Almost everybody wants to be seen as embracing science. That’s true whether they are arguing to take masks off or leave them on, or whether they’re pushing continued caution or a return to normal. The phrase “follow the science” has been used by the left to defend its Covid policies and lobbed back by the right with a dose of sarcasm.
But America’s pandemic polarization isn’t about recognizing the importance of science. It’s about what we do with that science, and when we decide to trade individual freedoms for collective safety.
Scientists can inform policy, of course, by collecting data and drawing inferences about risk. But it’s policy makers who have the hard job of deciding how to balance those risks against other health or quality-of-life factors. For example, science can tell us that about 1,000 children have died from Covid-19 in the U.S. making it around the 6th or 7th leading cause of childhood death, below accidents, cancer and homicide. But science alone can’t tell us what to do about it. Do we keep schools open or close them? Require students to wear N95 masks all day? Shaping policy requires balancing disease risk with less tangible factors like socializing and learning.
Politicians who claim they’re “following the science” on Covid-19 are starting to look disingenuous. Some are using it to stifle debate. “I think it would be wonderful if ‘follow the science’ meant we should bring science into the debate, but what it ended up meaning was ‘Our policy is the right policy and there is no alternative,’” said Rutgers Law School associate professor Jacob Hale Russell, who has been studying the relationship between expertise and populism.
“I think the use of [the phrase] that’s problematic is when politicians are asked an important and tough question by a journalist and their answer is ‘We’re just going to follow the science,’” Russell says.
The slogan was the subject of a recent Washington Post article, and I was interviewed because I host a weekly podcast called “Follow the Science” which recognizes that the phrase has become politicized. Because of the title, I have worried that people might think I was taking a side — I don’t.
That’s because the battle is not about science. A decision to do everything we can to mitigate SARS-CoV-2 is not a scientific result or fact. “Science isn’t capable of addressing key questions from equality to freedom to compliance to quality of life,” risk communication consultant Peter Sandman said in an email. This might have been overlooked because science is so crucial for solving technical problems like creating a vaccine or identifying a new variant. But public health decisions don’t have just one right answer.
Nonetheless, over the last two years “follow the science” has become an all-purpose answer to populist questions, objections and skepticism. That’s likely making America’s pandemic polarization worse. “Populism isn’t a rejection of expertise but a backlash against the use of expertise to promote a monolithic position and drive out public discussion,” Russell told me.
We talked about universal masking policies, which were implemented in the spring of 2020, based mainly on an educated guess that it might help. Those policies should be subject to open debate and revision in light of new information and a changing situation as this intervention goes from a short-term “flatten the curve” measure to a years-long way of life. Similarly, the pros and cons of booster mandates should be open to debate without anyone being shouted down as an anti-vaxxer.
Touting one’s trust science has also become a political act, although science itself works through organized skepticism. A couple of years ago I wrote a six-part series about the nature of science and truth, interviewing scientists, philosophers and historians, and examined the way scientific methods were developed to stem the tide of bias. In healthy fields of inquiry, scientists wait till results are independently replicated before they’re trusted. That way biases can get ironed out in the long run — at least to the extent that science can bring us what historians call reliable knowledge.
The one positive aspect of equating policy to following the science is that it gives policy makers the license to “flip flop,” which shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. If studies show ventilation cuts Covid transmission but deep cleaning offers no measurable help, then policy should incorporate that. When science is informing policy, changes in the evidence warrant changes in the rules.
In science, it’s the researchers who can’t let go of a hypothesis who end up espousing bad science. That’s part of the reason I think the phrase is a pretty good title for a podcast — because science is dynamic and there’s a lot to keep following.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Follow the Science.” She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications.
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