Tent of Bad Science 4: Power, Protest, Pandemic: The Science of Human Behaviours
START - Start Talking About Research Today - was Trinity's European Researchers' Night event in 2020.
This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 955428.
** Edited for clarity **
Jenny Daly: Welcome back to What Do You Want To Know, where we are bringing you a mini-series called the Tent of Bad Science. The tent was part of the programme at START, which stands for Start Talking About Research Today. START was Trinity College Dublin’s European Researchers’ Night event in November, 2020. We hosted four public discussions on topics like fake news, climate change, the importance of how we tell stories and power and protest, and we're sharing the recordings of those events with you now. Enjoy!
Michael Foley: Good evening everybody, and welcome to the final public event in the Tent of Bad Science. The tent has been part of START 2020, curated by the Trinity Office of the Dean of Research, and funded by the European Union’s Marie Skłodowska Curie Action for European Researchers Night. To find out more about START 2020, go to tcd.ie/research/start. I’m Michael Foley and along with my colleagues, Sarah Bowman and Jenny Daly, we've put together the tent in order to stand up for research in the face of pseudoscience, in the face of alternative facts, and in the face of something, a term that I learned last week from Professor Richard Layte, truthiness, which is not always necessarily the same as true. I work in patient and public involvement in research in the PPI Ignite Office, and what we try to do is we try to build trust with patients and members of the public, so that they'll get involved in research.
And as part of that, we need to be honest with people about what research can do and what kind of impact that it can have. Here in in the Tent of Bad Science we like to pass ideas around; each panellist is a recognized expert in their own field, but we hope that by bringing them together, that we'll gain some new perspectives on how to think about these issues around the pandemic. So don't be surprised if they start asking each other questions. Finally, tonight, we'll be talking about the pandemic in the context of how to police it, how to shape, or how to even control public behaviour. And we know that for some people watching tonight that you have been personally affected by the pandemic – you may have lost a friend or a family member due to the virus, and we're not having this conversation in spite of that fact we're having it because of that fact, so without further ado, I would like to introduce you to our great panel here tonight.
Our panel are all people who've been involved in the public response to the pandemic, but we have no virologists, and we have no epidemiologists on the panel. We wanted instead to look at how nonmedical researchers and academics were having an influence and playing a role. Professor Clifford Stott is Professor of Social Psychology and Dean of Research in the Faculty of Natural Sciences in Keele University in the UK. His research interest is social behaviour and intergroup relationships in crowd behaviour, which would include riots, hooliganism, and public order policing. He studied the London poll tax riots, the Italia 90 riots, riots in the UK in 2011, and also in Hong Kong in 2019. In an interview on BBC's the life scientific in June, he said, “let's start to recognize that as scientists, we do have a responsibility to understand the politics of knowledge,” and hopefully we'll get to that a little bit later.
Secondly, we have Senator Ivana Bacik who is the Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Penology at Trinity. She's been a Senator in the Seanad, the upper house of the Irish parliament, since 2007 and has been leader of the Labour Party group there since 2011. Her book, Legal Cases That Changed Ireland, takes a thematic approach to how legal issues have transformed the lives of people in Ireland. She's also written a very useful article on the Trinity COVID Observatory about the laws that have been invoked or introduced during the pandemic. Pete Lunn is an adjunct professor in Economics here in Trinity. He is also the founder and head of the ESRI’s behavioural research unit. He served on one of the many sub-committees that the government has set up in the wake of the pandemic, and as a former BBC journalist he believes that you can't just do the science, you have to communicate it, and has published a book called Basic Instincts: Human Nature and the New Economics, which it's safe to say probably has nothing to do with the Sharon Stone film. So what I'd like to do is I'd like to turn to you all and ask you, and start, I suppose, by asking you to give me a very short answer to a massive question: are we living through extraordinary political times that the pandemic itself is shaping?
Ivana Bacik: Well, thank you, Michael, and good evening to everyone. I’m delighted to be here in the tent, not literally in the tent of bad science, I don't have my own tent unlike Michael – for those tuning in now you missed the sight of Michael's wonderful looking tent! I suppose, you know, it's a great question because all of us in politics are, I suppose, asking that or pondering on that. And I think the first thing is of course, the pandemic and the fact of the effect of the pandemic, the effects of the restrictions that have been brought in to try and control and so on have been horrific. And, you know, just looking at the figures, 2036 people have died very tragically in Ireland from the pandemic, we've had over 71,000 cases. We know people who are suffering still with long COVID, and apart from all the awful deaths, the awful health effects of course, the effect on livelihoods, the effect on economy is still being felt. And, you know, here we are in Level Five and the debate going on today at the political level about how are we going to come out of Level Five? What happens next? All of that is the short, if you like, the short but also the longer-term effect. And it's very hard to tell what impact that will be. I know in Britain, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor there’s talking about the worst recession in 300 years. In Ireland, you know, we don't yet know how what the long-term effect will be on the economy and that will clearly have a huge effect on politics.
