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Jean-Paul R. Soucy: Why we must not ‘follow the science’

Commentary

“As [prime minister], I will let science dictate mandates, not arbitrary political whims,” tweeted Jean Charest in response to Ottawa’s announcement about dropping federal vaccine mandates.Ottawa announces suspension of vaccine mandates for domestic travel, federal employees https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/government-end-vax-mandates-1.6487585 It was a familiar refrain, the practically mandatory invocation by a politician of “following the science” as the justification for any change in public health policy, whether dropping restrictions or reinstating them, cutting isolation periods, or defending random testing at airports.

But does anyone believe it?

In practice, it is rarely a change in “the science” that motivates a change in policy. Oftentimes, it seems to be a change in what is politically expedient that does so.

Politicians have been all-too-happy to embrace the rhetorical dodge of “following the science”. By pinning the responsibility for their decisions on “the science”, they avoid having to explain the true reasoning, which might open them up to criticism and debate. It is easier to present a policy as the only option, resulting from the unassailable authority of science instead of the sum of numerous subjective considerations, each one a new opening for attack.

However, this political game is not without consequences.

First, it tarnishes the credibility of scientific evidence as an input into the political process. It is no secret that many Canadians have succumbed to misinformation during this pandemic. For example, a recent survey by Abacus Data reveals that the belief in a mass cover-up of coronavirus vaccine deaths is disturbingly common.COVID Conspiracy Beliefs Embraced by Millions https://abacusdata.ca/conspiracy-theories-canada-3/ What is underappreciated is the role of politicians’ careless use of language in fuelling this erosion of trust.

Reversals on policies ranging from mask use, vaccine mandates, and school closures have all received the same content-free justification of “following the science”. By treating “science” as a set of received wisdom with ultimate decision-making authority rather than as a method for gathering and interpreting evidence, our leaders undermine faith in the scientific process and the public institutions that are supposed to employ it. The dynamic, uncertain, chronically skeptical nature of science is a feature, not a bug. But when “science” is used by politicians as a shield against inquiry rather than an invitation to it, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to a recitation of presently acceptable facts.

Second, it masks the true decision-making process. In reality, “science” cannot dictate policy, because science cannot weigh the value of particular freedoms against specific risks, any more than it can tell you how to feel about a sunset. Policy is about making trade-offs, based on a set of values and goals, in the light of evidence.

Unfortunately, the nature of these trade-offs has been frustratingly opaque throughout the pandemic. This has also made policies more difficult to revise. Consider the case of border closures in March 2020, which were considered unthinkableJustin Trudeau won’t close the border. At least for now. Here’s why https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2020/03/13/justin-trudeau-wont-close-the-border-at-least-for-now.html until days later when they were considered essential. More recently, the same arbitrary-feeling decision-making was employed regarding random testing at airports and federal vaccine mandates. Transparency regarding the evidence used to inform decisions, as well as the goals being pursued and the trade-offs being considered, would make it easier to periodically review and adapt these policies so that changes feel less haphazard.

Returning to the motivating example of federal vaccine mandates: what was their purpose? There are two main possibilities, both concerning reducing the externalities caused by infection but to a different degree. First, to reduce the probability of person-to-person transmission, the probability that one person directly infects another. Second, to lower the probability of severe outcomes from infection, reducing hospitalizations and thus overall burden on the health-care system. The latter argument is broader than the first but raises uncomfortable questions about what else could be “mandated” to reduce the pressure on our shared health-care resources. In either case, these goals must be weighed against the restrictions on individual liberties that they impose.

Evidence has accumulated, particularly since the widespread emergence of Omicron, of the diminishing utility of mandates (especially with only two doses) in achieving the first goal (and to a lesser degree, the second goal). But this evidence has been clear for some time. Without a clearly articulated vision, we are left to wonder: what changed to trigger the lifting of the mandates? Was it the science, or something else?

“Follow the science” is a slogan, not a strategy. Worse, it has been used as a fig leaf to cover for political expediency and partisan jockeying. The biggest loser in this charade is the public. Trust is the currency of public health and transparency is a critical part of building and maintaining this fragile commodity. Transparency means being clear not only about the evidence informing our policies but the values and goals motivating them. Appealing to some rarefied version of “the science” can only harm the effort to rebuild trust in our institutions.

Sean Speer: Doug Ford’s cabinet choices could define his second term

Commentary

Speculation is that Ontario Premier Doug Ford will soon appoint the members of his new cabinet. According to the old axiom “personnel is policy”, these decisions may be among the most important that the premier makes in his second term. They will invariably influence the ambition and orientation of the government’s policy agenda. 

It’s widely held that a major part of the Ford government’s political success has been its efforts to orient its conservative ideas and impulses to the interests, concerns, and aspirations of working-class Ontarians. This unorthodox policy agenda has manifested itself in tax reductions for low-income Ontarians, a large, generous, and progressive child tax benefit, a new labour model for gig workers, apprenticeship reform, a ban on non-compete agreements, and the endorsement of a new portable benefit for workers without employer-provided benefits. 

