Medium post Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now, by Tomas Pueyo. On the face of it, the post appeared an unpromising addition to attention-sapping digital platforms: described as a 27-minute read, it ran to over 6000 words and contained 23 charts. What’s more Pueyo made no claims to special expertise or relevant credentials, and a glance at his Medium profile showed no previous interest in epidemiology, but rather a range of posts with titles such as What the Rise of Skywalker Can Teach About Storytelling and What I Learned Building a Horoscope That Blew Up on Facebook. This all seemed like a poor fit for the new age of expert deference that we were supposed to be experiencing, but, according to an update by Pueyo, the article received a stunning 40 million views in the first nine days since publication and has been translated into over 40 languages.
The post is notable for going beyond data and describing trends to make a strong, normative argument for countries moving rapidly to lockdown policies, as well as providing advice to business leaders. Pueyo combines data, emotion and urgency, with charts taken from a range of credible sources placed alongside evocative (but unverified) descriptions from social media of the havoc being wrought in Chinese and Italian hospitals. He draws on famous historical examples of previous epidemic interventions in Philadelphia and St. Louis before the final section entitled “The Cost of Waiting” where he describes his own modelling “that resembles loosely Hubei”. Here, Pueyo makes his key argument, predicting that a one-day delay in imposing lockdown would lead to a 40% increase in the cumulative number of cases, so urging governments to implement stringent lockdowns as quickly as possible. While the post gained global attention, the UK context was particularly pertinent, coming a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected the introduction of more stringent interventions, stating that “the best thing we can all do is wash our hands for 20 seconds with soap and water”.