Government policy should be informed by the science, not determined by it, with politicians still held to account argues regular contributor Sean Walsh

Since they are all the rage, would it be possible to come up with a mathematical model to plot the trajectory of what I suppose we have to call the "Cabinet decision making process"? If such a model is logically possible then it might be an idea to get cracking with it; not so much for the hoi polloi, but for the Cabinet itself. Which, to put it kindly, seems to see a way out of lockdown "as through a glass darkly".

Yes, I know, the suggestion is absurd. But is it really that much more ridiculous, or hubristic, than assuming you can fight a virus with maths? It is often pointed out that a mathematical model of a complex and unfolding event or set of events adds this much knowledge to the assumptions on which the model is predicated: zilch. It makes no difference that those assumptions are written out in the impressive language of mathematics, that's just the way the conjuring trick is set up; ultimately, the science involves choices which will ensure that the modelling will always abstract from the phenomena it purports to explain and predict. Human contingency is an ineliminable feature of even the most rigorous scientific method. As John Searle has pointed out, computer simulations, in general, do not even count as computer simulations until someone is around to interpret them as such.

Government policy should of course be informed by the science. It is not clear, though, that it should be determined by it. And things have gone too far when the government gives the impression that it is hiding behind the scientists. It seems to me that we have reached a point where scientific advisers are not offering analyses of data but announcements of policy. This is wrong for at least two reasons: first, policy should be determined -and transparently so- by those who can be held to account for it. Secondly, it is troubling that the government seems to have bought into the idea that all the harms thrown up by this awful situation are detectable by the utilitarian calculus favoured by the scientific epidemiologists. The virus of scientific reductionism seems to have infiltrated and colonised the government machine, thereby distorting the decision- making processes. And not in a good way.

Wilfrid Sellars in a 1962 paper called Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man distinguished between the scientific and the manifest conceptions of the world. The former is written in the language of the physical sciences; the latter refers to the way the world appears to us, and uses the language of belief, desire, intention etc. "Value" belongs to the manifest conception, and to the extent that the government is basing its decisions on the "scientific image" it is squeezing out genuine concerns about what is valuable about life above and beyond the mere fact of being alive.

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Here is an example. What is Bach's St Matthew Passion? Is it a collection of marks on a page which serve as an instruction manual for the generation of sounds which then causally interact with our central nervous system to, at the end of the causal chain, occasion in us the experience of hearing? You could describe it in those terms and the description could, if sufficiently elaborated, be an exhaustive and scientifically impeccable account of what the Passion "really is" in "objective" terms.

Except of course, that the description would miss out completely what the Passion really is for us: possibly the most beautiful piece of explicitly religious music ever written. It is in that mode of presentation that its value lies.

The government is in danger of giving the impression that it can see the notes on the sheet music but is incapable of hearing the music in its head. It has immersed itself in the scientific way of seeing the effects of this virus, the bits that can be put into a PowerPoint presentation.

But the value of a nation is more than that, and to point this out is not to diminish the effects of this virus but to emphasise them, by pointing out just how insidious it is. It has insinuated itself into the mind of the nation, from top down. It is not necessary to enumerate the consequences of this, we all know what they are, we are living them.

The government seems to have found itself in stasis, to the extent that if it does not step up and communicate a way forward, and soon, then it will cease to carry the country with it. It could make a start by decoupling from the scientific image and reconnecting with the rest of us, who see that the data points on a graph are inadequate representations of what we value.

As Galileo nearly put it: the language of the Book of Nature is not the same as the language of the Book of Life.

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