The political upshot of these policy-based appeals to working-class voters was the endorsements of more than a half dozen private sector trade unions in the recent election campaign and, ultimately, seat gains in working-class ridings like Thunder Bay, Timmins, and Windsor. These developments have rightly been interpreted as signs of a political realignment in the province. 

Yet one can also overstate this sort of analysis at this stage. Although the government’s re-election should be viewed as a return on investment for its early efforts to reach working-class Ontarians, a full and durable realignment is incomplete. The goal of the second term should be to see it through. The forthcoming cabinet appointments are a key first step. 

That’s because most progress to date has been concentrated in the policy innovation and stakeholder engagement of Labour Minister Monte McNaughton who not only understands the political fecundity of a new, more working-class conservatism (he recently said that “this is where leading conservative parties need to be”Ontario PCs’ pivot to blue-collar concerns helped it flip several ridings from the NDP https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-pcs-pivot-to-blue-collar-concerns-helped-it-flip-several/), but also seem to reflect it in his own tastes, preferences, and persona. He personifies the people and places that are key to building a durable, broad-based, and modern Conservative coalition in the province. 

The challenge of course is that McNaughton cannot be cloned. The test for the government, therefore, is whether it can extend his reformist energy and insights across the various government ministries and different policy areas. 

This will require that the premier appoint the right people in the right roles. But personnel may be a necessary yet insufficient determinant of the government’s ultimate policy and political progress. It will be even more important that Premier Ford conveys this working-class ethos—what I referred to in a recent Hub articleIf Doug Ford needs a governing agenda, improving Ontarians’ quality of life would be a good start https://thehub.ca/2022-06-07/if-doug-ford-needs-a-governing-agenda-improving-ontarians-quality-of-life-is-a-good-start/ as “quality-of-life conservatism”—to incoming ministers and their staff as well as the senior provincial bureaucracy. 

It can neither be a mere slogan nor the sole purview of a single minister. It must come to represent a policymaking lens that’s broadly applied across the government. That’s ultimately how to ensure that the premier’s sincere yet oft-undefined working-class instincts are translated into a credible, consistent, and constructive policy agenda.  

A recent memorandum to government officials and external partners from Ontario’s outgoing Advocate for Community Opportunities and Chair of the Premier’s Council on Equality of Opportunity identifies some short-term priorities along these lines, as well as possible obstacles to the development and implementation of a working-class agenda. (The Hub obtained a copy of the memo from one of its recipients and has since verified its authenticity.) 

According to Jamil Jivani, who was appointed to the role of provincial advocate in December 2019 and stepped down earlier this month, the Ford government should prioritize education and mental health issues to account for the distributional consequences of pandemic lockdowns which, according to various studiesCOVID school closures most harm students from poorest neighborhoods https://news.yale.edu/2021/01/05/covid-school-closures-most-harm-students-poorest-neighborhoods and reports,Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2022376118 disproportionately harmed marginalized youth. As he outlines in the memo: 

These particular recommendations [including cutting wait times for children to receive psychological services and more funding for community groups helping working-class youth overcome pandemic-induced learning loss] would address the greatest needs created by pandemic lockdowns and school closures, and therefore will provide the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to providing all Ontario youth with equality of opportunity.

The subtext of Jivani’s memo is that the government’s working-class ambitions won’t find full expression without addressing these secondary effects of the pandemic. One reads a sense of the duty of care in his outgoing advice. He believes that the government has a moral obligation to help those most affected by its own policy choices over the past two years. 

More generally, Jivani warns that the premier and his cabinet will need to overcome what he describes as “bureaucratic paternalism” within the government itself if they’re to make greater progress on working-class priorities. His criticism here applies equally to the political and public service arms of the Ontario government. 

The implication is that Queen’s Park has grown accustomed to dealing with sophisticated special interests that have their own lobbyists or industry groups and that this culture of clientelism (which has existed far longer than the current government) too often leaves ordinary people excluded or forgotten. 

Accounting for this inherent asymmetry, therefore, requires a combination of leadership, sustained effort, and a genuine commitment to inclusion. It must ultimately be about pulling new and different voices into the policymaking process. As Jivani puts it: “the province would benefit from an approach that encourages substantive diversity and inclusion in the form of experiential, educational, religious, and geographic differences.”

If the Ford government is to be lauded for its first-term efforts to reach working-class Ontarians, the decision it makes in the coming days and weeks—including (but not limited to) the composition of its new cabinet—may well determine how much further progress is achieved in its second term. The prospect of completing a full political realignment in the Province of Ontario is within the government’s reach. But it will need to follow McNaughton’s lead and Jivani’s advice in order to get there.