“The well-known corona strategy from the Forum for Democracy under the guise of Herstel NL,” is what politician Thierry Baudet called the plans of the Herstel NL group on Dutch NOS TV news journal last week. Herstel NL (Recovery NL) is a club of economists, doctors and scientists who advocate a risk-oriented policy that isolates the elderly and vulnerable and gives young people more leeway until the coronavirus has fizzled out. In the past few weeks, they started a huge campaign that included posters in bus shelters, a donation page and extensive media attention, followed by a ‘roast’ on Zondag met Lubach (‘Sunday with Lubach’), a satiric television program featuring Dutch comedian Arjen Lubach. Professor of Health Policy & Management Roland Bal is one of the initiators of Herstel NL and was involved in the platform until a short while ago: “Associations with Forum – a party that actually does embrace the denier angle – is exactly what we wanted to avoid.”
If you are critical of the government’s policy on corona, various groups and parties can pick up on that and run with it willy-nilly without your consent. So, what should you do as a scientist with your (nuanced) criticism of the current corona policy? Professor of Public Philosophy Marli Huijer (ESPhil), health professor Roland Bal (ESHPM) and Henri Beunders, emeritus professor of Developments in Public Opinion (ESHCC), talk about their role in the corona debate and the six lessons that can be gleaned from it.
Lesson 1. Avoid any associations which disqualify your standpoint
Defending your nuanced position is like walking a tightrope. How do you do it? Bal: “There’s a strong element of polarisation in the debate. Appeals by Herstel NL were quickly shared by the anti-corona movements and we saw our exact words being echoed in statements by Baudet and his supporters. He even acted as if we were working out his plans. But Herstel NL did not want to end up in the group that is denying what is going on and also didn’t want to be associated with a particular political party. That would quickly get you written off as a virus nutjob or prevent you from being taken seriously. You can take the virus seriously and be critical of the policy at the same time.”
What Bal tried to do with Herstel NL was to avoid any such associations: Be careful how you communicate and present yourself to the outside world, and discuss matters properly within the Herstel NL group. “I receive a lot of LinkedIn requests, so I always take a close look before I accept them. We also had a lot of discussions within our group about what we can and cannot say. The most important consideration was to stick to one message for the sake of clarity: A differentiated policy for different groups. We did have other critical points behind closed doors, but this was the most important one and we went public with it.”
Lesson 2. Don't go to podiums where people bask in their own self-righteousness
Public philosopher Marli Huijer has mostly been spared from being associated with groups that deny the existence of a virus. How does she manage to sidestep that? She eschews places where there is room for only one opinion. “For me, the most important thing is to choose platforms where the debate is key,” says Huijer, who has advocated since the beginning of the crisis for more room for creativity, living with death, and freedom for young people. “Consequently, I try to avoid situations where the medium that I am invited to as a scientist uses me purely to legitimise its own actions or standpoint. But I don’t rule out all media by default either. I would like to drop by Café Weltschmerz again, for one thing, if I could debate someone who has a completely different viewpoint to mine.”
That debate is very important, Huijer believes, also when it concerns corona measures. “That’s when you arrive at the best solutions. As a philosopher, it is my job to question everything that is the norm. Especially in my field of public philosophy, it’s all about those critical voices. This requires hearing as many perspectives as possible, including those that aren’t so obvious.”
Science runs on an engine that constantly dares to ask questions; the philosopher adds. “The scientist then has to prove that something is wrong. Even stories that are too absurd to think about can still make you think. You lose that driving force if you dismiss some voices out of hand.”
Lesson 3. Only speak up if you really have something substantive to add to the debate
After the first wave, emeritus professor Henri Beunders was involved in the evaluation of the corona policy as an external advisor. He thinks it does not help the debate that the authority of experts has been undermined over the past few years. The university is partly to blame for this development, he believes. “The university, like Coca-Cola or Philips, has become a factory where the quantity of paying students has become more important than the quality of knowledge. The excessive focus on social relevance led to every snippet of preliminary research result being sent straight to the media in the form of public information.”
