Science says—-

23 Sep

Let us be clear at the outset: scientific research is a fundamental necessity for life today, and the conclusions of science can be ignored only at our peril. The world we live in requires scientific understanding, particularly since it is so permeated by technology; every person in our nation lives in the context of scientific medicine; we instinctively ask for the scientific view on every important issue we face today. 

Much of our current discussion of the Coronavirus pandemic revolves on “what science says” about public health, about the virus, about vaccines and antiviral drugs, and the like. The discussion frequently becomes simplistic and ideological. Political motives permeate most of what we get in the media.The role of science in our lives is not so simple. Three basic questions are central.

 Who is a “scientist”? My working definition is: a person with a scientific education, who earns their living for doing scientific work in a scientific setting (government or industrial lab, academic department of a college, university, or museum). Everyone else has scientific knowledge at second-hand. Since a great deal of scientific knowledge is expressed originally in mathematical equations, math knowledge is essential. Scientific presentations in the popular press, magazines, and TV are often fine, but they are translations from scientific language into English. Most of us, myself included, are dependent for our understanding of science on talented journalists who are scientifically educated. And this is not necessarily “real science.”

Where do we get our scientific knowledge of Coronavirus? My first response was: from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, but my investigation of the Task Force changed my mind. Because fewer than half of the members are scientists.

By my count, there are 27 members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Only nine, one-third—have a science education, mostly medical. Five are lawyers, the rest come from backgrounds in politics, finance, and government administration.

Why is this important? It means that the pronouncements of the Task Force are not necessarily scientific. The scientific materials considered by the Task Force are filtered through the understanding and the interests of the non-scientific members. Hearing Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Francis Collins, or some other epidemiologist on TV is a better source of scientific knowledge than a Task Force pronouncement. Advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) should be top priority, except for the fact they are edited by non-scientists, some of whom have their own agenda.

The best source of scientific knowledge about the virus may well be your local medical center and personal doctor. I will decide about getting the upcoming vaccine for myself when it is recommended by the University of Chicago Medical Center and my doctor.

How do we move from science to everyday life? “Relying

on science” is not simple, because the line from science to everyday life is not simple. For example, we are told by our doctors that we will benefit from a certain drug; there are risk factors involved, but the benefits outweigh the risks. The benefits and risks are science-based factors. That one outweighs the other is a judgment call, not science. Another example: that close crowds are risky for being infected is science-based. To decide whether or not to attend an event (protest, church service, family gathering, or eating in a restaurant), thus taking a risk, is a personal judgment. 

It is the aim of scientists and society to distinguish between the scientist (and other persons involved in science) and the scientific knowledge of the “world out there.” That is, in the final analysis, impossible.  Scientific knowledge can be used for good or ill. The human factor makes all the difference. Science has flourished under authoritarian regimes, including Communism and Nazism, and also free market democracies. It all depends on what shapes our judgment. Specifically in the case of the Coronavirus, our judgments may serve the larger common good, but they may also be selfish and destructive of the common good. We have already seen both altruism and selfishness at work. Formation of judgment is another huge topic of its own—to be discussed at another time.

The major judgment call we face is whether to remain closed-up or to open up the economy (or schools) or some hybrid mix of the two. The decision, unavoidably, becomes political. Human judgment is always ambiguous. Accepting and living with the ambiguity is a challenge. If schools open up, teachers and families will be infected; if schools remain closed, children will suffer. Neither part of the equation can be ignored or labeled “unscientific” or “insensitive.” 

We need to know the real science involved in our judgments—and then acknowledge that decisions will be fallible and ambiguous. This is the fundamental challenge of our current situation.

(c) Phil Hefner. 9/22/2020

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