But I suppose if one were to try and take something positive out of the effect of the pandemic, you know, there is some positive politics or some positive political effect I think one can discern, the obvious points being that Joe Biden is the incoming president in the U.S., that it's not Donald Trump and that, I think, signifies perhaps what we might call the re-emergence of science, of rationality, of a belief in politicians and in political representatives who are up front with people, who are not populist. I think we're seeing a move away from populism, away from totalitarianism. I hope I'm right. I think there are positive signs that we're seeing some populist leaders have been exposed through the pandemic, like Trump, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, indeed like Boris Johnson in Britain where, you know, the people who, the leaders who have come best through it, who have led countries well, people like Angela Merkel, people like Jacinda Ardern – women of course – but I think generally we might say if there's a positive, significant impact, it does seem to be the exposure of populism. And I hope we'll see that, therefore, and a faith and a belief in science coming through, and a belief in a more objective truthful politics and move away, if I may say so, from fake news. I hope that's the positive.
MF: Well, we would hope for that, but who can say? Pete, how about you? What do you think will be the longest lasting effects of the pandemic on politics?
Pete Lunn: The shortest answer, Michael, that I can give you on that is I have absolutely no idea. And frankly, I don't largely trust anyone who really thinks they do because there's so much uncertainty and so much still to play for in this pandemic. I mean, we really don't know how it's going to end, but what I would say is this: what I hope doesn't happen, but I think could happen is that the pandemic contributes further to polarization in politics and is ultimately a divisive force. And I think there are some countries where it may be proving to be that. I'm more optimistic than that though. I mean, on the, on the plus side – in our household, we refer to them as Corona bounces, things that are positives that come after this awful epidemic. And I think there are possible Corona bounces for politics.
And I'll say two things: one is, I think it's possible that people will come out of this pandemic with a greater belief in what's possible through collective action. That actually, if we coordinate, and we all work together, it's remarkable what we can achieve as a society. I think it's possible that there will be a change in people's political values and an idea that collective action is more possible than perhaps we thought. And maybe that has knock-on effects for particularly environmental issues that are positive. And the second thing I think is a possible Corona bounce is similar to what Ivana said about science, and I think an awful lot is going to depend on how well the vaccine goes and how it contributes. But I think if we end up in a situation where science essentially does, even if it still takes another year to do it, but essentially does solve this problem for the human race, to all intents and purposes, I think the potential knock-on effect for belief in science, what science can do for us could be very, very positive, but there's a huge amount of play for, and an awful lot could go wrong in that.
MF: And Cliff, obviously you're based over in the UK there, and politics looks very different there – at least from our perspective. How do you think that the pandemic is affecting politics and how will it affect it into the future?
Clifford Stott: I share the views and agree with everything that Ivana and Pete have raised there. I think the future is obviously unpredictable, but I think one thing that we can be sure about is it's going to be challenging. And I think one of the things that we need to inject into this discussion is a sense of perspective about what that future holds for us. I mean, yes, of course, there's this massive issue of economic decline. Pete talks about the vaccine, for example, to what extent is the vaccine going to be available along parameters that reflect wealth and inequality? How will countries that are economically poor access this vaccine? To what extent will the vaccine, the coronavirus itself continue to impact in ways that amplify inequality both at a national level, but also at an international and global level? And it will be the material impacts of these issues, I think will have the profoundest impact on the direction of travel that both Pete and Ivana talk about in terms of the sort of radical populism and totalitarianism versus some sorts of maintenance of a liberal democracy at a national and global level.
So I think that obviously the future ahead is, is challenging for us, not least of all, because the pandemic isn't just an isolated issue. You know, once we're through this pandemic, we have even bigger challenges ahead in terms of climate change and how we're going to cope with those challenges, we can learn a lot about from how we have adapted to the pandemic. But one thing that we hear quite often is that we need to build back better. The question is then what is that better future? What does it look like? And how do we get there?
IB: If I could just say one thing in case that we are too consensual, I agree with Pete in the positive, positive impact potentially of the pandemic is this, I suppose, realization of the need for collective action and I would put it further - the realization of the need for investment in public services. You know, we've seen things happen in Ireland in politics that we never thought would happen, and it happened so swiftly, like the public takeover of some private hospitals, for example, or the introduction of effectively universal basic income and huge amount of state support, you know, and a ban on private evictions that we were told was going to be constitutionally impossible. So while, so I totally agree with Pete on that, but I think in Ireland, certainly that those changes point to, I think, a very positive movement for the more perhaps social democratic or socialist views, certainly a more - a belief in the public service and the merit and the value of public service.
And, you know, so I disagree with Pete as far as he’s saying that it’s polarizing politics, if anything, certainly in Ireland, it's been a remarkable drawing together of political perspectives. Those who might have been very much on the neo-liberal right, who are now for example, supporting a call we made in Labour for sick pay, for there to be statutory rights for sick pay and sick leave, something we’ve been fighting for, for years. So, you know, it's polarizing in some ways in some countries, but I think there’s been, if you like, a move towards the consensual ground, to the left of where Irish politics was previously and again, I love the Corona bounce idea. I think we can say well, that that's a positive.
