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Science is all about asking questions, but when scientific debates become polarized it can be difficult for average citizens to interpret the merits of various arguments.
Should kids go back to school?
One South Korean contact-tracing study suggests that is a bad idea. In analyzing 5,706 COVID-19 patients and their 59,073 contacts, it concluded – albeit with a significant caveat – that 10- to 19-year-olds were the most contagious age group within their household.
A study out of Iceland, meanwhile, found that children under 10 are less likely to get infected and less likely than adults to become ill if they are infected. Coauthor Kári Stefánsson, who is CEO of a genetics company tracking the disease’s spread, said the study didn’t find a single instance of a child infecting a parent.
So when leaders explain their decision on whether to send kids back to school by saying they’re “following the science,” citizens could be forgiven for asking what science they’re referring to exactly – and how sure they are that it’s right.
But it’s become difficult to ask such questions amid the highly polarized debate around pandemic policies. While areas of consensus have emerged since the pandemic first hit the United States in March, significant gaps remain. Those uncertainties have opened the door for contrarians to gain traction in popular thought.
Some Americans see them as playing a crucial role, challenging a fear-driven groupthink that is inhibiting scientific inquiry, driving unconstitutional restrictions on individual freedom and enterprise, and failing to grapple with the full societal cost of shutting down businesses, churches, and schools. Public health experts who see shutdowns as crucial to saving lives are critical of such actors, due in part to fears that they are abetting right-wing resistance to government restrictions. They have also voiced criticism that some contrarians appear driven by profit or political motives more than genuine concern about public health.
The deluge of studies and competing interpretations have left citizens in a tough spot, especially when data or conclusions are shared on Twitter or TV without full context – like a handful of puzzle pieces thrown in your face, absent any box top picture to help you fit them together.
“You can’t expect the public to go through all the science, so you rely on people of authority, someone whom you trust, to parse that for you,” says Aleszu Bajak, a science and data journalist who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston. “But now you have more than just the scientists in their ivory tower throwing out all of this information. You have competing pundits, with different incentives, drawing on different science of varying quality.”
The uncertainties have also posed a challenge for policymakers, who haven’t had the luxury of waiting for the full arc of scientific inquiry to be completed.
“The fact is, science, like everything else, is uncertain – particularly when it comes to predictions,” says John Holdren, who served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the duration of President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure. “I think seasoned, experienced decision-makers understand that. They understand that there will be uncertainties, even in the scientific inputs to their decision-making process, and they have to take those into account and they have to seek approaches that are resilient to uncertain outcomes.”
Some say that in an effort to reassure citizens that shutdowns were implemented based on scientific input, policymakers weren’t transparent enough about the underlying uncertainties.
“We’ve heard constantly that politicians are following the science. That’s good, of course, but … especially at the beginning, science is tentative, it changes, it’s evolving fast, it’s uncertain,” Prof. Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, recently told a British Parliament committee. One of the founding partners of his independent institute is Imperial College, whose researchers’ conclusions were a leading driver of U.S. and British government shutdowns.
“You can’t just have a single top line saying we’re following science,” he adds. “It has to be more dealing with what we know about the science and what we don’t.”
A focus on uncertainty
One scientist who talks a lot about unknowns is John Ioannidis, a highly cited professor of medicine, epidemiology, and population health at Stanford University in California.
Dr. Ioannidis, who has made a career out of poking holes in his colleagues’ research, agrees that masks and social distancing are effective but says there are open questions about how best to implement them. He has also persistently questioned just how deadly COVID-19 is and to what extent shutdowns are affecting mental health, household transmission to older family members, and the well-being of those with non-COVID-19-related conditions.
It’s very difficult, he says, to do randomized trials for things like how to reopen, and different countries and U.S. states have done things in different ways.
“For each one of these decisions, action plans – people said we’re using the best science,” he says. “But how can it be that they’re all using the best science when they’re so different?”
Many scientists say they and their colleagues have been open about the uncertainties, despite a highly polarized debate around the pandemic and the 2020 election season ramping up.
“One of the remarkable things about this pandemic is the extent to which many people in the scientific community are explicit about what’s uncertain,” says Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who is working on a study about how biases can affect COVID-19 research. “There has been a sort of hard core of scientists, even with different policy predispositions, who have been insistent on that.”
“In some ways the politicized nature has made people more aware of the uncertainties,” adds Professor Lipsitch, who says Twitter skeptics push him and his colleagues to strengthen their arguments. “That’s a good voice to have in the back of your head.”
