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Why 'The Science' can't be our chief guide through the pandemic

Evangelist Michael Ots is concerned that our collective response to Covid-19 is inadequate. While rejecting conspiracy theories, he questions whether there really is a scientific consensus, and whether epidemiologists should be our chief guides through the crisis

I read Mark Surg’s article ‘Christians must stop embracing pseudo-scientific claptrap’ with some interest. 

I agree with many of Mark’s concerns. I have seen plenty of stuff posted online by Christians that has made me wince. Some Christians have ended up regurgitating some spurious and strange ideas. I agree that we need to be very careful in this area and that it is quite possible that we damage our witness when we speak with as much certainty about highly disputed ideas as we do about the resurrection of Christ.

However, reading Mark’s article could give the impression that there is near unanimity within the scientific community in regard to the issues surrounding Covid-19. I would have liked to see some acknowledgement that there are genuine areas for discussion and disagreement and that those doing the disagreeing are not always crackpot conspiracy theorists! Carl Heneghan may be wrong when he challenges certain aspect of the science in regard to Covid-19 but we can’t say that the Director of The Centre for Evidenced Based Medicine at Oxford University is simply peddling pseudo-scientific claptrap!

There is a genuine discussion to be had and it is wrong to pretend otherwise. There are real questions about a number of different issues such as the accuracy of testing and the problem of false positives, the efficacy of different interventions to control the spread of the virus, the possibility of some kind of prior immunity, and whether or not having had covid confers immunity and if so for how long?

A recent article in the BMJ was headlined ‘The more certain someone is about covid-19, the less you should trust them’. It acknowledges that there are real areas of uncertainty regarding the science and the authors admit where they themselves have been wrong in their assumptions. They wrote:

"In the “science” of covid-19, certainties seem to be everywhere. Commentators on every side—academic, practitioner, old media or new—apparently know exactly what’s going on and exactly what to do about it.

"We are not talking about those who insist that hydroxychloroquine will save us all, or who call face masks “muzzles” or “face nappies,” or who declare that many detected covid-19 cases are false positives. We can also leave aside those who sidestep reality to suggest that we’ll have a world free of covid-19 within months if we simply follow their advice.

"Rather, we are thinking of the many rational people with scientific credentials making assertive public pronouncements on covid-19 who seem to suggest there can be no legitimate grounds for disagreeing with them."

It would be wrong of me though to argue that the scientific community is equally split on the matter. It does seem that the majority within the scientific community do favour a conservative approach and would say that without strong intervention the virus will continue to spread with catastrophic implications in terms of many more deaths and the overwhelming of the health service and that therefore restrictions and lockdowns are necessary. However, there are a growing number of other who would challenge that narrative, arguing that collective immunity may be possible sooner than we think and that it could be possible to allow the virus to spread while also protecting the vulnerable. (See the Jon Snow Memorandum and the Great Barrington Declaration for further articulation of these different views).

Of course, being in the minority doesn’t mean that these dissenting voices are necessarily wrong. The New Atheists used to like pointing out that scientists who believed in God were in the minority! On the other hand, being in the minority doesn’t mean you are right either! But let us at least acknowledge that there is a discussion to be had and avoid giving the impression that things are more certain than they are.

Let me respond to Mark’s four conclusions:

1. Christian leaders have to accept their limitations (but so should scientists)

One of Mark’s objections seems to be that non-scientists are wading into the debate and that Christian leaders need to accept their own limitations. Of course, this is true… and I am not an epidemiologist or medical professional and should not speak as if I am. But surely, we also need to recognise the limitations of science too? Any discussion about how we should respond to Covid-19 shouldn’t just ask how best we can control or suppress the virus. It also has to take into account the implications of such measures upon other areas of life.

There is a danger that in being ‘led by the science’ we can become blinkered to the other issues. We actually delegate these society-wide decisions to politicians who must bear in mind the whole life of society and not just the progress of one illness. Those leaders who consider themselves "guided" by the science (rather than "led") seem wisest. We know that there are many in our communities — GPs, mental health professionals, community leaders, yes even pastors, who see the bigger picture, not just of covid but of the whole life of our nation under lockdown. They are keenly aware of not only the physical but the mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of life, and that broader perspective is vital.

2. Know your sources (But don’t make peer review your silver bullet of credibility)

Mark is right to challenge us to look at the sources of our information and this is particularly helpful when reading online articles. But there can be a danger that we place too much emphasis on peer review as if this is the magic bullet of credibility and anything that hasn’t been should instantly be dismissed. We need to also acknowledge the limitations of the peer review process.

3. Think of the impact on the gospel (Absolutely!)

Mark says that Christian leaders challenging the scientific consensus ‘has made me think twice about my faith’. I was struck though by what the historian Tom Holland said in a recent interview with the evangelist Glen Scrivener. While being very sympathetic to Christian faith he has been hugely disappointed by the church during the pandemic. Not though by Christian leaders who have challenged the science but by Christian leaders have simply reiterated public health advice – as if Christianity has little more to offer than the endorsement of hand washing and mask wearing.

Ultimately, we need to recognise that the way we respond to the science is massively influenced by our presuppositions and our worldview. Rather than getting bogged down in a scientific debate maybe we do need to challenge the worldviews of our society. I think that often in the West we have developed an unspoken assumption that life can be 100% safe. We have an unbridled confidence in science to solve all of our problems. With no hope of eternal life, we have a paralysing fear of death. I believe that these things have hugely influenced our response as a society. We can definitely speak into this with the gospel.

4. Try to be gracious (It works both ways!)

Mark is right that when corrected on things that are factually inaccurate, we need to be gracious in retracting what we have said and acknowledge where we might have been wrong and I will endeavour to do this. But the way we correct others also needs to be done graciously. We also need to think the best of those with whom we disagree and assume that they may have good motives for thinking the way they do. We all need to show humility.

Mark helpfully points out the problem of pride. But what does pride look like in 2020? Sure, it might look like a pub pundit holding forth without knowledge. It might look like a YouTuber with a book to sell. It might look like an evangelist speaking with more certainty on scientific questions than he should.

But if we're talking about pride, what about a political establishment throwing around unprecedented authoritarian control, and what about appeals to (scientific) authority that, on examination, don't stack up?

Yes, Mark is right to diagnose the problem as pride. But take a step back. In 21st Century developed nations, who are those most likely to be guilty of pride? Surely pride is a particular temptation for scientists, often called the new high priests of our culture. If that is so, is there anyone willing and able to point out the dangers, or are scientists beyond critique?

Michael Ots is an Christian speaker and author based in Marlow, halfway between Oxford and London in the UK. He travels widely around the UK, Europe and Eurasia speaking mainly in Universities and explaining the relevance of the Christian faith to all areas of life. He is the author of three books, the first of which (What kind of God?) was nominated for a major UK book award and has been translated into seven languages. He is married to Rebecca.

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the publisher

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