Cees Hamelink

Published in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. April 30, 2020


Government policy is based on expert advice. But experts are not scientists, argues Cees Hamelink.

As a scientist it is of course gratifying for me to hear that government policy on Covid-19 takes science seriously. And it is gratifying when press conferences of the prime minister and other authorities refer to scientific research. However, if it is not immediately mentioned by whom these studies were carried out and by whom they were critically assessed, I, as a scientist, become restless.

Especially because I know from my own experience that governments and scientific research are often not happy partners. Much of the policy-relevant scientific research produced is often stored in desk drawers all over the world, unless the results support an already established management course.

Science and political policymaking live in other worlds. Politicians are looking for quick and unambiguous answers. Science is better at asking questions than providing answers. In the case of the Covid-19 crisis, science is speechless. Not only does it have no answers to the secrets of the virus, but also to the questions about the economic, psychological, educational and cultural issues that are now arising as a result of the measures that are supposed to prevent its spread.

Lack of clarity

Moreover, science is not suitable for unequivocalness. It lives by complexity and differentiation. In politics, it is a good aim to reach a consensus. In science we make progress precisely because we constantly disagree with each other. In the process of scientific research, scientists draw different conclusions from the same material. In science we accept – always only temporarily – a combination of theoretical constructions that are constantly bombarded with fundamentally new insights. The core of science is that every theory can be refuted. The forum of science is not a sociable and like-minded association.

Politicians want to be sure that all swans are white, while science persistently searches for the black swan. This means that while political policymaking is in a hurry, science needs patience. Science is a long-term matter and has to deal with many uncertainties. The most important scientific discovery of the 20th century is how little we know despite the promises of the Enlightenment. But what about that mentioned scientific underpinning of the measures now taken? It is simply not there.

Current policy is based on the advice of experts who may have academic degrees or university positions, but who are not science. Their opinions – however honourable they may be – are not scientifically subject to the independent review of critical third parties. Experts operate in a grey area between science and politics. Experts can get away with incomplete and insufficiently verified figures on, among other things, corona death rates and the risk of infection in young children.

Reputational damage

They can rely on models borrowed from London Imperial College without too much damage to their reputation, without critically analysing the presuppositions of these models and without wondering what the College’s data is based on. Experts may not lie awake to an estimate of Covid-19 victims in England that dropped from 500,000 to 1,600 within a month, but scientists have sleepless nights. Scientists have a harder time of it. Although peer review is not always a sufficient guarantee of completeness and validity in science, as a scientist you do run the risk of colleagues catching you for carelessness, poor theoretical or statistical underpinning or tunnel vision.

It is good to listen to experts but at the same time not to see them as representatives of scientific knowledge. They often only have limited specialist knowledge, which in the case of Covid-19, moreover, turns out to be insufficient to fathom the behaviour of the virus. Let alone that it is sufficiently solid to predict anything about it. Moreover, since Covid-19 is a larger issue than just a virological-epidemiological problem, a motley group of social experts should discuss the disruption of society and its possible recovery. It would also make sense – without giving it too much scientific weight – for experts from my field to talk to it. They could say something about the sad quality of government information, such as the misuse of language (‘the new normal’), the condescending and paternalistic tone, and the disturbing lack of psychological and sociological insight into the behaviour of individuals and groups in society. The contributions of experts may provide interesting insights and television images. Leave science out of it for the time being. It patiently searches for the black swan.

Cees J. Hamelink is emeritus professor communication science at the Universiteit van Amsterdam.

See also: Cees Hamelink wonders whether the far-reaching measures against the corona pandemic are well founded

Cees Hamelink wonders whether the far-reaching measures against the corona pandemic are well founded

Published in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (Netherlands), 24 April 2020.

by Cees Hamelink

In times of crisis, fundamental human rights are often the first victims. With current restrictive measures taken by governments and violations of prohibited activities that are punished with stiff fines, the question is how these relate to the government’s duty to guarantee human rights. For example, the rights guaranteed in international treaties, such as the right to freedom of movement, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to education for all or the right to participate in cultural life.

All these rights can be restricted by governments, but the escape clauses always point out that the restriction of fundamental rights is subject to the rules of the game. The public must be informed with sound arguments about derogations from human rights protection, and measures must be subject to regular review by courts of law.

It seems to me that this means that the government must demonstrate, on the basis of sound scientific data, that the spread of the virus poses a threat to the entire population and that the measures are not a threat to the organised life of the community. However, this scientific evidence does not currently exist. Science has not answered the questions about the emergence, spread and effective control of the virus. This also applies to questions about the economic, social, cultural and psychological consequences of the pandemic.

Careful containment of human rights

At a time of fundamental uncertainty when science cannot offer certainty either, we as citizens must be very vigilant and insist that our human rights are only curtailed with the utmost care, with good information, with a sound independent scientific review of the sources used by government and the media, and for the shortest possible time.

The Dutch Prime Minister’s suggestion that we just have to get used to the “new normal” is not very helpful in this regard. On the contrary, we must constantly understand that this is abnormal in the sense of deviating from the agreed norms of human dignity. As soon as a society does not handle restrictions of fundamental rights with sufficient care, it takes a slippery slope. This is precisely what must be avoided now, because we still have great challenges ahead of us. Such as the tracking application advocated in many countries by government officials while critical scientists urge critical examination of the usefulness and necessity of this corona application.

Right to safety

Not only is the software a threat to privacy, but other fundamental rights are equally under pressure. A tracking application also affects freedom of association, the right to security, human dignity and health. It is also worth mentioning – and this is almost always missing from the debate- that software must be installed on devices such as smart phones and tablets. Devices that, because of their exponential growth, are increasingly contributing to global warming. It is quite possible that the global ecological footprint of these devices will approach the total contribution of the transport sector in the coming years. The growth of mobile communications is also leading to the expansion of energy-intensive data centres.

There is also the plan by Bill Gates and his team to make it mandatory for everyone to have a vaccination passport. It does not take much imagination to think about the restrictive effects on human rights this may have.

The time has come – after the initial shock – for our societies to engage in a deep dialogue on whether insufficiently substantiated restrictions on fundamental rights are not a greater threat to a humane society than a virus that outsmarts science and politics.

Cees J. Hamelink, studied moral philosophy and psychology of religion and is emeritus professor of global communication at the University of Amsterdam. He continues to teach as Athena professor of public health and human rights at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. In July 2020, his 19th monograph “Communication and Peace” will be published by Palgrave MacMillan. Professor Hamelink is also a jazz musician. Among his albums are “September” and “Sharing Shearing”.