You might not think it but in the age of Covid-19, facts are finally backby Rafael Behr / June 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson’s dalliance with the science has ended, like most of his relationships, in acrimony. When he backed Dominic Cummings instead of the lockdown rules, Johnson abandoned any claim to rigour in his pandemic response. At the same time, he also squandered a precious moment of rapprochement between politics and facts.
A national emergency usually has a sobering effect on debate, but the threat from a microscopic virus achieved something more profound. It twisted the lens to focus on a level of empirical reality that had been invisible in the preceding years of hyper-partisan frenzy, when any notion of established truth seemed lost in a fog of culture war. A virus cannot be campaigned against or sidelined by intrigue. It resists all the techniques that brought Johnson to power and he seemed, for a while, genuinely chastened by it. Maybe the shock of a scientific challenge—the revenge of hard facts—will have some more durable corrective effect on wider politics, if not him.
The contrast with Brexit, the dominant issue before the pandemic, is profound. Many Remainers believed they were holding a line for reality against a barrage of fake news. They deployed experts—economists, diplomats, trade specialists. Leavers dismissed them as agents of a foreign plot against sovereignty. As the ultimate victor in that battle, Johnson was reviled by the vanquished side as a populist, a monstrous creature of the new “post-truth” era, Britain’s Trump.
The pandemic is a different type of crisis. Arguments over Brexit came down to rival concepts of Britain’s future. They could never be settled by scientific measurement. There is no “R” number for the spread of identity politics, but a virus has quantifiable risks. It also has no campaign advocates. It gets help from complacency and from conspiracy, but dangerous ideas about 5G signals causing sickness are not endorsed by mainstream British parties. UK government advisers have been spared the indignity inflicted on US counterparts, watching Trump advocate bleach ingestion as a possible remedy.
Read more: The epidemiology of misinformation: how the web is weaving weird connections to spread lies about Covid-19 ____________________________________________________________________________________
There are disputes about policy—how far, or not, to lock down—fuelled by…