MF: Do you want to give us a little bit more perspective on, on the government's response in UK?
CS: In the UK? Well, I think, certainly we've learned a great deal by looking at the government response in the UK to the pandemic. And I think it's worth focusing on three issues really. The first Pete’s already touched on - certainly in the early stages of the lockdown, my take on our trajectory in the UK into so-called lockdown was it was not the government that took us there. It was actually our own communities. There was a very much a bottom-up pressure that pushed the UK into the very restrictive measures that we encountered in March earlier this year, that wasn't taken, we weren't taken there by government decision making so much as we were by football closing down, by universities closing down, and then schools, that effectively it was a fait accompli by the time that the government in the UK took the decision for us to lock down.
And I think that was an important lesson because it teaches us very much about the legitimacy of government action in this context and how important that sense of legitimacy is. But as we've navigated through the following few months, I think it started to expose some quite uncomfortable things about where and how our government has tried to manage the pandemic. The first is that there's been this very much top-down perspective where in actual fact it may well have been better to build from the bottom up. And I think in part that reflects where the government was coming from ideologically and comes from ideologically in terms of what we might call free market kind of ideology. But what we're also seeing is really uncomfortable stories about how that free market isn't so much a free market. And we hear accusations of cronyism, we see lots of really problematic relationships between the suppliers of PPE, between the suppliers of equipment, between the suppliers of Track and Trace, and the organs of political power, and UK government. That's been really, really difficult territory to understand when quite clearly some of the more effective measures have been delivered at a local level, and that there is a very, very strong case for investment in local place-based government, and local track, trace, and isolate systems that could have been built through the existing public health infrastructure at a local level. But we didn't have that. We had something that was imposed via a central kind of call centre system that was deeply problematic. And still, to this day, hasn't been shown to operate effectively. And I think obviously then when we look at the lessons that we draw from all of this, we've got to measure it in terms of the outcomes.
And the reality is, is the present will, we've just exceeded 57,000 deaths in the U.K. And as Ivana points out, every single one of those is an absolute tragedy in terms of the measurement of the success of the UK government's position. And I think, however we reflect on this situation, we have to reflect on it in terms of that very, very powerful outcome and trace it back, to learn the lessons that we all need to learn about how to do, how to respond to a pandemic and a mass emergency like this with more effectiveness in the future.
PL: Yeah, no, I really want to come in here, because I mean, as somebody who arrived in Ireland from England almost 20 years ago now, I mean, obviously watching the comparison between the two has just been fascinating for me. I mean, I worked as a BBC journalist on Newsnight before I came over here, and watching the two things was quite remarkable and, in a way, depressing because the predictability of the fact that the UK was going to struggle to cope with this pandemic relative to Ireland was extraordinary. I mean, it was the topic of conversation in the kitchen here, and I still have relatives who I was having zoom meetings with back on the other island. And that inevitability came from the fact that you could see the way that strong political left-right spectrum is in place in Britain, where it is not in Ireland, though Ivana would like to see us move a little along it from her perspective, it's so much shorter in Ireland, and it's a much bigger spectrum in Britain. And the fact that there is a government that is a populist right-wing government, and that politics are so much more polarized, I felt made it absolutely inevitable from word go that the kind of social cohesion that was necessary to try to deal with it, to deal with the collective action problem, was forced upon us where our behaviour was our primary defence, and we had to coordinate our behaviour, the idea that a populist right-wing government in polarized Britain could do that was just fanciful. And you could see even in the first week or two, and the lateness of the lockdown is the primary thing that caused the higher deaths in the United Kingdom. And it was bound to happen because the government selectively picked science to suit its ideological position.
And it took two weeks, at least, as Cliff has described for a bottom-up approach to reverse that. And even in my own field of behavioural science, they latched on to a comment that all behavioural scientists have since denied – we still don't know which scientist supposedly said it – that there was some kind of inevitable behavioural fatigue that meant it was only a few weeks you could get behaviour change for to fight this pandemic. So, you had to delay and do it when the curve was bigger, and they latched onto this and used it as an excuse to delay, as they did some of the epidemiological delays. And I think the inevitability of that bad collision between polarized politics and science is what's led us to a situation where, per capita, the UK has got two and a half to three times more deaths.
IB: I'm really interested in that perspective because, you know, having come here from England, you're looking at both. I mean, my experience having lived in London, like so many Irish people, is frustration that in Britain people tend not to know what's going on in Ireland, whereas all of us know what’s going on in Britain. You know, we always compare, I mean, Cliff, we said this before in rehearsal that we always compare ourselves and it's always gratifying when we see we're doing better than the Brits at anything. But you know I’m jesting – it’s much more serious than that clearly here. And I think that's the point about polarization, as you say, that COVID has had a much more polarizing effect, but maybe it's just enhanced the pre-existing polarization in British politics. Here, we've certainly seen a social cohesion and it's been really interesting, I suppose you can say it's particularly marked here because of things that predated, just immediately predated the outbreak of COVID here.
