Is Boris Johnson cherry picking data to control us?

Shreya Dube unpicks the notorious cherry picking of COVID-19 data to dazzle the public

Shreya Dube
14th November 2020
What do our GCSE science teachers and our Prime Minister Boris Johnson have in common? They both seem to use “The Science” as an ineffable and gargantuan veiled threat.

During this pandemic, numbers and scientific language have been flung around like ammunition and aid. The R numbers (rate of infection), case numbers and viral load are a few cornerstones of epidemiology that are immensely helpful.

However, not all members of the general public are taught the skills on how to find data from reputable sources, interpret numbers and evaluate and criticise findings through a scientific lens.

There are a number of resources for finding accurate data from reputable sources

Despite a number of brilliant resources to help non-scientists check the facts (see www.fullfact.org), this uncertainty and confusion can lead to fear and irrational behaviour such as the stockpiling we saw earlier on in the year, prior to and during the first lockdown.

Transparency from authority figures such as the government would go far in easing the worry the nation is feeling

Another tactic that can be employed is omission of information; an example of this is Prince William’s positive COVID-19 test in April.

The reason the Prince gave for this silence was, “There were more important things going on. I didn’t want to worry anyone”. Worry, however, is one of the most prominent feelings that the nation is feeling and transparency from authority figures such as the government would go far in easing this discomfort.

Regular press conferences have been held by the government to quell feelings of panic as the public demand coherence and clarity

The Government has tried to quell these feelings of panic during these times with regular press conferences held throughout lockdown, ramping up again as the case numbers do.

A familiar and much loved face in these meetings is UK Chief Medical Adviser Professor Chris Whitty, who breaks down the number and graphs shown in the conferences to make them more accessible to the public as they demand coherence and clarity.

The press conference in particular that I am referring to took place on 31st October. This date is talked of with disdain as the conference came about due to an information leak, originally due to air on Monday 2nd November. So why the deception?

The exemption of grouse hunting parties from the rule of six is callous, when even the innocent play of children is restricted

This isn’t the first time that the Government proceeded with chancy tactics and flashy rules to dazzle the public. The rule of six was heavily criticised due to a clause slipped in very quietly: that grouse hunting parties are exempt from the rule of six. To have such a rule during a pandemic and one that only the upper echelons benefit from is callous, when even the innocent play of children is restricted.

Scientific American broke their 175 year political silence to chastise Donald Trump for his failure to listen to the science

Science is inherently political and it is definitely not just a UK issue. In fact, the renowned publication Scientific American released a statement about breaking their 175 year political silence. Chastising Donald Trump for his failure to listen to the science, the publication found themselves advocating a politician for the first time in their history.

Science is also WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised rich and democratic), where narrow samples from these groups are chosen for studies. There is a silver lining during this pandemic that more diverse samples have been studied, and Public Health England have even released a document that includes the impact of COVID-19 on BAME individuals

Acknowledging that my background is rooted in science, I reached out to a student whose worldview is more rooted in the humanities for a different perspective. Speaking to a Modern Languages student at Newcastle University, they told The Courier, “I’ve never really thought about it. The numbers aren’t for me to interpret; I don’t know how to and it isn’t my responsibility.”

Governments have a duty of care and transparency to the populace they govern

As a scientist, I hold my own opinion on this matter. I agree with the commenter and also with Boris Johnson himself saying that the UK faces a “medical and moral disaster.”

Morally, governments have a duty of care and transparency to the populace they govern, and this involves responsibly educating them, regardless of the severity.

After all, knowledge is powerful and by educating the public, one can hope to overpower this virus.

So dear reader, let’s leave cherry picking to being an activity involving fruits, trees and wicker baskets rather than subterfuge, fear-mongering and misinformation.

Featured Image: Manu Camargo on Unsplash

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