Guest editorial: Evolving guidance during pandemic is a triumph of science, not an indictment of it
New York City
I grew up in Park City reading, and even writing for, The Park Record. I remain a reader of the paper, although I am now a PhD candidate at The Rockefeller University, a biomedical research institute in New York City. I was troubled by a recent guest editorial by Michael Smith entitled “Park Record’s arrogant editorial treats science like religion.” Mr. Smith’s editorial conflates science with policy, misconstrues complex issues and smears leading scientific organizations. I felt this warranted a response.
Mr. Smith acknowledges that “science is a process of continual inquiry, not an endpoint.” So, it is curious that his editorial questions the legitimacy of organizations like the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (led by Dr. Fauci) for updating their guidance about how to respond to this pandemic as the scientific community learns more about the novel, never-before-studied SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus. Over the past few months many studies have been performed on different aspects of COVID-19. As a result, organizations now have better guidance on what types of personal protective equipment (e.g. masks) should be worn and how many people can safely congregate in one place at a given time. This is exactly how science should work: As new information is discovered through scientific inquiry, we update our understanding of the world.
Scientists should be trusted not because they possess some innate intellectual ability that makes them smarter than non-scientists, but because they have a very specific set of skills and training for designing and evaluating empirical studies. Deferring to the guidance of experts does not mean we are stupid or exercising misguided blind faith. It means that in an area outside our experience or training, we rely on individuals and organizations with the specific tools necessary for generating factual information. In the case of the current pandemic, this means those organizations that are powered by collective generations of scientific experience and billions of dollars invested in scientific research.
Mr. Smith does bring up an important point — there are many voices pitching in on COVID-19-related issues, and it can be challenging to decide who to believe. Novel challenges like COVID-19 often galvanize misinformation artists skilled at masquerading as if they have legitimate credentials. Social media has further amplified such voices. Fortunately for all of us, there are organizations run by scores of scientists that are accountable to the greater scientific community and divorced from profit motives who we can rely on for information. These include government agencies like the National Institutes of Health and CDC and organizations like the WHO.
Finally, it is important not to blur the distinction between policy and science, as Mr. Smith does in his editorial. Scientists are responsible for designing experiments and studies to generate knowledge. It is policymakers who must then take the information presented by scientists and weigh it against many other factors to devise policies to serve their constituents. This is a complicated calculus in the best of times, and the response to COVID-19 requires unprecedented cost-benefit analyses involving people’s health and economic livelihoods amid stressed supply chains and limited resources. It was not scientists who made the decision that hair salons should be closed while Walmart remains open. Policymakers made that call. There should be open discussions about how to make these difficult policy decisions, and as constituents we have a right to challenge policymakers about what policies best serve us. That is how democracy works. However, what we think of policymakers’ decisions has nothing to do with the trustworthiness of the underlying science about COVID-19.
Vilifying science is not going to make COVID-19 go away. It is understandably frustrating to feel as though, among so many other uncertainties, our understanding of this virus changes by the day. But the rate at which we are building up knowledge and updating public health guidance in response to this new knowledge is a positive consequence of the international scientific community pulling out all the stops. This is not a failure of the scientific process, but a triumph, and it is this inspiring collaboration that will allow us to beat COVID-19.
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