Pulling Together

Experts in the wrong field

Around 30 years ago there was a series of credit card advertisements in which two British agents, Bough and Latham, would get into unlikely scenarios. In one of these, Latham tries to haggle with a local trader, impressing his assistant who remarks on his fluency. Latham replies “We’re both fluent, Bough — sadly, in different languages,” before resuming his negotiation in slowly-shouted English.

I was reminded of this comic scene last Friday when, out of curiosity, I decided to check the governments listing for the membership of SAGE, the scientific panel on whose advice, it claims, our country’s anti-CoViD strategy is based. I have been concerned for some time about the apparent one-trick-pony approach to the crisis I felt had been used throughout this period and began to wonder what the composition of this all-important advisory group might be. I was shocked and alarmed by what I discovered.

The membership of this strategically-important panel consists overwhelmingly of people from just two disciplines: mathematics, and that branch of epidemiology which is particularly interested in mathematical modelling. That was almost all. There is one epidemiologist who has a side interest in genetics, and there were a couple of psychologists in the mix, mostly concerned with how to motivate people to obey instructions, rather than the impact those instructions might have on people’s mental health or relationships. I was stunned. No wonder the official approach is so lacking in imagination. These people are not evolutionary microbiologists. They are not geneticists or biochemists. They are not virologists. They are mathematicians, computer programmers and those who study the statistical models of disease propagation across the population.

I would have thought it obvious to anyone trying to devise a strategy against a complex and evolving biological threat that a multi-disciplined understanding is essential, that the expertise needed would be in numerous biological and medical disciplines, with a smattering of computer and statistical knowledge to handle the number-crunching necessary to assess the precise likelihood of various scenarios. A multi-disciplined analysis would result in a multi-faceted response, fighting back the threat on numerous fronts using various techniques and exploiting multiple effects.

The members of SAGE are highly-qualified researchers in their chosen disciplines. They are all experts in what they know, but what they know is not primarily what is needed. We are all experts in something, but we are all ignorant of far more than we know outside our own field. I would not go to a lawyer to have an injury treated. I would not consult an accountant about a burst pipe. I would certainly not ask a statistician to advise me on the evolutionary effect on a virus of changing its environment to modify its predominant pathology and means of transmisson.

SARS-COV-2 is not an opinion poll to be analysed for its significance on government popularity. It cannot be modified by assessing how many people have been affected by it. Assembling a team who might be better equipped to assess the impression the strategy makes on public opinion than the overall effects of various measures on public health is not the way to deal with a biological phenomenon. I don’t claim to know anything about the impacts on the virus population or its behaviour of different public health strategies, but I do know we need people who do know such things, or how to go about finding out. Why aren’t we using them?

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