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The magic of science

People wrongly think that science can give us all the answers to COVID-19, says Paolo Quattrone, Professor of Accounting, Governance & Society.

We live in an age where mathematical models and amazing algorithms are all around, a world where we believe science and technology can help give all the answers we need to whatever problem is thrown at us. Not dissimilar from the promises of alchemy, science and technology make us live the dream of effortless, quick and valuable solutions.

This thinking appears to be well ingrained in our political leaders in the UK too. By continually following the mantra of ‘being led by the science’ during the COVID-19 crisis they have delegated leadership to scientists at the very moment when they needed to be occupying the space left free by the hypothesis, indeterminacies and trade-offs of scientific models.

As someone who specialises in how data is used to manage change and big societal problems, one might find my viewpoint a little surprising. But believing science is not perfect is actually far more productive than thinking it is perfect.

Imperfect science

Scientific views are, by definition, dependent on a scientist’s own particular field of expertise, quality of data, assumptions, and various biases, beliefs and turf battles.

In short, scientists are not able to categorically give us the right answers which means that our political leaders need to exercise their judgement. This is precisely why we have delegated to politicians the right to take decisions on our behalf by electing them.

We should always be sceptical about one individual piece of data that is ‘given’ to us (the word data derives from the Latin for ‘thing given’). Instead, in the present crisis, what is important is to know what expertise is collectively being given to the government via its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Are there the right checks and balances? Is the problem being framed from different and opposite points of view to investigate the grey area in between these opposite views?

Grey area

We should not stick with just one objective version of the truth, a rare good in conditions of uncertainty. Rather we should be exploring the grey area in between different truths and different beliefs which abound when we face unprecedented emergencies.

This need for more diversity in how we frame the problem particularly applies to the difficult debate about trade-offs that the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted in terms of the challenge of balancing the needs of our economy with the wider health of our population, of the need to treat COVID-19 patients versus the need to take care of all others.

Craving certainty

However during the present crisis people and politicians are craving for certainty, expecting individual pieces of data to give them all the right answers that we need. But this is simply not possible. Data scientists can give the wrong answers just as much as the right answers. Models are just that, models.

To give an analogy, it is like comparing a Google search with a physical visit to a library in order to find out information. The way you assemble and gather information in these two scenarios is completely different and your results will be very different as a result.

The former is quick, effortless and therefore makes us save time and money. But what do we lose by foregoing the latter? How much do we abdicate to the calculative power of an unscrutinised algorithm? Again, our choice of using Google rather than sweating in the library obeys to our desire for speed, certainty and effortless results. This is what makes us believe in the magical power of science and technology, especially in these unprecedented COVID-19 times.

Test, trace, treat

But, you might say, are there not ways that data and technology can help provide a way out of lockdown?

For instance to give one example, many point to the development of contact tracing apps that can best identify and control the spread of the virus, and which are already proving successful in Far East countries such as China and South Korea.

Yes, they will do the trick. But the key point here is that you need a strong majority of people to be signed up to such apps for them to work. You need to ignore privacy rights that are guaranteed by constitutions or democratic social contracts. And you still need extensive contact tracing at the same time to complement the technology, tracing which can only be done by a lot of people on the ground.

You still need to test, trace and treat. Again, there is no magic formula.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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