Politics AND science

Which ‘science’ should policymakers believe?

During the COVID-19 crisis, claims such as “listen to the science” or “this is about science, not politics” have two big problems.

Different scientists are saying different things

“Listen to the science” suggests that there is some “thing” that “science” tells us. But that is not the case with COVID-19. The coronavirus 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 the next.

So, not only is “the science” changing from day to day, but different scientists are saying different things. As the Star Tribune once reported:

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 Governor Tim Walz to announce his 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 “science” spoke with one 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 and rigmarole of politicians and 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 its accrued knowledge, science offers us options, telling us the consequences of those options, often with a large degree of uncertainty.

Look, for example, at the SARSCoV-2 (COVID-19) Model produced by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Department of Health, which originally drove state policy. Based on what “science” knows about things like the basic reproduction number (R0—how many people each infected person infects), this Minnesota Model predicted that peak ICU bed usage would have come on June 8th with 3,700 beds and 22,000 deaths if Walz issued a “Long term SHO (stay-at-home order) for the most vulnerable” on April 9. If, instead, he “Extend[ed the] SHO for all (by 4 weeks),” peak ICU bed usage would come much later, on July 13th, with 3,700 beds and mortality of 22,000.

Now, “science” can provide 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. Such 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 framed as “What is,” so “What will be the impact on employment of hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour?” Normative questions are framed as “What should be,” such as “Should we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour?”

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. To me, it seems 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.