‘Follow the science’ undermines trust in science

Posted 4/8/21

Throughout the pandemic, “follow the science” was chanted as a means to encourage people to follow government health orders. 

Science can be an excellent tool of discovery. …

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‘Follow the science’ undermines trust in science


Throughout the pandemic, “follow the science” was chanted as a means to encourage people to follow government health orders. 

Science can be an excellent tool of discovery. Through its processes we can garner knowledge about the magnitude of a problem, the benefits of a course of action and its costs. That knowledge can inform policy makers and individuals on the best course of action to take in a situation.

The mantra of “follow the science,” however, is doing a lot to undermine public trust of experts and the appreciation of science in general. 

There isn’t some monolithic organization called “the science,” which knows everything there is to know about the world at any given moment. In the early part of the pandemic, even the most knowledgeable virologists didn’t know how COVID-19 spread or the best way to protect ourselves — and there still is a lot of disagreement.

Some people who claim to follow the science argue in support of stringent lockdown policies some states implemented, such as California. There’s a wide body of science showing they were not actually effective. 

The American Institute of Economic Research (AIER) keeps a list of peer reviewed studies published in a variety of respectable journals that conclude lockdowns did not achieve their aims for a variety of reasons, including bad data, no correlations, no causal demonstration, and anomalous exceptions. The list now contains 32 studies. 

Adam McCann, a financial writer with WalletHub, did an interesting data crunch — not to be confused with a peer reviewed study — that graphed states according to the severity of their COVID restrictions versus death rates from COVID and unemployment. The results showed no correlation between the severity of the law and death rates, but it did find a positive correlation between restrictions and unemployment, which has a variety of public health consequences. 

Mind you, some of those lockdown policies were made in good faith based on the available information at the time. The studies in the AIER list are examining outcomes with the power of 20-20 hindsight, and so it’s not a condemnation of any policy maker or particular policy. The “follow the science” chant, however, leaves no room for doubt, much less an objective review of decisions. 

It’s also important to understand that, just because a policy is based on sound science, doesn’t make it an effective policy. For example, the bulk of studies into the effectiveness of masks have found they reduce transmission. When Texas lifted its mask mandate a few months ago, many in the “follow the science” crowd insisted Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott was being reckless and the state was about to see a surge in cases. 

In fact, according to the New York Times, on April 5, the seven-day moving average for new cases was down to 3,007, which is down 41% from March 2 when the mandate was lifted. 

Many people, seeing those numbers, will conclude wrongly that masks don’t work and science is corrupted. There could be a number of reasons why lifting the mandate did not impact the downward trend in new cases. It could be that people who really didn’t want to wear a mask or thought them unnecessary simply ignored the mandate. Having law enforcement go after millions of scofflaws would likely be a huge drain on limited resources, so the policy may not have been strictly enforced. Therefore, it could be that when the mandate was lifted, the percentage of Texans wearing masks didn’t change a whole lot. A good comparative study might find the downward trend slowed relative to other states that maintained their mask mandate. 

Lockdown policies were likely impacted by the same practical issues. People in separate rooms who never come into contact with one another have a 0% chance of transmitting COVID. However, humans are social creatures. When living under a lockdown policy, they tend to congregate in their homes. This is likely the reason why contact tracing data in New York in January showed that 74% of cases could be traced to private gatherings. Less than 2% of cases were contracted at bars and restaurants. 

Science can be a powerful tool to objectively measure a policy, free from ideological influences. Unfortunately, when science is promoted as an ideological dogma meant to silence the legitimacy of dissent against one policy prescription or another, we lose the value science can bring us in understanding our world. 

When science is politicized, it’s bound to lose public trust. Anyone who truly understands the merits of the scientific process should be concerned about the way its most vocal champions are using it to further agendas rather than objectively measure outcomes. Our ability to respond effectively if another pandemic sweeps the planet — or any other crisis we may face in the future — will be greatly enhanced if we stop using science as a buzzword to shut down political debate.