And I'm talking of course, about the general election that many of us [inaudible], it almost seems like it's so long ago – early February before COVID hit. And yet that election produced this historic result where we have the two civil war parties coming together, this grand coalition effectively. But that's I suppose, helped politics move towards that more sense of collective agreement, that sense of social cohesion where it's less polarized because you've got such a coalition of interests between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens. And I see an interesting question actually, that I thought I'd pick up on about how do you, how do we keep, how do we sustain any Corona bounce, if you like, or this sort of positive impact, that there might be more of a move towards greater investment in public services, greater valuing of the collective, how do we sustain that? I think that's the way we do it, through ensuring that sense of social cohesion is maintained. And I wrote about this in the context of criminal law and policing the pandemic, about the, you know, the blurring of lines between criminal sanction on one hand for breaking certain rules, but in fact, the vast majority of rules exist in this very woolly area of public health guidance, where there was no criminal sanctions attached, where people were adhering out of a sense of social solidarity and obligation. And I think in a way, that's the only way we can do it. We, you know, many of us in Opposition were critical that the government wasn’t sufficiently clear and so on. And yet, you know, we have to acknowledge that you have to have a certain amount of creative ambiguity here because that's what brings people with you. If you just create very clear, very hard criminal law [inaudible] don't move around public health guidance, don't bring people with you. So I think we have to sustain any sort of positive impact in our politics, we need to maintain that social calls there.
Sarah Bowman: Sure. And I just, you know, to follow on and pass this question on to Clifford from, as a member of the public, right, that ambiguity and the necessary reactions and responses that happen in real time does create ambiguity in terms of what's within the law, what's not within the law, what's guidance, what's potentially an offense. And I suppose, you know, it would be great – Ivana, you wrote an article around this as well – but I'd love to hear the reactions for those of you working in close, and in government around what that's like. I mean, how do you manage that sort of flexibility that's required? And at the same time provide the sort of guidance that people can understand what to do. I know I'm still confused!
CS: From my perspective. I think the confusion is shared. I mean, there was thinking about this on the way home. I mean, I just simply don't have any idea what I'm allowed to do or not allowed to do. So it's kind of like, well, I think I'll just stay at home because it's the only kind of safe the idea of what's possible.
IB: Maybe that’s the idea!
CS: But then I think so too, when we look at the advice that we give into government about policing in the context of the pandemic, there are some major issues there about legitimacy because it's not just confusing for us as members of the public. It's also at some level confusing for the police who are required to enforce those laws. And then I think that there's an issue here about the conditions under which the freedoms that we used to enjoy pre-pandemic have been constrained and what is the legal justification for the State, and for the police, to intrude into those rights and those play themselves out most powerfully in the context of trying to manage protests.
And everyone will remember during the sort of mid-stage of the first phase, we had the murder of George Floyd, and then a whole series of protests in the UK that cascaded out in a sequence of events that were really problematic to manage from a policing point of view in terms of the constraints that are placed around the rights of protesting, and the rights of freedom of assembly. And I think perhaps one of the issues we need to consider here is what is the legal justification for all of this? What is the legal justification for preventing protests? Well, part of the argument here is about the right to life, and it can be framed in terms of the European Convention of Human Rights, that the policing and its legitimacy is given legitimacy because the intervention is designed to prevent the harmful behaviours that spread the disease and, therefore, by intervening and preventing people from coming together in public assembly to protest, you are in effect protecting the right to live.
So there's an important debate about how justifiable that is within the shifting sands of the pandemic. So in the UK, at the moment, we are just about to come out of a so-called lockdown and go into a different tiered system about how we approach the level of risk that the pandemic poses to different sections of the community. So correspondingly, that has to flow into judgments about the extent to which our rights are infringed in those different tiered systems and who is suffering the intrusion on their rights relative to others. And I've made this point before that one of the big problems here is that you're more likely to get this disease, you're more likely to live in a high-risk area if you come from an economically deprived community, and that inequality, in a way, it gets cemented through the pandemic into policing, into enforcement, into the infringement of rights is a major issue that we need to constantly reflect on.
IB: Well, that question of proportionality and legitimacy is huge, and that really underlies why so many of the public health guidelines haven't actually had criminal sanctions attached, but it also underlines the importance of democratic and parliamentary scrutiny. I mean, we argued in the Seanad, for example, that it was too much to be extending the powers, government powers extended to June of next year. And many of us argued that that was too long and that we should have had a shorter timeframe so that we would have more time to scrutinise. But it does mean that, for example, government didn’t put criminal sanctions on people attending house parties, and that was seen as a step too far. So while there have been draconian powers introduced which normally would never be contemplated because that's seen as proportionate to the threat to life, as you say Cliff, that the COVID virus poses. Nonetheless, there are some measures that were deemed just a step too far and one of those would have been impowering Guards to go into public, go into private houses and arresting people simply for attending parties - now there is a fight around organizing, but simply attending, it seems too far. Again, you know, criminal sanctioning cocooning is seen as too far. So that's just a public guideline. So, you know, and we have no criminally enforceable quarantine for travellers coming into Ireland and something that many public health experts have criticized but again, it was just seen as a step too far.
