Raymond J. de Souza: On COVID, we should heed science, but not follow it blindly

'Follow the science' is a slogan. It is not a repository of wisdom; rather it is the refuge of the philosophically confused

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Doubts have replaced deference. The first anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic has been marked with pointed criticism of public health and policy decisions.

The expert class, which has its role, has got a great deal very wrong, at great cost. It has tried the patience of the populace by countering honest queries by shouting ever louder “follow the science.” That is not a policy precept. It is a slogan. It is not a repository of wisdom; rather it is the refuge of the philosophically confused.

Practical, hard-nosed science types like to mock philosophers for debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It’s laughable if you think the discussion is about choreography; it’s interesting if you understand that it is about metaphysics. But leave that aside, and behold Pfizer and Health Canada debate how much vaccine can be drawn by the head of a syringe.

The expert class, which has its role, has got a great deal very wrong

I expect that the “follow the science” (FTS) slogan is quite popular at both Pfizer and Health Canada. So why do they disagree on whether there are five or six doses in a vial? After all, the European Medicines Agency already decided that there were six, not five.

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Shouldn’t this be as straightforward an empirical question as there can be? Volume of vaccine per vial. Divide by volume of vaccine per dose. Result — five or six. FTS.

But it is not so simple as that. It is a matter of syringe type and technique to squeeze that sixth dose out. FTS assumes that there is pharmacology and physics and then off you go. But there is also the expertise of the vaccinator. Is technique a matter of art or science, of experience or simple instructions? Anyone who has tried to assemble furniture from IKEA knows the answer to that.

The problem with FTS is that there are very few matters that are purely scientific when it comes to public policy, including public health. There are some matters that are, as for example the temperature at which flammable materials can be safely stored. But when it comes to transporting them, many other fields besides chemistry come into play. A public policy decision has to be made, risks have to be weighed, cost-benefit analysis undertaken.

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a University Health Network clinic in Toronto on Jan. 7, 2021. Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

During the pandemic, livelihoods and liberties are also at stake, alongside lives. These are questions that involve different branches of knowledge for which the empirical sciences are of some assistance, but not determinative. Even within medicine itself — which is both an art and a science — there is not a purely empirical way to determine that this life saved from the coronavirus is worth these many lives lost to drug overdoses and this much suffering from mental illness. Policy-makers with FTS tattooed on their foreheads would still have to draw from beyond the science.

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FTS can become, at the extreme, an ideology. Canada has already seen that in effect, in the refusal to exempt homeless people from Quebec’s curfew order. Quebec’s premier argued that if the gendarmerie were prohibited from ticketing homeless people from being on the street at quarter past eight, then other people would pretend to be homeless, thus weakening the FTS-mandated curfew. But FTS does not mandate a curfew in the first place, and certainly does not tell you if Quebecers are inclined to fake homelessness in the dead of winter. That is the premier’s psychological and moral assessment of his fellow citizens, which is not physics.

FTS can become, at the extreme, an ideology

The attractiveness of FTS sloganeering arises from our desire to know the truth with certainty. The problem with FTS is that it assumes there is only one method — empirical measurement — that arrives at that truth. But there are many questions that are not amenable to measurement. Even the greatest of scientists know this.

The late Stephen Hawking knew more about how the universe works than anyone else, but his mastery of astrophysics still left him asking why there was a universe to observe at all. That’s not a weakness of either Hawking or physics; that question is beyond physics, which is why there is discipline for that. It’s called metaphysics.

I have great admiration for those scientists whose work is essential to the field of public health. But their contribution is not the only contribution, and it is unfair to them to keep parroting FTS at every turn, as it puts on them a greater responsibility than their essential, but limited, expertise can bear.

Looking at the world through a microscope or telescope is both useful and necessary to get at the truth of things. But only some things. There is a much broader vision required for wise policy, and that comes from heeding the science, but not slavishly following it.

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