Science Isn’t What You Think

I promised in my first blog in the category “Social Discourse in the Age of Covid” I’d look at a “constellation” of factors, with the idea that understanding the cultural impact of Covid-19 is a multi-faceted endeavor.

So let’s talk about “science.”

The Washington State plan for reopening the local economy, sports and the arts states that it will be “guided by science.” But what does it really mean for most of us to look at the pandemic scientifically?

There’s a huge difference between thinking scientifically and taking the word of scientists (in this case health experts) at face value. One is a process in which each of us could be individually engaged; the other is really an authoritarian epistemology masquerading as the scientific method. In other words, taking a scientific statement as fact because it comes from an authoritative source is not itself a scientific action. It’s the same as taking it on authority alone that your minister is correct in his or her interpretation of the Bible.

Well, what’s wrong with that? We can’t all claim to be scientists and on what grounds do we think we know better? There’s definitely some rationality to that stance.

But one of the problems right now is that even if we are ostensibly “guided by science”, we are rarely getting our science from the scientists. We’re generally not even getting it from the government (for example, the King County Covid-19 Dashboard). We’re getting it from the media and the media boils down the entirety of each week’s Covid science in statements like this:

“Alarming rise in Covid cases” (AP news June 11th)

I run a music school in the Seattle area. When parents express concern about their children participating in rehearsals or lessons, I hear this phrase and only this phrase with rare exceptions: “Cases are going up.” This seems, in casual or everyday conversation, to be the only commentary we are capable of making as citizens about the whole of the scientific data our leaders are tracking.

So again, what’s the problem? We are protecting public health, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. After “all cases are going up”.

  • I don’t think it’s so simple for a number of reasons. Our sense of the facts is an emotional reality, however much that reality begins with looking at the facts, or the facts as the media distills them (arguably quite irresponsibly) for us. It is how we feel as we interact with other people, and it influences our level of fear. As a private music teacher, I see that fear being communicated to our children. I hear how 9 year olds are “afraid of Covid” from their parents. I see them act like different kids now than I remember from their lessons back in March.
  • Not putting any effort into practicing the scientific method ourselves means we are trusting 100% that our government officials, bureaucratic institutions and scientists are both correct and forthright. We don’t have to believe they are malicious or ignorant to conclude that neither is always the case. Just in my own fairly casual reading about WHO and CDC pronouncements since March, I’ve seen inconsistency, backpedaling and an understandably legitimate evolution of “scientific” positions. Which leads to:
  • There is a LOT at stake here. The government’s restriction of businesses in Washington State is unprecedented. What we are currently imagining regarding the restructuring of our kids’ education into the foreseeable future is completely unprecedented. Within the undeniable reality of Covid transmission and Covid mortality, how you present and interpret the data regarding cases paints a very different prescription for the next few months in US society. Do we continue current restrictions? Tighten up? Cautiously loosen up? These are questions that could make or break the future of multiple businesses, in particular those that depend on groups…theaters, dance studios, cinemas, gyms. The “economy” in this regard has nothing to do with the red herring of the “stock market”. It’s not a concern about big business. In my town, the chain stores and franchises are doing OK. It’s the local businesses, the unique businesses that are an inalienable part of our city’s identity that will survive or be destroyed based on how we interpret and apply science.

So what should we do? I would strongly urge everyone to start by entirely ignoring headlines. Go directly to government websites and dashboards. Practicing the scientific method for us as citizens doesn’t mean we’re scientists. We’re not going to collect the data or run experiments. What it should mean, though, is a simple constellation of things we remember from science class back in school. Form hypotheses. Test them before turning accepting theories into “fact.” Gather information. Weigh observations and data against each other. Analyze things with logic. Avoid conclusions until you’ve had time to really size everything up. Keep emotion out of things as long as you can.

I.e. do pretty much everything news headlines and social media don’t.

Sounds like too much work? It might be at times a lot of work, but we put more work into researching what car to buy. And this issue could mean feeling comfortable with your children attending school in person in the fall — versus the miserable Nextdoor app suggestion I saw that all kids wear goggles to school to avoid getting “Covid droplets” in their eyes.

I don’t know about you, but school was hard enough when I was a kid, without the added misery of goggles, masks and being afraid of getting less than six feet away from everyone else in your class.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m not a “minimal government” advocate. But nonetheless what I have observed in my three decades plus of adult life does not encourage me to write any institution, bureaucracy or expert a blank check of belief and support. I am going to think for myself, and I am going to make sure that what Authority tells me (in every sense of the word authority–civil, political, scientific) also has the weight of logic, morality, and personal observation on its side. Especially when my peace of my mind, my business, my students’ lives, my family members’ health and happiness, and my artistic endeavors hang in the balance.

In other words, I’m going to use my own, best efforts at a personal scientific method to make sure everything we’re told “checks out”. And I think you should too.

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