Lockdown is Another Triumph of Populism Over Science – Most People Have Behaved Rationally So Far

By popular request, I am posting this as a free-access version of one of the first commentary pieces that I wrote for the UK press – Daily Telegraph March 24, 2020

All infectious disease outbreaks generate three social epidemics – of fear, explanation and action. The last describes the pressures to “do something”, however pointless or irrelevant.

The Government’s lockdown represents another triumph of populism over science. Its approach is reminiscent of the line from the Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht about the failure of the people to live up to the politicians’ expectations – so the people must be dissolved. The people are portrayed as selfish, needing to be hectored, bullied and disciplined rather than engaged.

Most people have not behaved badly so far, simply in ways that are individually rational but have collectively irrational consequences. They are told to prepare to self-isolate for up to 14 days, so they transfer stocks from supermarkets to their homes if they can afford to do so. When this happens, it exposes the fragility of just-in-time supply chains. The latest injunction to shop less frequently simply reinforces that message.

People were told they could go out as long as they kept two metres apart. They looked at a sunny weekend and decided that going out was better than staring at four walls. Self-isolation rapidly damages mental and physical health – this is why we prefer not to place prisoners in solitary confinement. When people got to the park or the beach, they found that a lot of others happened to have had the same idea…They had all acted independently rather than selfishly.

There are some very smart biomedical scientists and mathematicians advising the Government. I respect them greatly in their areas of expertise, but they are not experts in the sciences of society. These policies show how deeply they remain attached to the notion that ordinary people are ignorant and irrational, rather than operating with different values and logic. Only if we understand these, which is the business of the social sciences, can we reconcile science-based policy with the everyday lives of so many people.

Self-isolation is quite different for politicians and policy elites living in big houses with gardens, compared to people in temporary accommodation, high-rise blocks or 8 x 4 bedrooms in shared city housing. Policies must leave room for flexibility, interpretation and personalised risk assessments. They should focus on ends rather than means and offer positive and constructive options.

A great Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, understood the divisions in his country. Unfortunately, the current Prime Minister’s hero is Winston Churchill.

Robert Dingwall is a Professor of Sociology at Nottingham Trent University

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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