PL: Can I just come in, because I think that's really interesting. I mean, one can view it very much in terms of, you know, rights and legal issues, but I think the behavioural component of it is really, really important and feeds into that. Where you have a situation where what is being demanded of people, the sacrifices that they're supposed to make for the common good are very, very clear and simple so that people can see the cause and effect of: if we all do this, it is best for all that, if we all coordinate our behaviour and abide by these restrictions, we get the right outcome. To a large extent, the clearer that is the more voluntary it can be. But also where you then get non-compliance, it is more legitimate, where it's that collective agreement and that clarity about why, if we all make the sacrifice that’s best for everybody the same grace of legitimacy to the degree of enforcement or punishment that follows for the people who transgress, and particularly if they transgress in ways that are particularly dangerous. So the public buy-in, the kind of solution to the behavioural collective action problem interacts with that legal legitimacy for me. And that's where political leadership really, really matters in a crisis like this.
CS: Yeah. I agree with you, Pete, and if I may, I mean, I think to draw on your earlier points, I think there's also an interface with the model of psychology that is deployed politically about why people transgress, and what we're focusing on here is of course the centrality of social cohesion. And you describe it very neatly when you said behaviour was our best defence. So the question is then how do we motivate that kind of defensive behaviour? And we all, I think, share the view that it comes through promoting social cohesion, but you then turn to the point about those people who transgress and there's also an analysis of why people transgress, and that analysis is often presupposed by some kind of inevitable psychological pathology: that they have a moral issue, or that there's something wrong with them, a pathologizing discourse about a failure of their psychology.
But when we look at the data and evidence around this, of course, something very different emerges and that is that often it's a question of need - that they transgress not because there's something psychologically dysfunctional about them, but because measures have not been put in place to facilitate their adherence to the necessary guidance, and people need to go to work, people need to travel on public transport, people become exposed to the virus as a function of those things. So I think it's interesting as well that the debate that we're having here is about the kind of psychology that is at play, and the success of a particular model of psychology is itself a political kind of issue.
PL: I would even go further than that, actually. Sorry, Ivana, I’ll be very quick. I'd even go further than what you just did because what you're talking about that is very much kind of economic and functional aspects of society. I mean, I think the blaming of young people goes to show the degree to which there were not support mechanisms there to help them because they took the biggest hit in terms of their wellbeing. I mean, you can measure this in multiple countries, they were the people that were made most miserable by the restrictions that were placed upon all of us. And they had too little to do and therefore their transgression – even though they actually overwhelmingly, which the survey evidence suggests, they supported their restrictions – their transgression in the circumstances where they were being made more miserable was inevitable. There was insufficient support and too much moralizing about them breaking those sanctions, and not understanding why it was that these restrictions are so much harder for young adults, I think actually to be honest particularly young single adults, to abide by.
IB: Yeah. I think you're right. It's been an unfortunate feature, this blaming and the shaming of people and so on, and that certainly hasn't helped to peak social solidarity. But I just wanted to come in on something you’ve both been talking about, in terms of the psychology, the way in which people have reacted to COVID and I think there was a perception, certainly at a political level over the summer, that most people have this fatigue. Pete, you mentioned this, that most people were fatigued by the restrictions, that people are anxious to shake them off, that there was a general desire to move out of restricted lockdowns and to free up the country, even if the public health experts were advising otherwise. And of course, in politics the voices we were hearing, and this comes back to Cliff's point about the inequality of impact, the voices we hear are the people who shout loudest often, not the people who are actually most adversely affected. So certainly, for absolutely valid and good reasons, you know, business owners who were terribly badly hit, who have been bankrupted and so on were the people seeking opening up.
What we weren't hearing from – and what Pete your research really showed us, you know, it really made an impact among those of us in the Oireachtas because when we saw that research you produced saying, in fact, that the majority of people were willing to take more restrictions and that there wasn’t any evidence of this fatigue that we had understood was out there and that was being talked about at a certain level. You know, that was very interesting. And I suppose then we realised that we're not hearing the voices of the people who are most adversely affected: we're not hearing the voices of people in care homes. To me, that's the most glaring thing. People in nursing homes haven't been speaking, haven't had a voice, people who've lost family members generally aren't speaking to us in politics, in the media in the way that pub owners and that restaurant owners are. And so it did make all of us, I think, step back a bit and think again about what's fair, you know, about our perception of where people were at and in fact, the real psychology.
PL: Just very briefly for people who might not be aware of the evidence here, I mean, multiple measures of compliance, multiple measures of compliance from using different methods shows that the level of compliance in Ireland was U-shaped, that it dipped down to around July and then it's been increasing steadily right up to the end of October. It's dipped a tiny bit since. And actually, what it's doing is it’s following case numbers and the case numbers are driving people's anxiety and worry and that's what's primarily driving people's compliance. So this idea of fatigue, that there is this gradual fall off in people's willingness to comply with what they've got, the sacrifices they need to make for the common good, turns out not to be a good model and a better model is that they're responding to the risk. And when the risk gets higher, they start pulling together more and becoming more willing to make the sacrifices they need to make. So you have this kind of U-shape of people restricting their own behaviour in response to the risk that they perceive, so that's what the evidence shows.
