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In deciding Coronavirus policy, both politics and science have a role to play

During the Covid-19 crisis, you will probably have heard people say things such as ‘listen to the science’ or ‘this is about science, not politics’. There are two big problems with this.

Different scientists are saying different things

‘Listen to the science’ suggests that there is some ‘thing’ which ‘science’ is telling you. But that is not the case with Covid-19. It is a brand new disease and scientists are learning more about it all the time. What ‘science’ tells you one day might not be what it tells you subsequently.

Because Covid-19 is new and because we are still learning about it, not only is ‘the science’ changing from day to day but different scientists are telling you different things. As the Star Tribune reported at the weekend:

No one knows for sure how bad COVID-19 will get.

Data modeling by Minnesota experts predicted as many as 50,000 deaths in the state, while a University of Washington model estimated fewer than 2,000.

Modeling by the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota persuaded Gov. Tim Walz to announce the current stay-at-home order. The modeling is conservative, perhaps pessimistic, about the course of the outbreak, said Stefan Gildemeister, state health economist, but the Washington model may be optimistic and overlooking risk factors in the United States that could make the outbreak worse.

“Saying that the Washington approach is optimistic is not saying that we think we’re right,” he said. “Some of our assumptions might have turned out to be unusually conservative. In fact, we’ve been saying this from the beginning. We will continue to test our assumptions and change them.”

Which ‘science’ are we supposed to listen to?

Science gives us options and consequences – politics chooses

Even if it were the case that ‘science’ was speaking with once voice on Covid-19, it wouldn’t follow that politicians should blindly do as scientists tell them.

In the first instance, if that were so, we could save ourselves the expense of politicians and the rigmarole of elections and simply be ruled by experts – a technocracy, in other words, instead of a democracy.

But that wouldn’t do because, in the second instance, science does not tell us what we should do. Based on the knowledge it has accrued, it offers us options and tells us, with an often large degree of uncertainty, what the consequences of those options are.

Look, for example, at the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Model produced by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Department of Health, which was driving state policy until last week. Based on what ‘science’ knows about things like the basic reproduction number (R0 – how many people each infected person infects), it predicted that, if, on April 8th, Gov. Walz had imposed a ‘Long term SHO for most vulnerable’, peak ICU bed usage would come on June 8th with 3,700 beds and mortality would be 22,000. If, instead, he ‘Extend[ed the] SHO for all (by 4 weeks)’, peak ICU bed usage would come on July 13th with 3,700 beds and mortality would be 22,000.

Now, ‘science’ can give you these options, but which of them we choose is a political question, not a scientific one. Do we choose the earlier economic opening and ICU peak of Scenario 3 or the delayed opening and peak of Scenario 4? That depends on the weight we give to things like the health of the economy and the ability to ramp up ICU capacity. Those questions, ones of priorities, are debatable political ones.

You can’t turn normative questions into positive ones

In economics, it is often said that there are positive and normative questions. Positive questions are ‘What is’, so ‘What will be the impact on employment of hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour?’ Normative questions are ‘What should be’, such as ‘Should we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour?’ Here, by the way, we often refuse to listen to ‘the science’.

You can’t turn a normative question into a positive one. The question ‘What will be the consequences of choosing Scenario 3?’ is a positive one for ‘science’ to answer. But the question ‘Should we choose Scenario 3 or Scenario 4?’ is a normative one for elected politicians to mull. The attempt to pass off normative questions as positive ones is rather sinister. It seems to me like an attempt to take a major policy decision and pretend that it isn’t up for democratic debate, that ‘the science’ has spoken and so we should all shut up and do as we’re told or risk being accused of ‘denying science’. It is an attempt based on error and with very dodgy ramifications. It ought to be resisted.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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