Science Can’t Solve the Toughest Tasks| May 13, 2020
Much of what is called “science” today does not fit the definition
Some years back, I wrote a column responding to a question posed by my oldest son: “The issue of global warming would seem to be an empirical one. So why does the belief in anthropogenic global warming correlate so strongly to political party?”
In late March, syndicated columnist and talk show host Dennis Prager asked the same question with respect to preferred responses to the SARS-CoV-2 virus: The virus does not distinguish according to political affiliation, so why shouldn’t there be more agreement on the proper response?
That there is such a political divide is uncontestable. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 67 percent of Republicans, but only 24 percent of Democrats, agree with the statement, “It’s time for America to get back to work.”
A congeries of factors goes into the explanation — sociological, ideological, political, and perhaps even theological. Let’s start with the sociological. While the coronavirus does not distinguish according to political affiliation, the rate of infection has been far greater in urban areas. And the Democratic Party is increasingly the party of the more densely populated coasts.
And where the Democratic Party was once the party of the “working man” and the Republican Party that of “big business,” today the former has become the party of the rich and credentialed elites. The rich, who do not live from paycheck to paycheck, are simply better able to weather a prolonged economic lockdown. As a friend at a major national law firm told me recently, “We lawyers will come out fine. They’ll still need us for all the post-coronavirus reorganizations.” Moreover, the more educated segment of the workforce, as opposed to those tied to the service sector, is more likely to be able to work from home during a lockdown.
In terms of ideology, there is a certain strain of anti-capitalist sentiment conjoined with an obsession with global warming on the left wing of the Democratic Party. The drastic reduction in carbon emissions due to reduced vehicular and air travel has been celebrated in some circles as an instance of the planet healing itself.
More tentatively, I suspect that there is a theological dimension. The Republican Party is increasingly the party of religious believers, while the left is increasingly dismissive or even hostile to religion. The lack of religious belief makes leftists more inclined to catastrophic predictions, of which those surrounding a global pandemic are only one form. Malthusian predictions that various natural resources will soon be exhausted or the planet overrun with too many people are others. Warnings renewed every decade that we have only ten years to doomsday are a feature of modern life.
Those who believe in a beneficent G-d, Who created the world for a purpose, approach the future with more optimism and confidence that the “Hand of G-d” will not prove incapable of supplying humanity’s needs and that He has imbued human beings with the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Finally, there is a political dimension to the different stances of the two parties. Though Donald Trump’s persona has not captivated most Americans, at the time the coronavirus struck, he was presiding over a booming economy, with unemployment rates at near historic lows, and a bullish stock market. His reelection seemed likely.
The more distant memories of those first three years of economic boom are from voters’ minds in November, the weaker Trump’s electoral prospects. A prolonged lockdown virtually guarantees a deep recession at minimum.
The mainstream media has taken the lead in promoting the most alarmist predictions concerning ending the lockdown. At one level, the media always has an alarmist bias: Bad news sells.
But there is a political motivation as well. The overwhelmingly Democratic mainstream media is fully mobilized to push Trump from office. Martin Tolchin, a 40-year Timesman and the founder of two D.C. insider publications, the Hill and Politico, spoke for many in the media in a letter to the Times arguing against any investigation into charges that Joe Biden harassed a female former staffer: “I don’t want an investigation… I don’t want justice… I want the removal of Donald Trump from office and Mr. Biden is our best chance.”
IN TRUTH, both my son’s and Prager’s question are based on a false premise, namely that “science” or “data” can, by themselves, dictate an objectively appropriate policy.
Yes, good policy necessitates the input of the best available information and clear thinking. But calls for letting the “experts” decide are generally synonyms for a larger, more intrusive, centralized government, and a shift from democratic governance and market mechanisms to a government dominated by unelected administrative agencies. That is what White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel meant when he declared with respect to the 2008 financial crisis “No crisis should ever go to waste.” To wit, every crisis — and the bigger the better — should be used to expand the writ of the central government.
In the same vein, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the other day that the current pandemic provides a “wonderful opportunity to transform our society.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to do precisely that when she attached to the $1.8 trillion rescue plan for desperate workers and businesses a host of riders requiring corporate boards to meet racial and gender quotas, airlines to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent, additional wind and solar tax credits, and extraordinary new collective bargaining power for public employee unions.
The issue between the parties is not, as Democrats would have it, respect for scientific knowledge or its opposite. If there is one issue, for instance, on which there is a consensus among mainstream economists, it is that dramatic increases in the minimal wage will, absent an extreme labor shortage, lead to increased unemployment, spur automation, and reduce the overall wages of workers due to a decline in hours. Yet raising the minimum wage is a mainstay of every Democratic platform.
As great as the contribution science has to make reducing the threat of the COVID-19 virus, it remains crucial not to lose sight of its limitations as well. That means not exaggerating the level of scientific knowledge or the degree of consensus. Dr. John Ionnidis, Professor of Medicine, Epidemiology, Population Health, and Bio-Medical Data Science at Stanford, has written that only about ten percent of published scientific findings turn out to be reproducible.
Anyone who follows nutrition science knows how constantly shifting are the verdicts on the benefits and harms of various foods — e.g., eggs, dietary fat, coffee, red wine. In the current plague, information about face masks has similarly fluctuated greatly.
Much of what is called “science” today does not fit the definition, in particular the mathematical modeling to predict the future. That modeling inevitably depends on multiple assumptions or approximations and often relies on data that is itself highly suspect. A full picture of climate systems depends on knowledge of 20 or more sub-specialties, and no modeler possesses that. Not surprisingly, neither the global warming models nor those developed during the current plague have proven to have much predictive value.
But even if all the facts were known and the impact of different policy choices capable of being predicted, they would not dictate the choices to be made. The experts do not possess any calipers to weigh the economic suffering of tens of millions versus lives saved.
They cannot tell policymakers how to balance greater protection for vulnerable populations against the lives of millions around the globe who will be thrust into starvation by the breakdown of global food chains. Remember how the ethanol mandate caused the world prices of grain to rise sharply and led to rampant nutrition insufficiency in many poorer countries. (Not to mention that the production of ethanol released carbon emissions equal to any saved.)
Issues such as to what degree of infringements on personal privacy are justified in pursuit of public health, or to what extent individuals should be allowed to accept risk upon themselves — e.g., grandparents who want to see their grandchildren — are ultimately value questions. And on those, scientists have nothing more to say than you and I.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 810)
Oops! We could not locate your form.