Thursday, July 30, 2020

Should We Always Follow the Science?

For all the sanctimonious mewling about how we should follow the science, the truth is, as Dr. Joel Zinberg explains, that science does not offer clear direction when it comes to making policy.

One might and one should recall the words of David Hume, to the effect that science is about what “is” while ethics is about “should.” "Is" and "should" are not the same thing. In effect you cannot reasonably get from "is" to "should."

We live in a world when a band of idiots has told us that, in some cases, science is settled. In truth, as any decent scientist will tell you, science is based on skepticism. There is no such thing as settled science. There are settled dogmas, which you must believe lest you be expelled from a religious institution, but there is no settled science, not about the climate and not about the pandemic.

While politicians tell us that the science about tomorrow’s climate is settled, a serious thinker like Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that there is no such thing as a scientific fact about tomorrow.

Moreover, the people who are telling us that we should follow science, because they are in love with facts, also believe, as an article of superstitious faith, that an individual whose trillions of chromosomes are XX can become a boy, simply by changing her mind. They insist that the girl’s brain is typed male, which merely describes what happens when someone entertains a delusional belief. 

So, science is a convenient higher power, one that is trotted out when the godless among us want to trick us into doing something that is not very smart.

Dr. Zinberg reminds us of opinions voiced by Dr. Anthony Fauci, opinions that the good doctor has since reversed.

Dr. Anthony Fauci—and this is not meant as criticism—has epitomized the public-health diagnostic process with multiple, incorrect, early pronouncements: In January and February, he downplayed the risk of person-to-person spread; he expressed doubt that asymptomatic people could transmit the virus; in late February, he reassured the public that, “at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis”; and in March, like many other public-health officials here and abroad, he said that, outside of health-care personnel, ordinary people should not wear masks. In fact, both Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams suggested that mask-wearing could increase a person’s risk of being infected. All these assertions proved wrong.

So, if people were not running around in masks the reason was that the great Dr. Fauci told them not to do so:

Dr. Fauci now espouses the opposite of each of his earlier statements, but there is nothing wrong with that. As economist John Maynard Keynes purportedly said, “When the facts change, I change my mind—what do you do, sir?”

Making policy, Dr. Zinberg continues, requires us to balance different goals and different interests. We must take into account the damage to people’s lives that will ensue if we shut down the economy or if we lock people down or if we reserve all hospital beds for coronavirus patients:

Policymakers have to balance multiple, competing factors while working with imperfect information and uncertain science. In a pandemic, infectious-disease experts can advise that shutting down the economy will limit the spread of deadly disease. But experts from other fields might warn that the same action will also throw millions out of work and lead to increased deaths of people unable or unwilling to obtain medical care for emergencies and chronic diseases, more suicides, and more drug and alcohol abuse.

And, once the experts are proven wrong, by their own admission, they lose some of their credibility. 

Americans were told that there was no evidence that face masks were protective, or that, at best, they might help protect other people, but not the mask-wearer himself. Now Fauci has explained that the main rationale for discouraging mask use was not really the belief that they don’t work but to preserve an adequate supply of masks for health-care workers. Small wonder that some opponents of mandatory mask-wearing say that they’re not convinced masks are helpful, and that they may even be harmful. They can be forgiven for wondering why masks were necessary and protective for health-care workers but not for them.

As for the side-effects of the lockdown policy, the Financial Times reported this morning that the mental health of the British has taken a turn for the worse during their lockdown and social distancing:

Almost two-thirds of people in England have suffered from anxiety and poor sleep during the lockdown, compared with less than half beforehand. Respondents also reported a rise in binge eating and suicidal thoughts.


urbane legend said...

Let me see if I have this straight: masks may or may not help with the Covid-19 virus, hydroxychloroquine does not help if Donald Trump thinks it might, despite what real doctors say, and the oceans are rising due to climate change but people are still building waterfront homes in Florida. Has anyone asked real experts, not just those Dr. and PhD people, but real experts, Ellen Degeneres and the Dixie Chicks?

Oh, well, it doesn't matter anymore. I just got two sausage pepperoni pineapple pizzas. The doctor called this morning and said, " Two months and you will urbana legendita. " ;-) :-)

Giordano Bruno said...

Science has become a stupid, agressive, bully surrounded by middle-brow and middle-management NPR apes cheering it on to beat somebody to death. They have no idea what science is or is not. Its all empty virtue signalling to indicate that at least they are not creationists. A creationist who can fix a carbeurator has more scientific insight than the board at the NYT.

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Richard Feynman

I'll take Feynman against the field. I'll take Didier Raoult over the field, too.

hayek said...

Speaking of masks, Sweden, which never shut down its economy and has reached herd immunity, has one of the lowest incidence of mask wearing. Surveys indicate approximately 14% of the adult population mask.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dr. Fauci is a scientist. For real.

David Foster said...

Anyone who runs an organization of any size and complexity is likely, sooner or later, to have to make important decisions about matters on which he is by no means an expert..and on which the people who *are* experts may disagree.

A classic example was the secret British decision-making on air defense systems. One expert, Dr Henry Tizard, was in favor of better almost all of the chips on radar. Another expert, Dr Frederick Lindemann, favored giving equal or greater attention to infrared detection and the bizarre technology of aerial mines deployed on parachutes. Lindemann was Churchill's favorite scientist, and, although Churchill had not yet become the PM, he was influential in defense matters.

The decision as to which way to go had to be made by Lord Swinton, the Air Minister. Swinton was by no means a scientist, he was a lawyer with a particular specialty in mining law.

I wrote about the decision here: Radar Wars

trigger warning said...

Dr Fausti is a bureaucrat, for real.

Science is not a belief system. Scientism is. Science, as noted by GB above, is the refuge of hard-core skeptics. Science is a methodology, nothing more, nothing less.

I still claim that we will not have a scientific handle on this virus for at least 18 more months. Anyone who has ever done scientific research, as opposed to reading proposals and doling out taxpayer money to, in most but not all cases, actual scientists to do research, knows it is a frustrating, painstaking, and time-consuming process.

Science journalism, the source of most of the ridiculous blattering and mis/disinformation about scientific matters, is in thrall to the Hollywood vision of their entertainment brethren, wherein a brilliant "scientist", who preferably looks vaguely like Dustin Hoffman or some superhot black chick, fights a pitched battle against reactionary powerbrokers, often Generals, to implement a counterintuitive, genius solution that seems crazy but saves the planet, all in a matter of weeks.