Of course, when it comes to COVID-19, that is not really what they mean. When people say, “follow the science” what they mean is “trust the scientists.” To be even more accurate, they mean “trust these particular scientists.”
No, this is not a diatribe against science. Science is great, but when it comes to the novel coronavirus there simply isn’t much science to follow. We need to get better at being honest about that, because too many people are no longer buying what the scientists are selling.
Look, as a basic definition science is when we can use accurate, testable data from the past to reliably predict the future. We “follow the science” because it can be proven true over and over and over again. There is consensus, there is consistency, there are repeatable results that negate any counter argument.
That is simply not the case with COVID-19. We are trying to sell scientific opinion as scientific fact that is too easily disproven or argued. The result is that the best available guidance is falling on deaf ears. The result is that we are not persuading the people who need to be persuaded the most. None of this is the fault of “science.” One hundred percent of this is the fault of politicians and talking heads who are frequently wrong but never in doubt.
Let’s look at the masking debate as an example. Have scientists known for sure, this entire time, that masks would reduce the spread of COVID-19? No, they have not. They have been pretty sure. They have been pretty sure that surgical masks would be better than cloth masks, and that cloth masks would be better than nothing. Most scientists readily admitted that, using phrases like “based on the best available evidence,” or “studies suggest.”
That was not good enough for politicians, so they began to mandate mask wearing. At one point in the pandemic, that might have been a reasonable risk/reward proposition. Now, we have vaccines that are widely available, safe, and free – but a large swath of people are scared to death to take them because they believe they have been lied to this whole time by politicians posing as scientists.
There was a phrase being thrown around recently that this was a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” That’s not true – literally or figuratively. This is a pandemic of politics. This isn’t a pandemic of misinformation, but a pandemic of misapplied information. Call it the “fool me once …” pandemic.
To be clear, this newspaper is neither anti-mask nor anti-vaccine. Quite the opposite. It appears to us that the COVID-19 vaccines are scientific marvels and their distribution a logistical phenomenon. We also understand the fear and reluctance certain people have toward getting them. We find masks to be mildly irritating, but not debilitating. The science is still not clear on how effective masks are, but there is consensus that they are more help than harm. We are very concerned about the effects of long-term mask-wearing for children who are still developing their social skills, still learning how to read facial expressions. It seems to us that mitigating the risks of allowing children to go without masks by making sure the adults around them are safe as practicably possible makes sense.
This pandemic has been horrible. It has devastated families and businesses. It has killed way too many and broken many more than that. It is unclear how we come out on the other side. Hemingway wrote that “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger in the broken places.” We hope so. There is still time for that optimistic outcome, but it starts by being honest with one another. It starts by admitting when the science is settled and when it isn’t.
We hope that everyone can all stay safe and healthy and become stronger in the places where this pandemic has broken us.