IB: Yeah. And it's actually a logical response to risk, as you say, but it wasn't effected in the voices that were being heard or being expressed most loudly in media or certainly to political representatives.
CS: One of the key issues that the work of John Drury at Sussex in particular tries to drive home about how we need to understand what psychological reactions are like in the context of mass emergency and the picture you paint there, Pete, of in a sense a growing realization of a common threat carries with it the consequences of creating solidarity in the face of that threat. So the issue here isn't the inherent pathology of the public through fatigue but an inherent capacity to come together in solidarity to fight the threat. And if that solidarity was harnessed, then our capacity to use behaviour as our best defence is enhanced. And part of the problem here is that that psychology hasn't been prominent enough and what we need to make sure that it is in the future how we understand how the public are going to react, because, as you point out, right the way through, the data is consistent with that picture. And we need to understand that that data, that science should drive the political response and indeed the civil contingency response to these kinds of problems in the future.
SB: But it's an interesting point because the concept that we should be looking for opportunities to improve solidarity is undermined when special interest groups are able to lobby government for their particular supports that are needed. And Pete, you've talked about this in terms of the hospitality sector, but for those who are most effected, and for those who are having the poorest outcomes, it shows that there isn't that unifying voice, that representative on their behalf necessarily that can go up against some of these other special interest groups. And that fundamentally undermines solidarity. What are your thoughts?
PL: So you're right. But I want to make something clear. I mean, my heart absolutely goes out to anybody who owns businesses in that industry, or is working in that, I mean, it's incredibly difficult times. I mean, it’s completely understandable that they’re lobbying to try to get their livelihoods back and try and get their businesses open again, because they’re under such – all of that is true. But what it does do is it means that the politics of it does get distorted. And I think that's right. I mean, I never thought in my lifetime, I'd hear myself use the expression “a silent majority” but the truth of the matter is that there's been a silent majority that hasn't managed to get its view aired and you can see that, and that's what the data shows. Now, what I do think that means is that from a political point of view, I would argue that the people who've been hit by essentially bad luck and have their lives threatened, I mean, it's perfectly reasonable for the rest of us to be bailing them out. The better solution is to try to get as much support and redistribution to those people who've been hit rather than, you know, perhaps make decisions in their favour, because they're shouting louder, that the majority of the public don't want and where it's actually causing a safety issue for the public and is spreading infection. What we need to do is try to support them in other ways, if it really is not safe and it's going to spread infection, then as we come towards the possibility of a third wave – which we may come towards – we going to face exactly the same issue again.
SB: Ivana I'm conscious of time and I know that you need to step off the call shortly. It’d be great to hear your thoughts on the topic or any final message that you feel is important to convey.
IB: Well, thanks Sarah and yes, I’m due to be at another event that I had already committed to, so my apologies, I have to leave, but I’m so caught up and engaged in the discussion, I hate to leave. And I'm very interested in, you know, in that idea, we're talking about, about the gap between the perception where people were at attitudinally and where they actually were at as that research showed. And it did, as I said, give us all cause for thought. So I think, it's also just, I suppose a final reflection, that I think we’re now facing a whole other set - I mean, currently, right now we're facing the political decision making process around this wave, this lockdown, coming out of it, how we manage Christmas, how we manage the new year. But beyond that there will be a whole other set of political decision making to go on about a vaccine distribution. I mean, a much happier and more positive context, obviously, when we see these vaccines coming on stream but nonetheless, it will require again a sort of a balancing of need and a balancing of impact and so on.
And I’m very struck by reports about differences, differences of view. We haven't yet heard from our own expert group yet, chaired by Brian MacCraith about how the vaccine, what system we’re going to use to prioritize distribution of the vaccine. But you know, there's already differences emerging in France, I think they're talking about distribution first to frontline workers – not just in health, but in other sectors which are front facing, retail workers and so on where risks of transmission are much higher. Whereas in other countries there's been an understanding that it would be based on age, that it would be older people first irrespective of where you work. So it strikes me that that's a whole other set of balancing of needs and so on which will require quite a bit of thought. And again, it comes back to that point of people's perception of risk and assessment, and also more importantly, perhaps scientific assessment of it. But look, I'm sorry I have to drop off the discussion, but it's been really interesting. Thank you for inviting me.
SB: Absolutely! Thank you for your time. Michael has tried to call back in and he may be able to jump in. Michael, do you want to test your sound?
MF: I’m determined to be part of it! I’m now on device number three now, just to try and keep up with this, but it's been a fantastic conversation. Thank you, Ivana for being involved. And I think we are at a really, really interesting point. I mean, we're at an interesting point in the pandemic because of the potential of the vaccine and that psychology of being able to potentially see a finish line and what that does for people's behaviour. But we're also, I think, at a very strange – we’re just over 24 hours away from the Taoiseach addressing the country just before the Toy Show, you know, about what's going to happen next. And I think that that is a really unknown moment for us – what is actually going to happen over the next four weeks. I suppose, Pete, from an Irish perspective, what is your prediction, if you want to make a prediction of what we're about to see next?
