Opinion: The ‘Follow the science’ mentality was wrong in COVID-19 policy-making | Notice

To discuss politics or current events is to engage with buzzwords, each of which signals a set of socially embedded meanings and the emotions that flow from them. Take “critical race theory,” for example; to some, CRT means an analytical lens through which to accurately read history, especially US history. For others, CRT means the indoctrination of young people in K-12 schools, or the ideology of Marxists who hate America.

There are many other examples: “woke”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Make America Great Again” – each being used as a certain linguistic sign unique to its worldview. Some are more innocuous than others.

One of the most harmful – even dangerous – of these is “Follow the science”. Coined at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by science journalist Faye Flam, the phrase was meant to remind people to heed conclusions provided by apolitical scientific evidence. Predictably, however, the term was appropriated and then weaponized by opposing forces in American political discourse, both of whom claimed to have data and reason on their side.

One side of this debate was those who trusted American institutions — from the media to universities — and were therefore afraid of COVID-19. These people seemed to believe that, at least in matters of public health, the government and its employees would not lie to ordinary Americans. (At least when it comes to novel coronaviruses, apparently.)

The other were those who were skeptical of the voracity and honesty of the “mainstream media” and who thought shutting down the economy or handing out stimulus checks were bad ideas.

The former group – for convenience, let’s call them Believers – liked to shout at the latter a number of emotionally charged arguments: that there were numerous studies indicating the benefits of mask-wearing, the devastating number of coronavirus deaths or that there was no evidence to suggest the pandemic originated in a gain-of-function research lab in Wuhan. This latter group – let’s call them skeptics – liked to shout at the former that the studies cited by believers were based on junk science; that it was likely that deaths from COVID-19 were overreported; or that common sense would suggest that it was at least likely that the novel coronavirus was the result of a lab leak.

Now that the dust has settled and the pandemic for all intents and purposes is over, the verdict on who was right has fallen: while their own logic (or lack thereof) is often flawed, the doubters were more legitimate than not.

Here are four of the most prominent examples: First, when mRNA vaccines were first given to the public, shots were claimed to be up to five times more effective at protecting people than natural immunity. This claim has now been proven to be totally false. According to an Israeli study, vaccinated people were 27 times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 and show symptoms than those who had previously contracted the virus.

Second, in 2021, it was claimed that there was no chance that COVID-19 originated from a biomedical laboratory in Wuhan, China. Now, the official government prognosis, at least in the opinion of the Department of Energy, is that Covid “most likely” originated in a Chinese gain-of-function research lab, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Third, the issue of masks. Before the pandemic, there was little to no evidence that wearing a mask prevented the transmission of respiratory diseases. But when the pandemic started, the data magically changed: masks meant the difference between life and death. According to the Believers, you were, at most, responsible for the sickness and even the death of others; at the very least, you were completely disrespectful of other people’s health.

Now, however, a definitive Cochrane study, which is considered one of the gold standard medical journals, has shown that wearing a mask “probably makes little or no difference” in reducing the spread of disease. In other words, the scientific advice that once prevailed has regained its rightful place as consensus scientific advice.

Fourth, the problem of overestimating the dangers of covid. According to Robin Dretler, a physician at Emory University, up to 90% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 may actually be hospitalized for another reason. These people hospitalized “for” covid are probably in hospital for something else, not covid or respiratory disease.

Why did the Believers get so wrong? Was it simply an inability to read the available data? Or something else?

As far as I can tell, it’s not that they’re necessarily incompetent – ​​although some are, of course. Rather, the explanation lies in a combination of two possible explanations: that entrenched bureaucrats are likely to manipulate the data and their subsequent public messages in order to cover up their own mistakes; or that there is general confusion about what public health policy is or should be.

In person, the entrenched bureaucrat is no more personified than Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, and poster boy for Covid Believer policy-making. In the opinions of epidemiologist Martin Kulldorf and physician Jay Bhattacharya, Fauci has been squarely wrong on nearly every covid policy — from natural immunity to protecting (or not) the elderly to shutting down buildings. schools, masks and contract tracing to collateral damage to public health (such as the effects of lockdown on mental health).

Whether Fauci is corrupt or simply incompetent is unclear, but his ties to the Wuhan lab (he allocated a significant amount of NIH grants to Wuhan) from which COVID-19 likely leaked make the latter possibility a prospect. questionable.

But what is clear is how Fauci has appropriated buzzwords such as “Follow the science” for his own purposes. In June 2021, Fauci pompously claimed – in the third person no less – that anyone who disagreed with him was synonymous with disagreeing with “Science”. The “science” in this case is apparently some sort of empirical law determined by the god-king-doctor Fauci.

Another possibility is that Fauci and other public officials have missed the point of their work: not to completely eradicate covid, as California Governor Gavin Newsom has suggested – an impossibility – but rather to mitigate the risks for those who are the most vulnerable, namely the elderly and those with other afflictions.

There is inherent risk in everything we do. Unintentional injuries are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC. It should not – it cannot – be the government’s responsibility to protect us from any risky activity in which we freely participate. Yes, they have reasons to limit dangerous activities (speed limit signs are a good example), but the idea that they can control the micro-decisions made by an individual is to err on the side of authoritarianism. . And when it comes to covid politics, trying to force someone to wear something like an utterly useless piece of cloth over their face is just a stupid case of government helicopter parenting.

This fact, however, is something that a now jaded phrase like “Follow the science” cannot accurately convey – especially when appropriated by political actors with sketchy motivations. Because science itself is just a logical conclusion based on observation and empirical evidence. It is necessarily devoid of any real qualitative analysis – an analysis that only a set of morally rooted beliefs can achieve.

We should recognize calls to “follow the science,” then, skeptically, as we would any other buzzword circulating in our cultural zeitgeist. There is no real capital “Science” that exists; it is always tainted with an element of the human. It is the analysis of the quantitative – the empirical – of the qualitative – the human – which is the delicate part.

Benjamin Haines is a 24-year-old history graduate student from Shreveport.

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