When ‘Listen to the Science’ Is Just a Shield for Bad Policy Ideas
Scientists are free to share their political opinions, but the fact they wear a lab coat doesn't give them any extra legitimacy.
Behold science, the sword and the shield of progressivism.
Over the course of the pandemic (and before that, in debates over climate change, stem cells, etc.), liberals have insisted that we must listen to science and heed the scientists. It was a cornerstone of President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign and a constant refrain of Donald Trump critics.
Taken literally, I endorse the phrase “listen to science” wholeheartedly. Scientists have important things to say to policymakers and citizens alike—and let’s not forget that in a democracy, voters are policymakers too. A well-informed electorate is a useful check on ill-informed politicians.
The problem, however, is that the people who say “listen to science” tend not to mean it literally but figuratively, and worse, intermittently.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in May, massive protests against racism and police brutality erupted across the nation. The point of the protests (at least most of them) was noble and understandable. But the same champions of science suddenly changed their tune about mass gatherings because this was a good cause.
In a pluralistic society, the definition of a good cause is going to vary. Telling people that they can’t see their dying parents, attend a funeral, or make a living because science says it’s too risky but that protesting systemic racism and police brutality is OK is a great way to convince millions of people that “listen to science” is a weaponized political term, not a universal apolitical standard.
Indeed, liberals handed Trump precisely the kind of foil he wanted. At rallies, the president would tell the packed crowds that “they” don’t want you to go to church, work, school, or sporting events, but “they” think social-justice protests are fine. He even started calling his rallies “protests” to highlight the double standard.
Some epidemiologists made things worse by stepping out of their lanes.
“We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, declared on Twitter. “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.”
I’m open to the idea that if the protests this summer could have ended racism, the benefits would outweigh the risks. But where is the evidence that happened? Is racism over now? Heck, where was the evidence that such an outcome was in the realm of the possible in the first place?
I trust epidemiologists to explain how epidemiology works. But there is no transitive property to their expertise. The opinion that the protests would even come close to eradicating systemic racism and police brutality is just that—an opinion, and a flimsy one at that. Moreover, the opinion of medical scientists on such matters has no more authority than that of plumbers or electricians — and less than that of many social scientists or, dare I say it, politicians.
Which brings us to the point. Again, politicians should listen to scientists, but at the end of the day, they must consider factors from outside science. That’s not only fine but unavoidable. Using the phrase “listen to the science” as a shield for your preferred policies or as an attack on policies you dislike is not only bad faith, it’s a bad idea, because it will undermine the credibility of scientists and politicians alike.
Now that we’re entering the vaccination chapter of this horrible story, many of the same science worshippers are, in effect, telling the scientists to listen to politics.
In California, there’s an effort to factor “historical injustice” into the vaccination rollout as a form of reparations. Because indigenous Americans were treated horribly in the past, the argument goes, they should be moved higher on the list of vaccine recipients.
A similar argument has emerged over whether the elderly — those most likely to die from COVID-19 — should be moved down the list because “older populations are whiter,” as noted by Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Society is structured in a way that enables them to live longer,” Schmidt told the New York Times. “Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.”
Scientists are free to make such arguments, but these aren’t scientific arguments. They are political opinions, and they don’t become any more legitimate simply because you wear a lab coat at work. So by all means, listen to the scientists, but listen very carefully, because they might be saying things that aren’t very scientific.