Saturday, February 12, 2022

Should We Really Follow the Science?

Some, if not most of you have this heard already. If you are among the happy few who follow this blog, you are already alert to the problems with the public discourse about fighting the Covid pandemic.

At the risk of being repetitious I report David Leonhardt's an excellent debunking of what pretends to be the superior wisdom of our public health officials and politicians. His article appeared in a New York Times newsletter. (Via Hot Air and Maggie’s Farm)

His theme is quite simple. The notion that we should follow the science, introduced by a buffoon like Dr. Fauci and a demented fool like President Joe Biden… is a vapid statement, made by people who know precious little about science.

Besides, since Dr. Fauci has placed himself as the nation’s leading authority on how to fight the virus, and as he has done his best to shut down all dissent, on the grounds that he alone is science, we should at least have the decency to recommend that he be held responsible for the hundreds of thousands of American Covid deaths.

But, Leonhardt opens his essay, should we really trust the C. D. C. to provide us with the best in scientific knowledge. If you believe that, you are naive and have been gulled.

The C.D.C. describes medium-rare hamburgers as “undercooked” and dangerous. The agency also directs Americans to avoid raw cookie dough and not to eat more than a teaspoon or so of salt every day. And the C.D.C. tells sexually active women of childbearing age not to drink alcohol unless they are on birth control.

If you happen to be somebody who engages in any of these risky activities, I have some bad news for you this morning: You apparently do not believe in following the science.

Perfect! Following the science means no more medium rare hamburgers and no more raw cookie dough, etc. Sad to say, but government bureaucrats are not infallible. To think otherwise is to have abandoned thought.

So, Leonhardt wisely recommends that we not make a fetish of expertise and not erect cults to public health officials. If we do, he suggests, correctly, we are indulging in pagan idolatry:

Many people have come to believe that expert opinion is a unitary, omniscient force. That’s the assumption behind the phrases “follow the science” and “what the science says.” It imagines science almost as a god — Science — who could solve our dilemmas if we only listened.

Actually, if I may, Science, in the Greek and Roman pantheons, is a goddess, Athena and Minerva, by name.

And then, Leonhardt continues, making a point that I have often proposed to your attention. Namely, that policy making involves trade offs. You cannot and should not want to eliminate all risk from life. It would mean isolating yourself from all other humans, strategy that, as I remarked in yesterday's post, will seriously damage your mental health.

The phrase does have its uses. It’s a rejection of myth and a recognition that some aspects of the pandemic are unambiguous: Covid is more deadly for the unvaccinated than almost any virus in decades, and the vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing serious illness.

Many other Covid questions, however, are complicated. What does the science say about them? It says many things. Above all, science makes clear that public health, like the rest of life, usually involves trade-offs.

As I have emphasized, you can minimize risk, but at a cost:

If you want to minimize your risk of getting sick from food, you probably need to eat less tasty food than you now do. If you want to minimize your chance of dying today, you should not get inside a vehicle. If you want to minimize your children’s chance of going to an emergency room, don’t allow them to ride a bike or play sports.

Unfortunately, none of these statements provide answers about what to do. People have to weigh the risks and benefits. They let their kids play sports, but maybe not violent ones. They don’t drive in a snowstorm. They ignore the C.D.C.’s advice about medium-rare burgers and heed its warnings about medium-rare chicken.

The current stage of the pandemic presents its own set of hard choices and trade-offs. If you wade into the angry, polarized Covid debates on social media and cable television, you will find people who try to wish away these trade-offs. They pretend that science offers an unambiguous answer, and it happens to be the answer they favor.

Those who promote a cult to Science refuse to accept risk. That, dare we suggest, as we already have, is the problem. And yet, it is only recently that public officials have shown themselves capable of recognizing the obvious--namely that the Covid restrictions are causing damage in and of themselves. 

The truth is that Covid restrictions — mask mandates, extended quarantines, restrictions on gatherings, school closures during outbreaks — can both slow the virus’s spread and have harmful side effects. These restrictions can reduce serious Covid illness and death among the immunocompromised, elderly and unvaccinated. They can also lead to mental-health problems, lost learning for children, child-care hardships for lower-income families, and isolation and frustration that have fueled suicides, drug overdoses and violent crime.

And, of course, as these problems have arisen the C. D. C. has been incapable of modify its policy recommendations. It might be that they are stupid and incompetent, or it might be that they are suffering from a terminal case of self-importance, but Leonhardt is too nice to say so:

C.D.C. officials tend to react slowly to changing conditions and to view questions narrowly rather than holistically. They often urge caution in the service of reducing a specific risk — be it food-borne illness, fetal alcohol syndrome or the Covid virus — and sometimes miss the big picture. The C.D.C. was initially too slow to urge mask use — and then too slow to admit that outdoor masking has little benefit.

As Matt Glassman, a political scientist at Georgetown University, wrote this week, “Don’t trust substantive experts to make policy decisions that balance competing values or stakeholder interests.”

He concludes:

Most policy options have both benefits and drawbacks. The same applies to other areas of public health: We could also reduce flu deaths with permanent mask mandates, but this fact doesn’t mean that mandates would be wise.

Well stated and well argued. We give points to David Leonhardt for presenting the issues clearly to Times readers.


370H55V said...

Don't let this happen to you:

Anonymous said...

"At the risk of being repetitious I report David Leonhardt's an excellent debunking of what pretends to be the superior wisdom of our public health officials and politicians. His article appeared in a New York Times newsletter." WHAT!!!!! The NYT?????? I trust nothing, NOTHING from the NYT!!! Same goes for the WaPoo!

David Foster said...

It strikes me that public health is more like *engineering* than like science. If you want to design an airplane, science will give you some useful principles and equations. But it won't tell you what tradeoffs to make...these things are matters of engineering, informed by the customer's needs and wants.

No aeronautical engineer ever said anything like: "The science says that we need to go with a two-engine approach with underwing mounting and use a lot of titanium in the airframe and fly-by-wire controls." Science doesn't talk like that.