PL: Michael, I'm going to be very, very cagey here, because I'm afraid I've got a little bit of an inside track on what they’re going to do next and I'm not going to tell you what it is!
But what I will say about this is I think some of the interesting data that we fed in is worth knowing. So I mean we, I say we - I mean, the group of behavioural scientists who can try to feed evidence in. I mean, we did run a couple of surveys specifically on Christmas, and it was fascinating actually the degree to which society as a whole, on average, does want to make a bit of a compromise – in they do want to relax a bit for Christmas because there's a real understanding that with the year that's in it, this Christmas is particularly important. So they don't want a free for all, they want restrictions but they just want them relaxed a little bit to allow them to have something – not a normal Christmas, people don't want the normal Christmas, but they want those restrictions relaxed a bit to allow them to at least celebrate Christmas, and have that reflective moment, and particularly to be able to go back to the family home and those came through really strongly as kind of public preferences.
And I think there's a really interesting question here, and I bet Cliff has a view about this, but I think there's a really interesting question here about the degree to, in circumstances like this, where this is a real value judgment about the value of Christmas as a kind of societal thing, the degree to which actually the politicians and decision-makers should follow what the public want, and to what extent that's true because this is a value judgment. If they speak and say what they want to, what extent should that be supplied? And I think that's actually a really interesting question. I don't know the answer to it.
CS: Yeah. So obviously I think from my perspective, the overarching issue is about the sort of legitimacy of government decision-making in this context and the extent to which people are going to challenge restrictions around Christmas, should those restrictions still be in place, and what government has got the courage to go into a context where it places those restrictions, and then therefore, what kind of enforcement regime would be necessary to put in place, should those restrictions actually be engineered? So, you know, can we really foresee a circumstance where the police would go in and break up a family gathering around the Christmas dinner table because it was an illegal gathering? So I, you know, obviously on some level it's forcing the hand again and creating an environment where to some extent we should have been in the first place, and that's empowering people to make decisions for themselves about the risks that they are entering into, in their social contract as a family.
But I think again, above and beyond that, the questions too were framed in terms of the “where next phase?” Christmas is just one step and then we've got the post-Christmas issue where the vaccine is on the horizon, but not necessarily being delivered, where there's still then further issues that we're going to have to confront in terms of enforcement, restrictions, potential further lockdowns that might come as a function of the relaxation around Christmas. And I think this next phase is just going to be really interesting, precisely because it is such a challenge. And if I may just sort of raise one issue, it's about trust as well, because one of the really fascinating bits of data that's coming out of the Liverpool mass testing scenario, which presumably we're all going to be in contact with after Christmas, is that in areas of socio-economic deprivation, the turnout to go and get a test was as low as 4%. 4% of the population. Now we need to ask ourselves why is that the case? Because of course, those are the areas where the incidents of COVID are likely to be at their highest. So we need to understand a) why aren't people coming forward for a test in those areas. And b) what is that pattern going to be like when it comes to accessing the vaccine?
MF: Because I suppose, that is a big question really, it's another, I suppose, piece of the jigsaw about if a vaccine becomes available, who is going to take it? I know I was interested the other day to be reading about when the smallpox vaccine came out, there was lots of protests from a very, kind of a mixed bag of people protesting against Jenner, and protesting again, you know, saying that that this cow pox vaccine was actually going to turn people into cows and things like that, you know! And that's in essence, I suppose what we're saying now is we're on the cusp of that kind of moment again, in history where there will inevitably be people who will be against the taking of the vaccine, but that, you know, that there will be a sense, I think as well, where the more that people get the vaccine and talk about vaccine, the more it will convince people to take it.
PL: One of the things that smallpox story tells you is something that any psychologist or behavioural scientist will tell you, which is that people are scared of what they don't understand, and they're scared of what they're not familiar with. And that's all the more true where the consequences of what they're grappling with might be quite severe. We can see at the moment already that there is this kind of group, it's about a third of the population, that is expressing some disquiet about the vaccine, but it's quite, it's kind of interesting because it's not the kind of anti-vax people, it's not a kind of political statement, it’s hesitancy. It's what's called vaccine hesitancy. And most of them are basically saying: I don't know, and I'm worried about it. And that's more true among women than men, which is exactly what you’d anticipate because one of the few very, very reliable behavioural differences between the genders is the degree of risk aversion, which is higher among women.
And you can see that's exactly what's happening is it’s a worry about risk. And what that means is there's a really big science communication job to be done there. And we have to get that right. Because if we want to get people more familiar with this, and we want to have people understand it, then what we've got to do is get that communication right. We've got to tell the story of these trials. We've got to tell the story of the science behind how they've been developed. We've got to make it part of the human struggle against this virus. And it isn't just about this kind of old model of the scientist, just the lecturer at the top telling you what's safe and what's good for you because I know, we've got to actually tell people about the process, and how it's been done, why it's being done the way it is, why it's reliable.
