The degree to which we adhere to the maxims: ‘follow the science’ or its close cousin ‘follow the scientists’ in dealing with COVID has become a divisive policy issue during the pandemic. To draw any useful conclusion on this issue, we must dig into the meaning of those terms and the implications of adhering to those meanings.
Follow the Scientists
The logic of ‘follow the scientists’ is that we should follow the scientist’s advice because of the fact that he or she is a scientist. This separates the scientist from the science and implies that we should listen to the scientist whether or not he/she is rigorously basing his/her advice on science. Instead, training and/or occupation is the key determinant with the implicit assumption being that because the person is a scientist, he/she must be dispensing advice based on science.
We make this heroic assumption repeatedly. Take for instance the winner of the 2008 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in the Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, Paul Krugman. He was awarded his prize for “his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.” Because he is a scientist of trade economics, who has been acknowledged at the highest level for his scientific analysis of trade, we can have some confidence that his opinion on trade economics will be tightly tied to if not based directly on his science. However, despite the narrowness of his field of scientific expertise, he opines on all of “macroeconomics, trade, health care, social policy and politics” from his regular column on the pages of the New York Times. At least we can be thankful that “trade” is one of the five listed topics of his columns. But with respect to the last three, especially politics, the notion that this scientist has meaningful scientifically derived knowledge on those subjects is a stretch. Nonetheless, since he is a prize-winning scientist, it is widely presumed that his advice is scientifically reliable and warrants following.
But we get ourselves into considerable trouble when we follow scientists outside the confines of their direct scientific exploration. Myron Scholes and Robert Merton won the same prize eleven years before Krugman and made an attempt to extend their prize-winning scientific research on “a new method to determine the value of derivatives” into the enterprise of guiding, as founding partners, the trading strategy of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). It became clear that running a hedge fund trading real capital was not the same as doing capital markets research as their firm famously lost $4.6 billion on an investment base of $1 billion, necessitating a Federal Reserve bailout package of $3.6 billion to keep it from collapsing and causing dangerous collateral damage to the capital markets.
It turns out that scientists understand that uncritically following the opinions of scientists, as with LTCM, is a really bad idea. In the field of medical science, numerous organizations including the Center for Evidence Based Medicine and the Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination have established hierarchies which they use to classify how confident a user should be in the evidence backing a particular inference. In all of these hierarchies, expert opinion sits on the bottom rung as the least credible.
If the medical scientists think it is a crummy idea to follow the medical scientists in medical affairs, it follows that in handling the COVID pandemic, we shouldn’t establish as a rule that we must follow the scientists any more than the investors in LTCM should have followed Scholes and Merton in determining where and how to trade.
But what about following the science?
Following the Science
Following the science separates the science from the scientist. Rather than following a person, the admonition is to follow the prescriptions of a body of scientifically derived knowledge. Here the logic is more nuanced. Instead of the conclusion that following is a stupid idea, here the answer is: it depends. To understand the way in which it depends, we must go back to Aristotle.
In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle first put forward the principles of science. We tend to think of the scientific discipline as being created during the Scientific Revolution two thousand years later by some combination of Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton (depending on to whom you want to give credit). But really, they formalized Aristotle’s method, which involved doing rigorous experimentation and analysis in order, as Aristotle so clearly put it, to determine the cause of a given effect.
That is, you can use scientifically rigorous analytical techniques to explain why something that is currently happening is currently happening. For example, it is observable that lots of people diagnosed with lung cancer have a history of smoking cigarettes. And you can make predictions about the likelihood of that happening in the future: lots of people who smoke will continue to developlung cancer in the future.
This is what Aristotle described as the part of the world where things cannot be other than they are. This is where scientific research methods are powerful. By rigorously analyzing what has happened, we can draw conclusions about the future — because it can’t be different than the past. If I drop a baseball from my hand, it will fall to the ground in the same way at the same speed yesterday, today and tomorrow. If I measure 100 ball drops, I can be confident that another 100 that I do next week will have the same characteristics.
What you cannot say scientifically in advance is that a given new thing will happen in the future if we take a given set of actions that we haven’t before taken. All science can do is extrapolate the past into the future — and its inventor was crystal clear about that. In fact, Aristotle warned specifically against using his method in what he called the part of the world where things can be other than they are. He was irrefutably clear that you simply can’t use the scientific method to prove something new about the future that hasn’t happened yet.
In the COVID pandemic, scientists crunched all the data available in the most scientific manner possible to come up with the curves of the number of likely deaths if no mitigation was carried out. If Aristotle were alive today, he would quibble with just how scientific that analysis was because there was actually no data on how this particular novel virus would interact with humans in 2020. But for sake of argument, let’s accept that they were being as scientific as they could be in order to come up with their predictions of the future under a do-nothing scenario. Had there been any other scientific reasoning or important data, they would have included it and the curves they presented would have been different.
Then those scientists imagined how to make the future superior to that scientifically generated projection of the past and they came up with plans to ‘flatten the curve’ in the various countries. And because they are scientists, they describe what they are doing as scientific. It just plain isn’t — though what they did is not bad. It is exactly what Aristotle would have recommended. The inventor of science advised us that when you want to create a future that is different and better than the past, don’t use the scientific method. Instead imagine possibilities and choose the one for which the most compelling argument can be made.
That is what they did. They used all of their non-scientific, anecdotal, partially analogous experience from HIV/AIDS, MERS and SARS to come up with a set of actions that they believed had the best chance of flattening the curve. Did they have any scientifically rigorous evidence that these would work? By definition no, because if they would have had scientifically rigorous evidence, it would have been incorporated in the original curves and we would have been talking about the scientifically rigorous things we had to do in order to adhere to the curve, not the new things we had to try in order to flatten the curve.
We are not engaging in science when we try new things for which there is no scientific evidence to validate. However, we are engaging in the activity that has been and will continue to be the source of all new practices in the world — imagining them and trying them.
That having been said, it is an abuse of the concepts of ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ to call what we have done to fight COVID to be scientific. Nowhere in the world did the response to COVID ‘follow the science.’ Our practices looking backward have been scientific. After we have tried various fundamentally unscientific things, we have looked back at the results to derive scientific conclusions about their relative success — which is all that the scientific method can ever do.
With respect to following the scientists, it is dangerous and counterproductive to adhere to that as a rule. We need to be particularly careful of taking heed of scientists who use the argument that a course of action doesn’t follow the science as their tool for attacking things they don’t like. Unfortunately, too many scientists want only scientists to be allowed to be unscientific.
With respect to following the science, sometimes we should and sometimes we should not. The rule should be that if we are confident that the future will be identical to the past, we should follow the science. If instead, we believe the future can be different from the past, for example that we can flatten the curve, we should definitively not follow the science. If we follow the science in that part of the world, we will convince ourselves that the future must be like the past and not take advantage of opportunities to make it better. We should, as Aristotle advised, imagine possibilities and choose the one for which the most compelling argument can be made.
But that does not mean abandoning science. As we try those new things, we should always collect data on their results in order to attempt to ascertain aspects for which we can assert that we believe the future will be like the past. That is how science advances — by figuring out the slivers of the world in which the future will be like the past and determining the rules by which those slivers work. However, science constrains the advancement of the world when it treads into the vast part of the world that can be changed for the better and insists on scientific proof before trying something new.