Blog regular Humble Talent commented on my post slagging Jack Marshall’s science skills, and he brings up some interesting points.
Don’t get me wrong, science is important, and I’ll never say otherwise.
But science is also slow. And we haven’t studied everything. Science is by it’s nature incomplete. And it seems like one side of this discussion routinely likes to ignore reality until they have a study or an expert to back them up, and it’s leading to a couple of problems: First off, they’re acting absurd, and second, they’re hemorrhaging credibility at a time when credibility is needed.
As a libertarian, I’ve long had issues with the slow pace of medical science in the public sphere, especially when it comes to FDA approval. I’m not sure where to draw the line, but it seems like the FDA has often dragged its feet when approving new medicines and medical devices, and I think that’s been hurting us a bit throughout the pandemic, especially after the CDC screwed up the initial test kits, which cost us so much time.
As an example; It was very obvious, very quickly, that the virus was airborne, and masks would help. I remember pointing out in April or May that countries that had mask mandates had a much lower infection curve, on average, than countries that didn’t. At that time, American Democrats were saying that people buying and wearing masks were tin foil hat conspiracy theorists depriving hospital staffs of PPE.
“No need for masks” remained the official advice until it became clear that people could transmit COVID-19 before they began showing symptoms, at which point everybody needed to mask up, just in case. However, I seem to recall epidemiologists talking about asymptomatic people being infectious for quite some time before the official advice changed.
As another example; You’ve talked about the study that was used to justify the first round of lockdowns, the study where a couple variables meant the difference between 2.5 million Americans dead in year 1 or 250,000.
The early modeling was all over the place, depending on the assumptions made by the model builders. But that’s not necessarily a wrong result, because it correctly captured our uncertainty about the future and showed us the range of possibilities.
Time and time again throughout this process, “science” has been wrong. And that’s OK, science doesn’t need to be right every time, science helps us understand the world around us, but it’s uniquely bad as a tool to drive policy. Lazy legislators and political hacks are using “science” as an infallible cudgel, while only really listening to the science that reinforced their prior positions.
I think when you’ve got so many lazy legislators and political hacks, it’s not the science that’s the problem. By trying to piggyback on science’s credibility, the legislators and hacks are unfairly enhancing their own reputation while simultaneously damaging science’s.
Consider the whole hydroxychloroquine episode. Hydroxychloroquine is a well-known drug that has been around for decades (used to treat diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis), and scientists have long suspected it would be useful against a number of viral diseases. As far as I know, however, it’s never actually had a successful randomized clinical trial against a viral disease in humans.
Nevertheless, when COVID-19 hit, a number of scientists and doctors thought the theory was sound enough that it was worth giving hydroxychloroquine another try at fighting a virus. Some doctors reported positive results, and scientists started gathering observational data and setting up trials. Word got out, and more doctors started using it. This was all pretty normal for the medical community when responding to a new disease.
Then Donald Trump started promoting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment in press conferences, and all hell broke loose. Trump’s critics rightly pointed out that he shouldn’t do that with a drug that was still being tested, but some went on to condemn hydroxychloroquine as a crackpot remedy. Trump supporters accused the critics of wanting to hide a cure because they wanted to harm Trump. The demand for hydroxychloroquine shot up, causing shortages, and Trump’s critics attacked him for endangering patients who needed the drug for other diseases. Some of the studies on both sides turned out to be unreliable. In a few days, what had been a scientific question had become an unproductive political fight.
The partisan fervor over hydroxychloroquine appears to have died down, and other COVID-19 treatments have fortunately avoided this kind of entanglement. Doctors soon developed treatment innovations, such as proning patients to improve breathing and being less aggressive about intubating Covid patients, without becoming entangled in political symbolism. Explorations of using favipiravir, anticoagulants, interferons, and vitamin supplements as possible treatment continues quietly, with little political involvement.
Unfortunately, masking remains politically entangled. Instead of being a moderate inconvenience that we put up with to fight a pandemic disease, it has become a partisan symbol. Trump didn’t help by discouraging his supporters from wearing masks, and I fear Biden didn’t help by continuing to make masking a political issue. Now we’ve got angry people who refuse to wear masks and angry people who berate the people who refuse to wear masks. There are better ways to mitigate a viral pandemic.
Anthony Fauci is being lauded as some kind of great mind when it comes to the pandemic, but he has taken basically every position on every issue, admitted that he’s lied because he “thought the public wasn’t ready for the truth” (this was in reference to the point the population would have herd immunity), and spoken gravely about the importance of masks while being pictured not wearing a mask in close proximity to other people. If he’s the guy, if he’s the expert, if he’s the science soothsayer, what the hell are we supposed to do with that?
Another fine example of politics ruining science.
I don’t pay that much attention to what Fauci says, but what I have heard seems unremarkable. It’s more or less what I’ve been hearing from epidemiologists and virologists all along. As far as I can tell, he’s a well-respected scientist who’s done a lot of great work — there are several diseases which no longer kill people because of Fauci’s work — and he’s been a successful administrator of a major NIH center for many years. These days he seems to be more of a spokesperson, administrator, and liaison than a working scientist.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But because he was willing to contradict President Trump about certain Covid-related issues, many left-wingers and Trump opponents now treat him as a hero. Meanwhile, many on the right blame him for exaggerating the Covid threat and causing economic pain. So now some people want him elevated to sainthood, and others want him dead, and everything he says or does is political. This ruins his effectiveness as a communicator and makes everything said by him, for him, or against him a partisan political mess.
That’s not even starting to take into account all the hypocrites who gravely speak of the importance of adhering to the rules, minutes before breaking them about a dozen times over by getting on planes to join their family who took different planes to get to their parents place a state over.
Those people are definitely not helping, and you’d think they’d realize they have a responsibility to set a good example. However, just because they don’t follow the rules doesn’t mean the rules are bad. When my overweight doctor told me I should lose weight, he wasn’t wrong.
I give Jack a great amount of leeway when he’s criticizing people for not being precise, because those imprecise theories are being used to mold public policy.
I would take Jack’s opinions on the science more seriously if he showed more signs of understanding the science. In his post on masking, he was basing declaring the science to be vague and imprecise based only on a summary in a newspaper. And he presented no alternative ideas.
If we’re going to use “SCIENCE!”(TM) as the basis for all public policy, then “SCIENCE!”(TM) better be pretty fucking infallible.
Look, I know it’s annoying when people use “Follow the science!” as a weapon in arguments, especially when it’s clear they don’t really know what the science says either, but what’s the alternative? You say you want infallible science, but what if there isn’t any infallible science?
In the 1997 movie Volcano, a couple of scientists are trying to figure out if a volcano is boiling up under Los Angeles. In most of these kinds of movies, the scientist would be frantically warning everyone of the impending doom that she knows is coming, but the fools wouldn’t listen. Volcano handles this differently, and this exchange, between Dr. Amy Barnes, and Mike Roark, head of emergency management, is one of the reasons I am inordinately fond of this movie:
Roark: I cannot go to the mat with them unless you know something.
Dr. Barnes: I do know something…just not with any certainty.
Roark: Is that the company line?
Dr. Barnes: I’m a scientist. “Certainty” is a big word.
Scientists are not infallible, and it can take a long time and a lot of evidence before they feel comfortable saying something is certainly true. That’s because experimental results come with uncertainty, usually expressed as a probability that the experiment has reached the wrong result. And that’s only the known uncertainties, the unknown unknowns are by definition not accounted for. There can be surprises.
We may not feel comfortable with this level of fallibility, but what else is there that’s less fallible?