Another development that helps undermine the authority of the expert is the compulsive belief that everyone should be seen as equal, Beunders believes. This is also being reiterated in the debate. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has elevated the theory of people as equals to a law unto itself. Since that kind of equality has become an obsessive compulsion, the standpoint of the citizen is: ‘If you say that we are all equal, why should I listen to you when you won’t listen to me?’ The advent of the Internet has amplified this. It leads to resentment, because scientists think they have more of a right to express their views in the media than the tokkies.*” (*Dutch version of bogans, yahoos and rednecks, ed).
Beunders: “Given the current uncertainties people are facing, it is all the more important that only people come forward who really have something to say, and not just voice random opinions.” In order to be treated fairly, those scientists should also take a critical look at their own argumentation. According to Beunders, this can sometimes contain flawed reasoning or their own experiences that they present as facts.
Lesson 4. Safeguard your independent role as a university and a sanctuary for criticism
Huijer praises the Erasmus University. “The university is doing incredibly well as far as its contribution to society is concerned. Not only virologists, but also philosophers, sociologists and health scientists are featured prominently in the public debate. The university is showing that it has a lot of in-house knowledge within the public domain. I am proud when I see not just Marion Koopmans, but also Bas Jacobs from the economic faculty sitting down at Op1.” (A current events talk show on Dutch TV, ed.)
There is also plenty of room in the public debate and in the scientific world for voices from academics, Bal believes. “Of course, you shouldn’t propagate falsehoods. However, LinkedIn recently removed a post by scientists from Nijmegen who criticised the corona policy, and that is going too far. It was a good thing that the Executive Board of Radboud University then immediately spoke out against it and gave that critical voice some room. The independence of scientists is still held in high regard,” Bal feels.
Lesson 5. Influence on the decision-making process is (for the time being) negligible
If you do wade into the debate, do not expect that everything will suddenly change. Huijer: “I am not under the illusion that my interviews have had any influence on the decision-making process.” She notices that it is difficult, for example, to get non-medical experts to sit around the table with the OMT (Outbreak Management Team) or the Dutch cabinet. “As a result, parliament lacks sufficient knowledge about the multitude of perspectives and how to weigh them up against each other.”
Bal: “It is only logical that medical practitioners, epidemiologists and virologists have a crucial role. That‘s what the nature of the current crisis is about. But there are also other experts with other kinds of knowledge who are flagging the measures’ knock-on effects. In my opinion, they don’t have enough of a voice in the decision-making process.”
‘You often hear them say: ‘Yes, there are educational disadvantages, more psychological problems, but there is no other way, we have to…’’
“I miss seeing decision-makers publicly reflecting on the social costs of the measures,” Bal continues. “You often hear them say: ‘Yes, there are educational disadvantages, more psychological problems, but there is no other way, we have to…’ That is a line of logic that ignores all non-medical objections. It is automatically assumed that the medical battle is more important than the knock-on effects. Other experts can help in weighing up the pros and cons,” Bal thinks, “but this is not given much scope.” Although: “At the last press conference, there seemed to be a tipping point in this respect. The repercussions on society were mentioned as a reason for easing the restrictions.”
What should be done next? Bal: “Make sure that in addition to the OMT, you also have a group that looks at the repercussions on society, and then include both voices in the decision-making process. When the schools reopen, don’t just make that decision with the OMT and the Cabinet, but consult with educators to see whether it’s not only virologically but also pedagogically responsible to educate children partly online and partly in person, and how best to go about it.”
Lesson 6. Beware of campaigning too much
Herstel NL started a campaign on the radio and via posters, among other things. “That caused a lot of commotion and was also instrumental in creating room for other arguments,” Bal notes. “At the same time, Herstel NL was also drawn deep into the political debate.” A side effect was that it also heightened the pressure within the group. Barely a week after the start of the campaign, three prominent members left.
One of them, Bas Jacobs of the Erasmus School of Economics (ESE), told the Dutch daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that he left because he did not feel comfortable with the fact that it was becoming more and more of an action group. In the meantime, Bal has also stepped down. “The politicisation means that people no longer listen to you. Then its impact is over and done with. But hopefully we have created more room for a different debate.” As such, criticism continues to walk a tightrope.