Wednesday, June 3, 2020
What “the science” is saying this week (Updated)
Andrew Sullivan calls our attention to epidemiologist Tara C. Smith, who moves with that curious herd of “experts” suddenly not terribly concerned about social distancing when the protesters filling the streets are left-wing rather than right-wing. Writes Sullivan: “The message to normies: going outside is killing grandma. The message to woke kids: never mind!”
So which is it? Were people like Smith lying before about the danger of spreading the virus, in order to promote a political agenda? Or being honest about it but now willing to endanger countless lives, in order to promote a political agenda?
Adding smug cluelessness to her dishonesty and/or recklessness, Smith also sniffs that the difference is that those who rallied to end the lockdown were merely “protesting for their ability to get a haircut.”
Yes, of course, haircuts. It had nothing to do with wanting to get back to work in order to support their families, salvage businesses it took a lifetime to build, avoid depleting their life savings, get their kids back in the classroom, etc. It was all about haircuts.
As I have argued, though a reasonable initial response to an imminent emergency, the lockdown was in the nature of the case harder to justify with each passing week, and has by now long passed the point of moral justifiability. Indeed, if people like Smith aren’t urging this week’s protesters to get back indoors lest they endanger lives, they can hardly blame anyone but themselves if non-experts start to wonder whether the whole thing has been exaggerated.
The hypocrisy extends beyond Smith and underlines the danger of falling into fallacious thinking when appealing to authority, including the authority of “the science” we’re constantly told is being followed. “The science” doesn’t tell us anything. People who happen to be scientists tell us things. And these are people who also happen to have egos, political views, moral opinions, career interests, peer influences, personal idiosyncrasies, and so on, all of which inevitably color what they think and say. That doesn’t mean that what they say should be dismissed. It means that what they say should not be taken as a revelation from some oracle, but rather as the fallible advice of paid professionals whose word should be taken with the same grain of salt as that of any other paid professional (your auto mechanic, your financial advisor, your doctor, your electrician, etc.). Two grains, actually, since these professionals have tenure and captive classroom audiences, and thus never have to pay a price for giving bad advice.
As last month’s crisis goes on the backburner (if only because it has been pushed aside by another crisis), it may be possible to get some perspective on it. I would suggest that now is the time to get your Paul Feyerabend on and dust off those copies of Science in a Free Society and The Tyranny of Science (which, as I noted in a review, would have been better titled The Tyranny of Scientism). Yes, he sometimes says things that are intentionally provocative and indeed over the top. But Feyerabend provides a much needed corrective at a time when we’re shrilly told to shut up, sit back, and suck it up while the “experts” drive 40 million people out of work. More on that soon.
UPDATE 6/4: Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic reports that:
This week, hundreds of people in the public-health community signed an open letter, first drafted by infectious-disease experts at the University of Washington, that explicitly counsels an ideological double standard on protests…
[T]he signatories declared [that] “Infectious disease and public health narratives adjacent to demonstrations against racism must be consciously anti-racist, and infectious disease experts must be clear and consistent in prioritizing an anti-racist message…”
“[A]s public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission”…
Notice the weaselly construction. The signatories “do not condemn these gatherings as risky” not because the potential risk for disease transmission is lower than at the Michigan protests, but because they are unwilling to criticize an anti-racist gathering, no matter how risky it might be…
NPR writer Bill Chappell quotes an elected official, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, as saying, “I’m so concerned about [the risk] that I’m urging everybody to consider their exposure…”
In other words, the politician is emphasizing the epidemiological risk, while disease experts stress the potential political gains.
End quote. If you respond to all this with “But it’s for a good cause!” you are completely missing the point. The point has nothing to do with whether the cause is good. The point is that it is politics, and not merely “the science,” that partially determines the advice that “the experts” give. And that was as true when anti-lockdown protesters were told to stay home as it is now that other protesters are not being told to stay home.
Whatever you think about it, the judgment that protesting police brutality is a good enough reason to relax the lockdown, but protesting the loss of 40 million jobs is not a good enough reason to relax it, is not a scientific judgment. It is a moral and political judgment, and scientists have no greater expertise on such things than anyone else.
Friedersdorf correctly judges that “to frame today’s protests not only as a defensible choice but as a choice validated by experts – as if their expertise somehow encompassed all the trade-offs implicit in the judgment – is to pass politics off as public health.” He worries that the fallout will be that “more Americans will decline to heed any public-health advice or journalism, seeing it as ideological and hypocritical.” He sees what “the experts” do not, viz. the obvious.