‘Don’t shoot the messenger’.  Can we face reality?

As the Covid-19 crisis has deepened relations between politicians and their scientific advisers have become increasingly frayed. Politicians want to hear we are making progress and that the actions they are taking are being effective. They may want to highlight statistics that point in this direction. The scientists however must stay true to their data and if that says the infection rate is still too high to support some lockdown measures that is what they must advise.

Anyone who has practiced action research will recognise this dilemma. The people responsible for action want to hear that it is working and they may find it uncomfortable to hear from those responsible for the research what is actually happening on the ground. And if they don’t like the message the next step may be to ‘shoot the messenger’; perhaps to ignore what they are told, to question the competence of their researchers or even get rid of them. It is a very human characteristic. As Paul Simon wrote, ‘Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’ (The Boxer). And it may not just be a question of information about an action that is not working: it is even more difficult if the information challenges fundamental beliefs and ideologies. 

But if we are to deal effectively with a very dangerous and unfamiliar opponent like the virus we have to deal with reality not with our own favoured construction of it. If we don’t, we run the risk of having to deal with a much worse situation later.

So how can we help people take on-board information that may be difficult for them? What we don’t want is pressure on the advisers to hold back from presenting evidence for fear of their own future. They need to be given a kind of immunity, a license declared at the beginning of the process to report things as they find them. Another necessary requirement is that the people responsible for the action plans do not receive research information in any kind of public forum in which they may feel they have to defend their actions. They need a private space in which they can consider and reflect on the new information, question it as appropriate and explore its implications. The process also needs trust between colleagues and confidence in their judgement.   

Professor Ken Eason