Whose Model? Which Science?
April 27, 2020

"Follow the science" has been the basso continuo of the coronavirus epidemic.

Following the science, many nations went into more or less severe shutdowns. These same nations intend to follow the science in deciding when to re-open, to allow businesses, schools, and churches to start operating again.

Skeptics who question the shutdowns are dubbed "anti-science." Or worse, murderers.

It should be clear by now, though, that "science" doesn't speak with a united voice on the issue. Even the modelers admit the original models greatly exaggerated the mortality rate.

Already in mid-March, Stanford's John Ioannidis argued that we lacked sufficient data to make the drastic decisions we were making. Ever since, he's been publishing reports to estimate the mortality rate and rate of infection (e.g., here).

Does Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, whose models have shaped Sweden's policies, count as a scientist?

Medical doctors have documented much higher rates of infection than expected and a much lower mortality rate (see here and here). They've begun to question whether the lockdowns are still a good idea. Some speak the forbidden words: COVID-19 has a mortality rate similar to a serious flu season.

Ioannidis's work has been questioned by other scientists, and public health authorities continue to warn of spikes in infections and deaths if the lockdowns are lifted too soon or too quickly.

My point is not to sort through these conflicting interpretations. Ioannidis's critics may well be correct; to his credit, Ioannidis has welcomed criticism. Public health warnings may be just what we need. I have suspicions, but I don't know enough to make an educated guess.

My point is about "science": By its very nature, "science" is contested terrain. There are reigning theories in many sciences ("normal science," in Kuhn's phrase) but even the reigning theories are, theoretically, always up for revision or replacement, based on new evidence or more imaginative theorizing.

"Science" is also a human, all too human, enterprise, marked by the same power dynamics and passions that mark every other human enterprise. A scientist who bucks a consensus may turn out to be right; his voice might be suppressed not because it's flawed but for political or personal reasons.

Science will never give us absolute certainty about this coronavirus. It's not that we have to wait for the peer-reviewed studies. It's that we'd have to wait for eternity. By design, science never offers absolute certainty.

Science doesn't save us from the limitations and risks of the human condition.

None of this amounts to a takedown of scientific investigation.We need to deflate the stature of science, but only because its stature has been inflated, as if the practice of science somehow elevated its practitioners and findings beyond the human.

My point is to encourage modesty among scientists, and skepticism among non-scientists, especially in response to words like "Follow the science" or "Science says." We need to ask, Whose model? Which science?

The time will come, in all likelihood, when "science" will demand permanent adjustments to daily life based on modeling of the global climate. When that day comes, will we still remember the spring of 2020? Will the intensity of conflicting interpretations of the coronavirus epidemic leave scientists with a trace more modesty and the rest of us with a trace more skepticism?

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