Should the list of members and minutes of SAGE be secret?

This is written in response to https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/world/europe/uk-coronavirus-sage-secret.html

SAGE = The UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies

This is a difficult question, but I believe the identity of SAGE members should remain secret. I also agree that the minutes of SAGE meetings should be kept secret during the Covid-19 crisis; however, I think the UK Government should be providing further explanation and justification for their Covid-19 policies and, after the immediate threat of this virus is over, we should return to examining every decision the UK Government made to deal with Covid-19, and why, with incredible care.

First, my view of what “science” and the “scientific method” means is very broad and differs from the position of Connor Rochford who, in the article, claims that “science is nothing more than a normative claim about how we ought to make a decision.” To me, if someone is using the “scientific method” that simply means they are employing the body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge in a particular field. I adopt the definition from here:

“Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.”

So, a physicist, chemist, or biologist can use the scientific method, but so can a historian, classicist or theologian. As long as that person is using the current most reliable method to scrutinise historical sources, to create new quantum algorithms, or to set government policy then that person is being scientific.

I take it to follow directly from this definition that governments should be setting their Covid-19 policy based on the “scientific method” as, if they weren’t, they’d be using dogmatism, their “gut instinct” or superposition to guide their decisions. None of these would be reliable ways of setting policy.

Using the “scientific method” still allows reasoned people to disagree and reach different conclusions based on the available evidence. When there exists much uncertainty, the space of potential explanations is large. Take economic policy, for instance, even Nobel Prize winners can vehemently disagree on the correct approach to certain challenges because the world is incredibly complex. Macroeconomists don’t have the same luxury afforded to biologists or physicists who can run randomised control trials or create particle colliders to “prove” their theories to incredibly high degrees of precision. The huge uncertainty and multi-faceted nature of Covid-19 means that to say the government is using the “scientific method” (ie the most reliable method) would require them to be listening to experts from many domains. They should be listening to economists, experts in logistics and care homes as well as epidemiologists and they should hear the concerns of teachers, business leaders, and psychologists, as well as medical doctors. It is the job of SAGE to synthesise opinions from all these domains into policy recommendations that elected politicians can decide upon.

Back to the question. I can understand why SAGE have chosen secrecy, especially of the minutes, for 3 reasons. First, journalists (especially tabloid journalists) are not going to understand the nuances of complex epidemiological models, the contradictions between different experts, and the difficult trade-offs to be weighed. Tabloids will just pick up and pounce on “worst possible scenarios”. Second, the minutes’ secrecy enables the members to speak their mind more freely. They can couch whatever they say in uncertainty, they can make bold claims, or they can simply say “I don’t know” without worrying that this will the headline of tomorrow’s Daily Mail. Because with Covid-19 we’re talking about deaths, tens of thousands of deaths, the debate could not be more sensitive. We don’t want members of the meetings to withhold from saying their true opinions out of fear for what journalists of the public might think. Finally, many members of the general public lack basic understanding of probability, what a virus is and how it is transmitted, and cannot identify basic cause-and effect. If the minutes of meetings were entirely open access you’d have every Tom, Dick, and Harry having an opinion on the matter. And, call be a pessimist, but I don’t expect many of the public to have mature, humble, or well thought through opinions because of the Dunning-Kruger effect. In this crisis, the opinion of every individual in a society matters. If Larry Odd from next door thinks he know better than the aggregated wisdom of hundreds of experts who’ve devoted their lives to thinking about and preparing for a crisis like this, his actions will put many others at risk. And, remember, Larry Odd will think he knows better as with his tiny amount of knowledge on the subject, he’ll be sitting smugly on “Child’s Hill” (see picture below taken from Tim Urban’s Wait But Why blog). Keeping the minutes secret means the information that’s fed to the general public can be carefully controlled into a narrative that can be explained as easily as possible to society’s lowest common denominator.

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Although I’ve argued that the minutes of the meetings should be secret, a summary of the arguments behind governments’ decisions should be made public. Rather than being told “do action A”, I think people would have more respect and faith in the government if instead Matt Hancock or Dominic Raab said “we’re telling you to do action A because X, Y, and Z. There is some uncertainty over X, Y and Z, but at this point in time, with current evidence, our range of experts from a range of disciplines view action A as the best action to take”.

The identity of members should be secret by default (members of SAGE are “free to disclose their membership” if they so choose and some do). Although I agree with the article that the UK Government are using SAGE as a “shield” to protect them from direct criticism – they can deflect probing questions by saying “we’re just doing what the “experts” told us”, I think direct criticism of the government and their past actions can wait until after the crisis is over. Once the threat of the virus has subsided, I will be the first to demand to see the evidence which led to the UK government taking actions contrary to the rest of Europe at the end of February, why they were so slow to enact a lock-down, why we have so little PPE, and why (even in late April) our testing is so far behind most other countries? However, now is not the time. Conditional on where we are today, debating the mistakes of the past won’t help the how we tackle this virus from now into the future (note: debating the past will at some point be crucial as it will help prepare for future pandemics/other crisis).

The goal of the entire country on this topic should be “how can we minimise the total suffering caused by Covid-19?”. Suffering includes deaths, economic ruin, domestic abuse etc. Everything should be viewed through this lens. Many can guess the identities of SAGE’s members. I don’t see how forcibly disclosing the identity of all members so that they all (their personal lives/their history/their previous work etc) become immediately exposed to the terror of a fleet of tabloid journalists with nothing else to report on is helpful for achieving this goal. If someone feels they’ve been excluded and their expertise on this topic means they should definitely be invited to SAGE meetings, they should write to SAGE, their local politician, or indeed the press. But, for the purpose of minimising overall suffering caused by Covid-19, I don’t need to be invited to SAGE meetings, I don’t need to read all of their minutes, I don’t need to have a list of SAGE’s members and neither does Larry Odd from next door.

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