Freddie Sayers spoke to the new WHO Nudge Unit chair to discuss the politics of public health
When Professor Susan Michie’s appointment as the new Chair of the World Health Organisation’s “Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights” was announced on Monday, almost every news report mentioned that she is a longstanding member of the British Communist Party.
“Communist British scientist dubbed ‘Stalin’s nanny’ who wanted face masks and social distancing FOREVER is given top job at World Health Organization,” read the Daily Mail headline. “British professor who is member of the Communist party appointed as chair of WHO advisory group,” said the Telegraph. “WHO appoints Communist Party member who said face masks should continue ‘forever’ as chair of advisory board,” said GB News. And so on.
But is it fair to make a scientist’s private politics part of the story? Susan Michie certainly doesn’t think so, as she told me in her UnHerd interview last year when I asked her if she was a Communist:
But in this example, it becomes hard to separate politics from science. Later in the same interview, Professor Michie admitted that all of her colleagues on SPI-B, the UK government behavioural science committee, shared an ideological commitment to a more equal society: “we never talk about each other’s politics. I assume there’s a very broad range, but everybody’s unanimous about wanting a more equal society.”
She also explained that the new science of Public Health is collectivist by nature, seeking to provide group-wide solutions to health challenges, and so it fundamentally downplays individual rights. “What I don’t see a lot of amongst my colleagues maybe, but certainly the media, and especially the papers that you mentioned, would be much more emphasis on individual freedom, individual rights, rather than taking a sort of more collective population approach.”
It starts to feel distinctly like fundamental questions of how a society should be organised are being taken out of the political sphere — where they can be debated and ultimately rejected at the ballot box — and hard-wired into new scientific disciplines that are then treated as unquestionable expertise. Add to that the question of whether the WHO should be attempting to “nudge” populations rather than simply come out with technical advice, and no wonder people are getting paranoid.