Following the Science

Wed 22 Apr 2020 03:30:00 PM EEST

Category : Blog

Author : Mike

When we face a global crisis and the evidence is staring us in the face, we sometimes wish that the politicians would just follow the science. The world is getting hotter. A major cause of that is the release of green-house gasses. A major cause of that is human activity. We can mitigate the impending disaster if we act now. The science is clear. Why can’t politicians just listen to the scientists?

It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see a leader on the world stage stand up and say “We are simply following the science.” They had got a group of scientists together, looked at the data, the modelling, and the predictions. Then they put policy in place which acted on the science.

A moment’s reflection, however, suggested that hearing a politician finally say “We are simply following the science” was horrifying. Life is hard, and formulating policy is difficult. It would be wonderful if decision making could be handed over to science, and science could tell us, objectively and impartially, what to do. It would make it that much easier to accept the unprecedented restrictions being placed on us, because science says this is what we must do.  

I want to consider two ways in which that is not – and cannot be – how scientifically-informed policy making works.

Let us imagine a model of a human population in a pandemic: it models how individuals are infected and how they infect others; how they act and react; where they go and what they do. Let us imagine that this model says that if you confine people to their homes immediately, the virus will kill 0.01% of the population. The model also says that such an action will cause the GDP to shrink by 10%. The same model also says that if you impose a lock-down two weeks later, 0.4% of the population will die and the economy takes a 5% hit. This is science.


Choices in politics

The scientific model is like a map. It lays out the paths that you might take and the obstacles you can expect on each path. To get from where we are now to where we want to be, a map is tremendously useful. In the complex task of navigating a nation from the present to the future, a politician who has a map at their disposal would be well advised to use it. But you cannot say “I am just following the map” because there are two significant things which the map does not do:

First, the map does not tell you where you are trying to get to. If your chosen destination is eradicating the virus globally, the map will show you paths to get there. If you want to reduce the number of virus-related deaths in your own country, there are other paths on the map to take. If your goal is to be re-elected in three years’ time, the map will show you yet other paths to that end. But the map is entirely mute on which of the infinite number of possible ends you should pursue.

Second, once you have chosen your destination, the map doesn’t tell you which of the available paths you should take. (I have in mind an old-fashioned paper map. Google Maps tells you which way to go, but that is a metaphor for another post.) Your map can present you with a route that harms the economy at a rate of $150 million per life lost, and with another route that only harms it at $10 million per life lost. But it does not tell you which of those paths to walk.

It is good that political decisions are informed by science. But there is a world of difference between being informed by science and following science. Creating policy is difficult. It requires account to be taken of moral, humanitarian, economic, social, cultural, historical, and political concerns. Combining these involves value judgements, choices, and opinions. There is no shame in that.

A politician who says that they are “just following the science” uses science as a fig leaf to hide their own responsibility for making choices. My personal hope is that they are being duplicitous and choosing to avoid taking responsibility for difficult decisions they know they have made. The alternative is that they are genuinely unaware that they have had any creative input in the making of policy: they brought their own opinions, judgements, convictions, hopes and fears to bear (as they must) and yet were totally unaware that they had done so. It is one thing to be faced with a hard decision and have to pick an option. It is quite another to pick an option without realising that there was a hard decision to be made.


Choices in science

Politicians are not the only ones who may be oblivious to their own creative activities in generating science-informed policy. Scientists can also be unaware that they, too, have responsibility for the science.

Returning to our map, we might imagine that cartography is a neutral, objective activity. You observe the land as it is, and you mark that on the map. If there are three different paths to get to the destination, the cartographer marks down those paths. They report what is there, leaving the traveller to make their own choices.

Except that they do not. The map is not the territory. The cartographer imprints their own priorities, values, and opinions on the map, and their insertion is all the more insidious for the fact that the map seems so objective. Our cartographer chose, for example – consciously or unconsciously – to show three paths to the selected destination, while neglecting to highlight the possibility of drilling a tunnel straight through the mountain.

By the same token, scientific models are not neutral. They have certain assumptions hard-wired into them about what considerations are important and what kinds of answers are permissible. For example, the fastest way to eradicate a virus all together is all-out nuclear war. And yet scientists design pandemic models which do not even have that as an option.

A map that shows roads, but not footpaths or bus stops – or which shows contours, but not the composition of the underlying rock, or the local flora – has in mind a certain methods of getting from A to B, and certain priorities about the nature of the journey. Likewise, certain values and judgements are already baked in to a scientific model which notes the number of deaths, but not the position of the deceased within their family; or the overall economic impact, but not the distribution of that impact across different parts of the population. 

This is not an issue specific to any one model or type of model, but a general property of all science: we decide the kinds of things we want to know about, and we construct models and theories which tell us about the very things about which we care. We see straight through Aaron when he tries to duck creative responsibility by saying, "they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" [Ex. 32:24.] Still, when we give money to scientists with the expressed purpose of having them create a model, we somehow believe that, unlike Aaron, they stand apart from the creative process.



It would be wonderful if decision making could be handed over to science, and science could tell us, objectively and impartially, what to do. But that is not – and cannot be – how scientifically-informed policy making works. There is no shame in that. But it is good to know what we are doing when we do it.