The sad state of new zealand’s scientific discourse

The sad state of New Zealand’s scientific discourse

Ananish Chaudhuri

Ananish is Professor of Behavioural and Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland and the author of the forthcoming book “Behavioural Economics and Experiments”. The view expressed are his own.

I am the co-author a paper questioning the sagacity of New Zealand’s Covid-19 elimination strategy published recently in a medical journal. Surprisingly the paper set off a media fire-storm, which is unusual for academic articles.   

A news report published in the New Zealand Herald suggested the publication of the paper was “almost scandalous”; it was supposedly “rebuked” by the Ministry of Health and according to a prominent scientist, the authors of this paper were living in an alternative reality and that the paper must not have been thoroughly reviewed.

The reality is actually quite different. As part of the review process the editor of the journal asked the Ministry of Health for a response. This is common practice. This response was written by the Chief Science Advisor of the Ministry with input from the Treasury. The original paper, an addendum to it and the response from the Ministry are all available to the public from various public sources.

To any objective reader, what would be striking is the balanced and somewhat bland nature of the exchange replete as they are with citations and footnotes. They exhibit a group of people, both with a large degree of expertise, disagreeing over the desirable course of action.

In his response, the Chief Science Advisor of the Ministry of Health writes:

“Sundborn et al. conclude with an emotional plea for a review of the Elimination Strategy. Such a review is well advanced and includes an all-of-government conversation about exactly the things the authors are calling for, including: alert level settings and triggers; refinement of border controls using a risk based approach; adoption of technologies for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing enhancements. There is a real commitment across all agencies to a wider policy review, including the sorts of choices the newly elected Government will need to make on our behalf.”

Does this sound like a “rebuke”? To me this suggests a fair bit of common ground among the two sides.

So, the question then becomes: how and why did this debate end-up as a media story?

It is unlikely that the reporter from the New Zealand Herald routinely scours the pages of obscure medical journals for newsworthy stories. So, at some level, someone decided it was important to make sure that this dissent regarding New Zealand’s elimination strategy needed to be tamped down hard and the authors need to be tarred and feathered.

The question is why? And, what does this say about the level of scientific discourse in New Zealand?

Let us take an example. Currently, we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in maintaining our managed isolation system. Is this worthwhile?

The risk is that if we do not do this, then people with Covid-19 may enter the country and this may lead to new infections and the possibility of community transmission. But this is a probabilistic event and one needs to ask: how high is the chance this will happen? What happens if instead we asked people to self-isolate, engage in good hygiene, wear masks in confined spaces and backed this up by contact tracing?

Allowing for self-isolation will, of course, make it more likely that Covid-19 may spread but how high is that risk? What is the associated cost of doing this? How does this balance against the cost of maintaining the elaborate and expensive managed isolation system and the massive cost of keeping our borders closed, resulting in hobbling a bunch of key industries?

Could we re-direct some of the managed isolation money to building new hospitals, or buying ventilators or bolstering ICUs?

It seems to me that there are two feasible answers to this question. One is to say that the government has looked at these trade-offs carefully and has decided that on balance, the current elimination strategy makes sense. But, as far as I know, no such analysis has been conducted or if done, results have not been made public.

Another option might be to say that no such analysis has been carried out but the government is in the process of undertaking such an exercise in order to inform future policy making. This is the substance of the Ministry of Health response.

What does not seem to be a feasible response is to immediately start suggesting that anyone who dares to ask questions is living in an alternative reality.

Questioning established orthodoxy is the way science and society progress. There are legitimate questions that are being asked by scientists all over the world as we grapple with the best way to deal with the pandemic.

It seems that there exists a group of scientists in New Zealand who believe that questioning the wisdom of our elected representatives is tantamount to heresy. This group seems unaware of the limits of their expertise. The Covid-19 pandemic in not merely an epidemiological crisis: it is an economic, moral, social and philosophical crisis, where in the end elected political leaders are making decisions based on their own values and ideologies that go far beyond the scientific issues concerned.

Scientists should be wary of taking on the role of guardians of the prevailing political orthodoxy; political winds change often and unpredictably. The principle of scientific inquiry should not be subject to such political winds. This is a sad state of affairs that does not speak highly of the level of scientific discourse in New Zealand.