The Illusion of ‘Just Following the Science’: A Commentary on COVID-19 Messaging and Trust

On August 3, GSL Investigator and Research Director of Public Health Institutions, Adele Cassola, and Senior Investigator, Patrick Fafard published a commentary in The Conversation on the illusion and implications of ‘just following the science’ COVID-19 messaging. The article highlights how politicians’ claims of “just following the science” can be misleading, both about science itself and government decision-making. Although this may sound like a prudent way to tackle a public health crisis, our research suggests that such claims can be misleading about both science and government. Policymaking involves balancing multiple priorities, including economic impacts, ethics, equity, and public opinion.

Sofia, Bulgaria - June 23 2020: Subway train passengers with protective masks crowding to get on and off subway station platform on Serdika Metro station.

Distorting the public’s perception of the involvement of scientific advisors in decision-making processes can erode the trust placed in them, especially when policies evolve or become contentious. During the initial stages of the pandemic, elected leaders’ “just following the science” messaging implied that scientific evidence and advisors possessed straightforward answers to complex questions. However, as the pandemic progressed, scientific evidence, expert guidance, and policy decisions naturally shifted and varied across regions, leading to public perplexity, dissatisfaction, and, at times, hostility directed towards the scientific advisors, who were portrayed as the public representatives of these choices.

Public trust in scientific advisors declined due to changing policies and a lack of transparency. To foster trust and effectively address public health challenges, governments should maintain transparent relationships with senior public health officials and the public. Deflecting blame onto “the science” might provide short-term relief, but it can lead to long-term risks.


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