WHILE being socially responsible and maintaining social distance from one another, there are reasons to be watchful in relation to the Government’s response to the virus. Not only science, but social science, can be useful for shining a light on current developments.

Far more contested and less capable of relying upon empirical studies, nevertheless, some of the better analysis of social and cultural trends can at least make us take a second look at some of the evidence and advice being given.

For example, much work has been done over the last two decades exploring the rise of a 'safety culture' or a world run by the 'precautionary principle'. The gist of this work is to highlight the way in which Western society has become chronically attached to a new morality of safety, become 'risk conscious' and prone to over-react to events, like the emergence of diseases.

Take a look back at the number of times the World Health Organisation or Western governments have incorrectly predicted mass deaths from diseases. They tend to get it wrong with remarkable consistency.

Does that mean Covid-19 is being exaggerated? Not necessarily but it does mean that we should not presume that government approaches are simply 'scientific' and not to be questioned.

The second trend of note is what has been called a 'culture of misanthropy'. Expressed most grotesquely by Extinction Rebellion who see humans as a virus, this people-hating sentiment can encourage us to think the worst of one another. At a time of fear and with a state clampdown on movement, it can encourage the worst kind of curtain-twitching behaviour.

Finally, perhaps the most dangerous trend in recent times is the attack on freedom of speech and academic freedom. This trend has developed alongside the elevation of safety and misanthropy, and reflects, at best, a conservative, or defensive attitude taken by institutions who play it safe when controversy is in the air.

It is the most important of issues because it is through open, unencumbered discussion and debate about the most important issues that we are able to raise and just as importantly, counter, claims made for and against government and state action.

As the American Jonathan Rauch argues, freedom of speech is the basis of a genuine social science because it ensures that we do not 'block the way to inquiry'.