I’ve been asked by a couple of people why it matters so much if the average person understands the facts instead of listening to the politicians and/or scientists. We’re not experts, and we don’t really have the power to change what the restrictions are going to be, so does it matter? Especially in the UK, where we’re just supposed to be following government restrictions. It does matter, and now, coming out of the lockdown, it matters more than ever. This comment has been making the rounds on the liberal side of Facebook:
I understand that the writer seems to be reacting specifically to a video of a press conference given by two general practitioners, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, who are owners of two urgent care clinics in Bakersfield, California. The video has been a rallying cry for conservatives, with its call to immediately open the economy. I would share the short video, but it has been somewhat controversially taken down from YouTube. There is, however, a longer interview with the two in response to their press conference being removed from YouTube:
I watched the initial video and thought it combined a lot of observations that have been verified by other healthcare professionals (people who have life-threatening conditions that are not COVID are staying away from hospitals) with some wacky assertions (people who self-isolate for 2 months will destroy their immune systems). It certainly didn’t justify, in the minds of anyone except those who were already convinced, the complete abandonment of all social distancing measures. But I think the post above is also dangerous, perhaps more dangerous, because people who believe we don’t need to take any precautions are just using the video as “proof”; the video didn’t convince anyone who hadn’t already been of that opinion.
This post, however, and the mindset it promotes, is an abdication of the responsibility of everyone to learn as many of the facts as possible and make informed decisions, especially with all the chaos around us right now. I’m not going to try to determine how to make a COVID-19 vaccine, or whether a vaccine is effective. I won’t try to predict when the peak is going to hit (or has hit) or if another peak is on its way. But almost every epidemiologist and virologist I’ve seen interviewed makes the point that they just provide the information, they can’t and shouldn’t make policy based on that information. They can tell the government what the likely results of following a certain plan are, but they speak in the language of curves and confidence intervals, not certainties. Ask any of them when it’s likely that there will be no deaths from COVID-19 and they’ll say never, even with a widely available vaccine. They are not saying, “Stay isolated until there is zero risk.” They are saying, “Now that the virus is out there, there will never be zero risk.” This is an important distinction. We may not understand epidemiology or how to calculate statistics and confidence intervals (although we should have some understanding of the latter, since probabilities affect just about every area of our lives), but we are probably as capable of understanding the finer points of the science as most politicians are—and we shouldn’t be deciding that something is right or wrong based on how we feel about the person delivering the message.
One of the interesting things about the US situation right now is the deification on the left of Anthony Fauci. The situation is presented by much of the media as a fight between the all-knowing scientist, Fauci, and the ignorant anti-scientist Donald Trump. I lived in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, and I remembered the left there considering Fauci’s mismanagement and slowness to act largely responsible for the number of AIDS deaths. He was seen as someone who was more concerned with his career than with the science. I started thinking I was imagining this, since none of the accounts I was reading mentioned it. Then Larry Kramer died, and his New York Times obituary mentioned that Kramer had called Fauci a “killer and ‘an incompetent idiot’” in a 1988 article in the San Francisco Examiner. (In researching this post, I did find, in an otherwise glowing New Yorker profile, an account of the fight.) People change, and Fauci may have done more good than harm by now (Kramer and he came to an understanding), but it is important to remember that for forty years, he’s been politically as well as scientifically motivated. And he must be motivated now at least partly by a desire to be seen as the anti-Trump, especially since, three decades ago, he was seen as too supportive of the Reagan agenda.
This is a rather long-winded example for why we need to educate ourselves. Not everything is exactly as it appears, and when people agree with our position, maybe we should be more rather than less skeptical. And this will become more important as we determine how far we want to take ourselves out of isolation as everything opens. I’ve seen people who are obvious candidates for longer self-isolation use the Erickson and Massahi video as a rallying cry to get out to the casinos. I’ve seen people who probably don’t have much to worry about, statistically, immediately dismiss any plan to open parts of the economy as being “too worried about the stock market.” People can disagree about the amount of risk that should be tolerated, or even about what the risk is, since the science is constantly evolving, and even a snapshot of what is going on would meet with differing opinions in the scientific community, because that’s the nature of scientific inquiry.
But I don’t see a lot of argument like that. I see political positions that are divided into “for” or “against” whatever particular politicians, or people associated with those politicians, are championing. I also see a lot of facts buried far beneath the rhetoric, which is why I started this blog. Our politicians are busy trying to score political points (especially in the US, where the election is looming) or trying to make sure they’re not blamed for not doing enough. Neither of these positions is particularly dependent on facts. People who want to be told how to think or what to do are just following their chosen leaders—or choosing their leaders based on what they already wanted to do. Those of us who like to make informed decisions need to educate ourselves so we can cut through the political discourse and really understand what the scientists are telling us. Blithely assuming that we don’t have the ability to do so, and waiting to be told what to do by “experts,” is shirking our responsibility as citizens just as much as ignoring all the scientists and doing what we want would be.