Beliefs Don’t Matter Right Now. Only Science Does.
In a pandemic, belief is not our guiding light — science is
With the recent surge in conversation about making the right decisions in a time of such unprecedented uncertainty, it appears headlines are feeding anti-science movements like they have been known to feed the anti-vax crusade. Recently, the White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told journalists that “Science will not stand in the way of reopening the schools.” This affirmation throws prejudice in the direction of the scientific community at a time when researchers are working tirelessly to develop medical strategies to eradicate SARS-CoV-2. I’m not out to understand what McEnany meant exactly. Only she would know. Instead, I’d like to elaborate on this disturbing denial of the crucial role of science in making rational decisions.
As an experienced researcher in nuclear medicine and independent scientist, I don’t believe anybody has the perfect solution when it comes to Covid-19 crisis management. SARS-CoV-2 took the world by surprise — pushing countries to react as quickly as possible with whatever capability they had at the moment. The issue of reopening schools is sensitive and complicated. Data about SARS-CoV-2 contagion and how the virus affects people differently based on gender, age, and geography are just emerging. And now, health agencies and governmental authorities have to make critical, educated decisions based on this emerging data. Indeed, findings may or may not line up in favor of sending kids back to school. Only in-depth analyses can effectively guide that choice.
A scientific approach, by nature, relies on data. Making a decision based on scientific facts requires consensus. In other words, scientific facts must demonstrate reproducibility across multiple testing platforms and must be peer-reviewed to reach an agreement. As you can imagine, the entire process is complex and takes a long time — which is actually for the best.
How Identity—Not Ignorance—Leads to Science Denial
Changing the minds of Covid-19 deniers may require a lot more than sound reasoning
Making decisions is a difficult job in “normal” times. And it is even harder during the pandemic because we must respond and act faster than the spread of the virus. The balance between action and consequence has to be carefully assessed. Policymakers are responsible for preserving lives. Indeed, whatever decision policymakers select, there will always be a group of unhappy people who disagree. That’s okay. Some would say this is healthy. Two — or more — sides debating ideas in order to make a decision usually leads to a better outcome. This is, after all, how democracy works. But here is the catch: Informed disagreement means you bring rational arguments to the table to defend your opinion.
Establishing a point of view based on a provocative video or headline or story from a friend is not enough to build a rational argument. Too often, when we leap to an opinion based on instinct or belief, we miss out on the full picture and meaningful details. Belief is an important word here. Belief offers hope. It is crucial to believe in order to get going in life. But decisions that govern behavior and impact life and death of the greater population can’t be made solely on individual beliefs. That’s where we need science.
Informed disagreement means you bring rational arguments to the table to defend your opinion.
Science validates or invalidates beliefs based on a consensus of data. Scientists ask questions related to what they observe or what they believe. They design appropriate experiments to collect relevant data and analyze them to address the questions.
When an arrived-upon conclusion is supported by many approaches and reproduced by many organizations, this is called reaching a consensus. The outcome may then act as scientific truth in this particular environment. However, it is not an “all-or-nothing” type of truth. Many unknown factors may play a role in it; therefore, the outcome may differ depending on specific situations.
For instance, the population’s genetic profiles are game-changers when it comes to medicines. The efficacy of therapies may vary if specific genes are present or not. In other words, some treatments will work in particular individuals and not in others. This can only be known over time. We face a similar situation when it comes to decision-making. The outcome (that is, the best decision) may vary depending on specific situations.
The evolving response to the Covid-19 crisis is based on parameters that are reported by hospitals and medical centers from all over the world. Age, gender, ethnicity, and other criteria like medical history are collected from patients. This data is plugged into mathematical models to predict outcomes. Many of those models were developed decades ago — even centuries ago, in the case of Daniel Bernoulli and his essay on smallpox published in 1766. Though past epidemics provided information for the scientific community to work with, the 2020 pandemic presents a lot of uncertainties. A task force composed of experts is usually mandated by the government. Included experts have experience and knowledge on the topics that the rest of us lack. Therefore, experts will elaborate on a rational conclusion in order to educate nonexperts. Of course, the experts may be cautiously right, or wrong, but, again, only retrospective studies will truly be able to tell.
Decisions have to be informed with scientific facts. Denying the role of science in making such choices would lead to a system with no foundation and allow for abuses of power. It would also reinforce the false notion that the democratic system means that “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge” (Isaac Asimov). Indeed, the final decision rests in the hands of governments. But the role of science is to generate evidence-proven policies that the decision-makers should take into consideration alongside socioeconomic factors.
Contrary to what Kayleigh McEnany said, science should indeed stand in the way of making educated decisions. In fact, it should provide the education that we all learn from.