Why are we the academic oddballs?

Professors Ellen Townsend and Paul Dolan reflect on how they became ‘outlier voices’ during the pandemic.

For many months, we have been challenging the mainstream narrative on evidence and policy approaches during the pandemic. As a result, we have been reflecting on what professional and personal factors have led us to become academic outliers, at least in public. How did we end up as the mavericks of the academy?

On the face of it, we should have been quite happy to go along with many of the restrictive policies implemented during the pandemic: we are middle-aged academics at decent institutions, with secure jobs, comfortable homes, nice gardens and decent WiFi. As part of the ‘zoomocracy’, the time and resource savings we have made on commuting have been enormous. We could have had an easy life during the pandemic along with thousands of others in the academy. Instead, we have both questioned policies, interpretation of evidence and data, and generally put ourselves in the firing line. Like all other human beings, we are poor witnesses to our own behaviour – so we also have speculated on what makes us different on behalf of one another as well for ourselves.

A necessary but not sufficient condition, we think, is that we have both spent time engaging across disciplines in our work which tackles complex issues. One of us seeks to work out what makes people happy, the other tries to figure out what leads people to self-harm. We need multidisciplinary perspectives, and we have both collaborated with other researchers, embracing different methods. Most of the epidemiologists advising the government do not have these research interests and experiences, and politicians have not required it from them. We have also both spent a lot of time in our careers thinking about risk and uncertainty. We have expertise in biases in judgements and decision-making, and we are alert to the importance of context and framing.

We also see ourselves – and each other – as sceptical academics. We don’t take any evidence on face value in our work, and we don’t take ‘received wisdom’ as gospel. We give lectures on evidence-based policy and practice, and critical appraisal. This doesn’t mean that we are pessimists – in fact we are generally quite optimistic. If we say something works, it means we have examined the evidence carefully and are happy to conclude that it is robust. But none of this makes us special. Lots of other academics share these qualities. We know of many academics who share our scepticism of lockdowns too, but they are not willing to speak out.

Perhaps it is our willingness to speak out that makes us different, then? We have certainly had to invest significant time, and emotional and cognitive effort, into reframing the pandemic narrative. Reputation is everything in academia, and we are acutely aware that not supporting the wearing of masks, for example, risks us being cast aside from the in-group (even if the evidence on masks is, at best, mixed). Having secure employment certainly makes it easier for us to speak out but, again, that does not make us special. There are currently around 100,000 permanent faculty in the UK.

Most academics come from privileged backgrounds and have a limited range of experiences. So maybe our concerns about restrictions and social distancing come from our direct knowledge of the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society, particularly disadvantaged children, who have been most harmed by the lockdowns. Knowing what vulnerable children have gone through during the pandemic has troubled us both greatly, and it is not at all odd to care about vulnerable people. But again, we were both willing to go public about this, in many ways on many occasions. Let us be clear again here: closing schools and keeping them closed was not a proportionate response to the pandemic.

Ultimately, maybe our oddness comes down to who we are and not what we are. We are both extroverts. We love music, dancing, and socialising. Many academics advising the government seem quite pleased to have an excuse not to socialise with others: they spend much of their time socially distanced. Neither of us is afraid of the virus. We do not fear sickness, and we are not scared of dying (notwithstanding the impact it would have on our loved ones, most notably our children). We have had happy lives, which we would like to go on for a while yet, but we do not want to stop living to carry on living.

In contrast, those advising policymakers appear to us to be filled with existential dread. A fear of dying is no bad thing, but effective decision-making requires a diversity of perspectives. All of us have inherent biases based on our own experiences etc., whether we like it or not, and so we need to bring together different views to represent the population at large. If we are dealing with matters of life and death, we should not seek advice only from those who are the most afraid of dying – and, it would seem, of living too.

Once it became clear we were outliers in academia, we were prepared for the criticism from our peers. But we have been astonished at how the media has, by and large, toed the ‘party line’. We expected the media to seek out differing opinions to those focusing on reducing transmission risks above all else. We all think we should be called on more, but there have been so few voices in the mainstream media with expertise on the collateral harms caused by restrictions. We have both turned down many media requests that have wanted us to talk only about transmission risks.

We are not political activists, and it has been too easy for us to be pigeonholed as “anti-vax” or “anti-lockdowns” just because we have called for policy decisions to account for their full range of health, economic and social effects. For the record, we are both pretty middle-of-the-road politically speaking, and have been baffled by the lack of serious voices from the left opposing restrictions, which quite clearly have a more serious impact on those who are disadvantaged economically, socially or ethnically.

Throughout history, the outliers and the oddballs have proven to be vital in science and academia. The best judgements come from listening to opposing sides. Perhaps you might like to join our band of academic oddballs at Collateral Global. We won’t feel so odd if you do.

Ellen Townsend is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nottingham. She specialises in self-harm, suicide prevention, and mental health. Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the best-selling author of Happiness by Design and Happy Ever After, and the host of the new Duck-Rabbit podcast. Both are members of the Collateral Global Scientific Advisory Board.