“Follow the science” goes the mantra of anyone insisting that locking otherwise healthy people up is a good idea. The problem is, what science are they talking about?
Dr. Anthony Fauci currently most represents the face of “science” today, at least as far as this pandemic is concerned. And yet, the immunologist from the Jesuit’s College of the Holy Cross and Cornell University, and longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has so far shown himself not immune from confusing flip-flops:
In January 2020, he declared the coronavirus disease 2019 nothing to worry about and “not a major threat” to the US, but then later advocated for prolonged lockdowns;
In February 2020, he advised people not to wear masks and then days later reversed himself;
In April 2020, he bizarrely said it’s ok for people to have sex with strangers but days later said it’s not good to shake hands; and, finally,
In May 12, he warned that re-opening too soon will cause “really serious” consequences, then just 10 days later warned if the States don’t open soon there’ll be “irreparable damage.”
Then there’s Neil Ferguson of the massively wrong Imperial College study. Because of his wildly off predictions for the US and UK (2.2 million deaths for the former and 500,000 for the latter; present estimates now range it from 130-160,000 and around 24,000, respectively), both countries embarked on policies that caused the most stringent curtailment of civil liberties in their respective histories. The Telegraph calls it simply “the most devastating software mistake of all time.”
Two unelected bureaucrats whose words liberal progressives demand we unquestioningly take as gospel truth and law. Yet reality has a way of demonstrating how unwise that is.
CNBC’s Christina Farr (“Why scientists are changing their minds and disagreeing during the coronavirus pandemic”, May 23) reported a defense of the scientists’ reversals: “It’s expected that even the highest-ranking academics will evolve their thinking — and many have done so during this COVID-19 pandemic,” and that for scientists “it’s a high mark to be able to say, ‘I’m going to change my mind’.”
Admittedly, that’s true. But it just bolsters the point that one cannot make policy solely and exclusively on the say-so of experts. Of course anything of great import is better off with expert advice but decisions or policy shouldn’t utterly and singularly be dependent on them.
First of all and as admitted by scientists themselves, data can change. That’s the nature of science. Karl Popper, who has put in as good a theory on the philosophy of science (and reality) as any, points out that “whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”.
Or, more tritely: “Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.”
Finally, as asked at the outset here, what “science”? Science is certainly not confined to medicine or physics. The main basis for stating a field is scientific is its openness to verifying hypothesis by experiments and when people say “experiments” they usually mean “controlled” experiments (i.e., set circumstances allowing for repetitions). The making of vaccines or other drugs are good examples.
But not all experiments are controlled. There are the “natural” experiments (based on observation of the object of study without controlling variables) and “field” experiments (observation of the object in its natural setting), as well as “observational study” (drawing inferences from a sample to the population where the variables are uncontrolled by the researcher).
Disciplines like economics, law, and politics are rightly sciences as well (i.e., “social sciences”). Now, at first glance, it may seem that experiments conducted by medicine or physics come closer to reality than others. But such is illusory. Again, Popper: “In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.”
In the case of this pandemic, for example, to get a better grasp of the reality actually being confronted by our fellow citizens, to say “follow the science” shouldn’t exclusively mean of epidemiology alone (worthy as that field obviously is) but rather of every other “science” that affects us all.
Indeed, people can die from the coronavirus. But it’s also true that people can die from the stress of unemployment or hunger as well.
And it’s also true that impractical, arbitrary, or unreasonable laws will only result in disrespect for the law.
And that’s why decision-making is never given to experts but to elected officials. For the latter to depend completely on experts is an abdication of duty.
Unlike the unelected technocrats, the nature of political office is precisely its direct accountability to the people for the consequences of their judgment.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.