If you thought the coronavirus presented difficult policy questions, don’t worry — we have science.
Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted the other day, “The West Coast is — and will continue to be — guided by SCIENCE.”
Joe Biden has urged President Trump, “Follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you.”
Neil DeGrasse Tyson calls the crisis “a giant experiment in whether the world will listen to scientists, now and going forward.”
The invocation of science as the ultimate authority capable of settling questions of how we should govern ourselves is a persistent feature of modern Western life going back several centuries and has always been a mistake. It is especially so in this crisis, when so much is still unknown about the coronavirus and immensely complicated and consequential public-policy questions are in play.
Modern science is obviously one of the wonders of our age. We owe it an unimaginable debt — for technological advancements in medicine, transportation, industry, communication, computing, and more. All honor to Newton, Turing, Curie, and Einstein.
The world was slow to react to the coronavirus, and yet the genetic code of the virus was publicly posted by China on January 20, and South Korea had deployed a test kit by early February. It’s possible we’ll have a vaccine by the end of the year.
Science has a limited competency, though. Once you are outside a lab setting and dealing with matters of public policy, questions of values and how to strike a balance between competing priorities come into play, and they simply can’t be settled by people in white lab coats.
Science can make the atom bomb; it doesn’t tell us whether we should drop it. Science can tell us how to get to the moon; it doesn’t tell us whether we should go. Science can build nuclear reactors; it doesn’t tell us whether we should deploy them.
Invoking scientists in this crisis is a little like saying, “My economic policy is going to be guided by an ECONOMIST.” Well, good for you. But is your economist on the left or on the right? Does he care most about inequality or dynamism? Is he Paul Krugman or Art Laffer?
Science can indeed settle debates once and for all — we don’t argue about heliocentrism any more. But an extraordinary feature of the coronavirus is how poorly understood it is. We don’t know how many people have it, what the death rate is, or how best to treat it, among other things.
The models of how the virus would spread were invested with a certainty that they didn’t deserve.
If we are going to unquestioningly accept expert opinion, we’d better prepare for whiplash. At first, the elite consensus was that wearing masks was unnecessary. Now, we are told it’s an essential piece of getting out of this mess.
We worried about running out of ventilators, but in recent weeks some doctors have been wondering whether they have been overused.
Then, there are the big questions. Science can’t tell us how we should think about the trade-off between the economic misery caused by shutdowns and the public health risks of reopenings. It can’t determine the balance between shutting down a hospital’s elective surgeries so it can prepare for a COVID-19 surge, and tanking its business.
The people in our political debate who most volubly insist that they are simply following “the science” tend also to be most resistant to nuance and prone to unscientific fervency. They are using “science” as a bludgeon and conversation stopper.
Obviously, science already has made an enormous contribution to our fight against the coronavirus, and may — through therapies or a vaccine — go a long way to solving this crisis. But life is not an equation, and neither is politics or policy.
We as a free people will have to decide the important questions raised by this crisis, not the doctors on TV or the researchers in the labs.
© 2020 by King Features Syndicate