No investigation of the geopolitical scene after 2020 can be complete without a spotlight on the Covid-19 pandemic and its likely effects. In the penultimate feature in this series, Professor Yves Schemeil, who lectures at Sciences Po Grenoble, looks at the tensions between science and politics. Words by Stuart Pallister.
Kicking off another of his sessions with Les Roches and Glion students, political scientist Professor Yves Schemeil highlighted a photo of a young, female Chilean, Izkia Siches of Inca ancestry, who became the president of her country’s medical union in 2017. She is perhaps more representative of Chile’s population than previous incumbents; particularly as some 70% of the people there are below the age of 35.
“People trained in the medical sciences gain more respect than politicians who are trained in governmental studies, public policy and public management. Why? Because everyone thinks medicine is a true science (compared with politics which is supposed to be an ‘art’),” he told the students.
“But that’s not quite true. Medicine is an empirical science which has made a lot of progress in the 20th century but it’s not as scientific as biology or physics. So, when you say medicine is a science, you’re expressing a hope rather than the truth. For most people, it’s a science because medical knowledge is difficult to learn, since it takes some 10 years.”
“What happens when scientists cannot convince ordinary people of their competence?”
In the UK and the US in recent months, there have clearly been tensions between scientists and politicians on the best way to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. The UK government has repeated time and again that it is following the science, but this had led to some wondering who is actually in charge and whether it will be the scientists who will be blamed for any missteps.
“What happens when scientists cannot convince ordinary people of their competence?” Prof. Schemeil asked, somewhat rhetorically. “The problem with what experts say and how politicians can follow (that advice) is that sometimes there are lots of disagreements.”
The effectiveness of wearing of masks is still being debated in many countries, even though the wearing of masks seems to have helped keep the coronavirus at bay in many Asian countries, along with effective track and trace platforms.
Then, there’s the debate over hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump at one time said he was taking. The World Health Organization stopped recommending the drug for a while but then reversed its opinion, saying it can be useful. “So, you see, it’s going back and forth between two completely contradictory opinions,” Prof. Schemeil added.
“Confidence in science is something which is quite delicate.” And this is where charisma comes in, as it may be a way of compensating for competence, which is difficult to assess.
“The more charismatic experts in health or politics are, the more people trust them.”
Adding that politicians who lack charisma have no option but to take shelter behind the experts, Prof. Schemeil went on to say that if politicians were themselves physicians, like the French minister of health and others, they would have “more room for maneuver”.
As for the quest to find a vaccine, President Trump has invoked the TV series and movie franchise Star Trek(‘Operation Warp Speed’). “The scientists would like to have more time but the politicians would like to have the vaccine tomorrow,” Prof. Schemeil said.
“In 2020, despite divergences and difficulties in opting for one side or the other, science has prevailed over politics. This is the first time in the history of the world that we are all looking for science to tell us what we will have to do in order to live in an acceptable world, and not a philosopher or political scientist.”
However, there is clearly an issue in terms of accountability. Scientists are “not going to be lambasted or criticized much and won’t lose their jobs or positions if they are wrong. I wouldn’t have thought I’d see this in my lifetime, but it has because the danger was great and it was an imminent and massive threat”.
Prof. Schemeil concluded, “Health will remain the prevalent factor when people have to make decisions; while the economic condition of the business community, including hospitality, will come second.
“If it’s a matter of life and death, there’s no discussion: health has to prevail. So, yes, scientists will continue to be the top source of knowledge and be more trusted than politicians.”
- Keep watching our blog for the fifth and final instalment of ‘The World After 2020’ – coming soon
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