And I think if we do that we can actually get a lot of those people who are the vaccine hesitant people to realize that what's happening here does make sense and there's good science. And I mean, I say that, I'm not an immunologist, I'm not a public health person. I'm a behavioural scientist, but I mean, what I've read about the process so far is that primarily it has been sped up by reducing the degree of bureaucracy and actually if anything, the science behind these vaccines is stronger than we've seen with previous vaccines that have been released. Now, if that's true, and that is the story to tell, we need to be telling that story.
CS: It hammers home that point about trust again, that those messages are about the extent to which trust exists between the population, sections of the population and the government that's going to introduce this vaccine. Why legitimacy, why social cohesion, why trust is so important because as Pete has reminded us so powerfully at the beginning of this session, is that at that behavioural dimension, that is our best defence series, about incorporating trust into the model that helps us to bring people to the vaccine that helps us to get through this problem.
MF: And I suppose, with the dismantling of public health in England, and the potential for those kinds of responses to happen at a local level in the UK, I assume that – how do you come back from that? I suppose is, that is an interesting question, Cliff.
CS: Well, as I said, I think part of the issue here is that there is a problem with the way in which the disease is cementing inequality and amplifying the divisions that already existed in society. And I think, as I remind everybody, that that data from Liverpool, I think, is really revealing about the extent to which that is still occurring. So if we may just go back to that point, why is it the case that the uptake is so low? Well, in part of the reason is just simply about physical location, that the testing locations are not sited near those areas of socio-economic deprivation. So there's a cost that people have to take to get to the point of testing. And there's also, of course, a risk that goes along with that cost because predominantly they're having to access it via public transport.
So they've been exposed to the virus by going to get the test. And there's just these ways in which our infrastructure around dealing with the disease has this nasty interface with the underlying problem. So what we're beginning to see, and this is a bit of a hidden problem, is that they raised an emerging situation of disorder and confrontation. People will not have heard very much about it, but there is an estate in the districts in and around Leeds called Halton Moor. There's been open confrontation between communities in that area and the police. And this is occurring on lots of different locations because people are starting to pay a price for what's happening with COVID. And it is translating into emerging confrontation and disorder on the streets as a form of resistance and confrontation.
PL: The behavioural science of that again, I mean, you know, Cliff you'll know this, but I mean, it's, well-known, if you're in one of these kinds of collective action problems and you treat people, if you discriminate, you treat people unfairly or unequally within a collective attempt, what can quite often happen is the people who are being treated unfairly, who might be being, more is being asked of them, even though they have less, for example, you know, they're not being given resources, they're not being given support and they know the other sections of society are getting more. Where that happens, quite often people in those circumstances, essentially, they will protest by doing things that are seemingly against their own self-interest because of the way they are being treated. So even if it is the case that they're doing things that are for themselves unsafe, they will do them as a form of protest where they are not being brought into that collective and being treated fairly and equally within that collective action problem.
There are decades of behavioural science that shows this, which is one of the reasons why if you really want to pull a socially cohesive behavioural defence together, or response, doing it in a way that is as equal as possible and where the people who are having to make the greatest sacrifices have some degree of distribution and additional support going towards it, that's how to build that kind of cohesion. If instead what it is, it's just, you know, the usual story of the people are already better off in society, and we make it easier for them, you really do risk that same situation where people essentially protest by not going along with the collective action that's actually in their own interests. And that's the situation you really want to try to avoid.
CS: Yeah, absolutely. Then say, it corresponds exactly with the kind of analysis that we put around the dynamics of why riots happen in crowd events, and the centre of that is about legitimacy. It's about having legitimacy in a way that you structure into those communities. And the real danger here is that that is likely to happen again when it comes to the vaccine. So this next phase of the pandemic from post-Christmas through to July, August, September-time are going to be absolutely pivotal in terms of the questions that we open this discussion with, about the future for politics and for society, that we face in the UK, in Ireland, and so on. And I do wonder whether the extent to which we can embrace a positive future is, to a large extent, based upon the way in which government irons out that inequality in the context of the pandemic. Where they get that wrong, we will have a very negative set of consequences, and whether they get that right, we might have some hope of reasonably positive ones.
MF: So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen I would just like to thank Professor Clifford Stott, Pete Lunn, and Senator Ivana Bacik in her absence for a very lively and interesting exchange of ideas. And I'd also like to thank you, the audience for tuning in tonight and being part of the conversation. Thank you very much for your questions and sorry we didn't get to all of them. All that remains for me is to just say thank you once again, to everybody involved in The Tent of Bad Science over the last two weeks and good night.
Jenny Daly: Thanks for listening! You can find links to a full transcript of the discussion and some other stuff in the show notes. There's also a recording of the event on YouTube if you want to watch it back. Thanks to Conor Reid at Headstuff for production assistance. And as always, you can send us ideas for future episodes via our suggestion box. We would love to hear from you! Bye for now!