Why SAGE needs to hear from the humanities

In seeking scientific advice, governments tend to underestimate the role of morality, culture and story in shaping perceptions and behaviour - to all our cost, argues Barry Smith.

Barry C Smith is director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study.

Many years ago, at a town hall meeting on science and society organised by DSTL (the research arm of the Ministry of Defence) the opening comments were given by Lord May of Oxford: Bob May, who had been chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair. His theme was the preparations for the invasion of Iraq.

“We had planned well for the invasion. We were prepared. We had the right kit, the supplies, the medical support. But there was one thing we had forgotten,” he said. “People. We didn’t know enough about people.” But whose job was it to tell him something about people? “Social scientists”, he said, “And they’re bloody useless.” And with that he left.

Sitting at the back, I wondered how much further down the food chain he would place humanities researchers, if he placed them anywhere at all. Yet, he was right. It was someone’s job to explain what could usefully be gleaned about people and how they might view and react to their circumstances. And the researchers who could usefully contribute belong to a range of disciplines like history, philosophy, language and literature, whose job it is to study what goes on in the human world.

Pressing questions

Humanities scholars address the products of human minds and culture along with everything that impacts on it and shapes it. Libraries are the storehouses of reason, where thought has been distilled and compressed, where histories are written down as the stories of people’s lives.

These are vast archives of information, which alongside digital archives, are there to be unlocked. It can feel overwhelming: too much information. But it is scholars who give us access we need, sifting and interpreting, showing us what matters and why it is relevant now. These skills often seem remote from the midst of a crisis, from conflict or battle but they are not.

At the same town hall meeting, a rear admiral asked me who he could turn to for help in thinking about creative malevolence. “The minds of the people we’re chasing in the security world are not very interesting,” he told me. “Monomaniacal, most of them. If they were a bit more creative they’d be terrifying.”

I wondered whether it is only literary scholars that could help him and I’ve wondered about that ever since. The host of the meeting spoke about the security services’ need for 360-degree vision. Events since 9/11 had surprised them and they didn’t know what perspectives they were missing. Though they knew they had a restricted outlook, talking mostly to one another. Now it was time to talk to everyone, anyone who could add a new perspective, stimulate fresh thinking.

Sage heads

The quest for wider vision is similarly relevant to the current discussions on SAGE: the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. It is not a single committee but a culmination of sub-committees providing a range of expertise from medicine, epidemiology, virology and immunology. It is rounded out by psychologists and the sort of behavioural scientists that Lord May would have disdained.

The task of SAGE is to consider available evidence and assess a range of possible emergency responses, in this case to the global pandemic caused by the SARS-Co-V2 virus. SAGE’s findings (and recommendations) are presented to government ministers who must reach time-critical decisions about what to do. In light of such urgency, it may seem that the discussions of humanities scholars would be misplaced but again, that would be wrong.

Good decision makers draw on a wide range of opinions and expertise, generating different perspectives on the same problem and get everyone in the room who can contribute. Knowing who needs to be there requires the skills of an editor searching for the right reviewers, and knowledge-brokers who know which researchers or teams could add something vital. They know the big challenges that face us, now and in the immediate future, as we rebuild, will not be solved by a single department or discipline but requires thinking to go on at different timescales.

Diversity of opinion produces better collective decision-making, but only where the dynamics of collaboration are established to foster significant interdisciplinary interactions that produce outcomes none of the competing experts could have produced on their own.

Lessons of history

When considering courses of action, there are many things we can do. But the question is often: what should we do? As philosophers are fond of saying, you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. While one could allow a harmful virus to spread through the population to see if herd immunity build ups, the key question is whether that is what anyone ought to do. Thinking through the basis of our decisions, which factors hold sway, and what guiding moral principles are appealed to requires the expertise of an ethicist.

When rolling out vaccines and urging the public to get a jab we would do well to recall disputes in nineteenth-century Britain for and against vaccination. Arguments were mustered on both sides, propaganda was produced, artists were hired to promote or undermine public confidence in the vaccine.

Governments have considered compulsory vaccination, anti-vaccination movements grew and had to be countered, the government contemplated compulsory vaccination. History enables us to understand the future through the post. Back then telling people what was good for them did not change their minds, even as they saw people die around them.

The return of experts and the trust in science has been a hopeful sign in the current pandemic, but it is not universally accepted. Doing the right thing, for some people is defending their freedom of movement, and trusting in their god to save them. They are still motivated by doing the right thing. But as usual what counts as the right, and the wrong, thing to do, is all about the details and rests on matters of fact as well as norms and obligations.

The story of us

To understand the mindset of those who resist scientific explanation and distrust medicine, we need to get further into the influences on their thinking, the patterns of reason that compel ascent.

This is not behavioural science at population level, nor psychological prediction of how anyone will behave under similar circumstances. It is about the appeal of stories that make sense to some individuals and not to others. It is about the need for stories, as rational responses; false beliefs that are seductively appealing.

Literature can help us get into the mind of others. We understand the bizarre behaviour of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations because we know she was jilted in love, returned home in her bridal clothes and took it that her life had stopped. We do not understand her in terms of a psychological law that says this is how people behave when they are jilted in love. It made sense to her; it needn’t make to make sense to us, though we can understand her.

To understand how people will react we need to know how they experience their situation. Engineers know this. When understanding how humans will respond to a building, a transport system or a piece of technology they don’t just want to study people’s behaviour, they want to know how people experience these things. That’s why engineering is reaching out to artists, designers and humanities researchers. It is only when we get at people’s experience of everyday life and get underneath their routine pattern of behaviour that we find out what moves them, or fails to move them, in unusual circumstances.

At the height of the pandemic, the government and its advisers were worried people would not obey lockdown and accept strict curbs on their freedoms. What they hadn’t factored in was the sense of solidarity people felt with one another when facing a common threat. At first, there was little sense of isolation and more communal feeling.

By staying away from others, being on our own and doing nothing, we were participating in a collective, communal action. It was the right thing to do, and to expect others to do. These norms for action – or inaction – came into view and people were mutually bound by them: a form of moral thinking and acting that had emerged not from rules but from concern and solidarity.

That’s why it was so important to people that we were all in this together, why we wanted the government to do the right thing. The violation of trust when the people who made the rules felt able to break them disrupted a delicate equilibrium between freedom and responsibility. The government did not factor that in, and this had consequences for individuals’ attitudes to further restrictions.

Only by considering the fabric of people’s lives, the individual’s experience of their circumstances, will we understand their mindset and what moves them. To achieve that feat, we need everyone in the room. Only then can we begin can we restore the dimensions of the human world that too often go missing.

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