For the Harvard doctor, Alex Berenson is not that voice. But a growing number of frustrated Americans have gravitated toward the former New York Times reporter’s brash, unapologetic challenging of prevailing narratives. His following on Twitter has grown from around 10,000 to more than 182,000 and counting.
Mr. Berenson, who investigated big business before leaving The New York Times in 2010 to write spy novels, dives into government data, quotes from scientific studies, and takes to Twitter daily to rail against what he sees as a dangerous overreaction driven by irrational fear and abetted by a liberal media agenda and corporate interests – particularly tech companies, whose earnings have soared during the shutdowns. He refers satirically to those advocating government restrictions as “Team Apocalypse.”
Dr. Lipsitch says that while public health experts pushing for lockdown like himself could be considered hawks while contrarians like Mr. Berenson could be considered doves, his “name-calling” doesn’t take into account the fact that most scientists have at least a degree of nuance. “It’s really sort of unsophisticated to say there are two camps, but it serves some people’s interest to demonize the other side,” he says.
Mr. Berenson, the author of a controversial 2019 book arguing that marijuana increases the risk of mental illness and violence, has been accused of cherry-picking data and conflating correlation and causation. Amazon initially blocked publication of his booklet “Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns: Part 1” until Elon Musk got wind of it and called out the tech giant on Twitter. Mr. Berenson prevailed and recently released Part 2 on the platform, which has already become Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller among history of science and medicine e-books.
He strives to broaden the public’s contextual understanding of fatality rates, emphasizing that the vast majority of deaths occur among the elderly; in Italy, for instance, the median age of people who died is 81. He calls into question the reliability of COVID-19 death tolls, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be categorized as such even without a positive test if the disease is assumed to have caused or even contributed to a death.
Earlier this spring, when a prominent model was forecasting overwhelmed hospitals in New York, he pointed out that their projection was quadruple that of the actual need.
“Nobody had the guts or brains to ask – why is your model off by a factor of four today, and you made it last week?” says Mr. Berenson, referring to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projection in early April and expressing disappointment that his former colleagues in the media are not taking a harder look at such questions. “I think unfortunately people have been blinded by ideology.”
Politicization of science
Amid a sense of urgency, fear, and frustration with Americans who refuse to fall in line with government restrictions as readily as their European or especially Asian counterparts, Mr. Berenson and Dr. Ioannidis have faced blowback for airing questions about those restrictions and the science behind them.
Mr. Berenson’s book installments have prompted criticism that he’s looking for profits at the expense of public health, which he has denied. Dr. Ioannidis’ involvement in an April antibodies study in Santa Clara, California, which purported to show that COVID-19 is much less deadly than was widely believed was discredited by other scientists due to questions about the accuracy of the test used and a BuzzFeed report that it was partially funded by JetBlue Airways’ cofounder. Dr. Ioannidis says those questions were fully addressed within two weeks in a revised version that showed with far more extensive data that the test was accurate, and adds he had been unaware of the $5,000 donation, which came through the Stanford development office and was anonymized.
The dismay grew when BuzzFeed News reported in July that a month before the Santa Clara study, he had offered to convene a small group of world-renowned scientists to meet with President Donald Trump and help him solve the pandemic “by intensifying efforts to understand the denominator of infected people (much larger than what is documented to-date)” and developing a more targeted, data-driven approach than long-term shutdowns, which he said would “jeopardiz[e] so many lives,” according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed.
While the right has seized on Dr. Ioannidis’ views and some scientists say it’s hard not to conclude that his work is driven by a political agenda, the Greek doctor maintains that partisanship is antithetical to the scientific method, which requires healthy skepticism, among other things.
“Even the word ‘science’ has been politicized. It’s very sad,” he says, observing that in the current environment, scientific conclusions are used to shame, smear, and “cancel” the opposite view. “I think it’s very unfortunate to use science as a silencer of dissent.”
The average citizen, he adds, is filtering COVID-19 debates through their belief systems, media sources, and political ideology, which can leave science at a disadvantage in the public square. “Science hasn’t been trained to deal with these kinds of powerful companions that are far more vocal and better armed to penetrate into social discourse,” says Dr. Ioannidis.
The polarization has been fueled in part by absolutist pundits. In a recent week, “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC daily hammered home the rising rate in cases, trumpeted the daily death toll, and quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, while “The Tucker Carlson Show” on Fox News did not once mention government data, featuring instead anecdotes from business owners who have been affected by the shutdowns and calling into question the authority of unelected figures such as Dr. Fauci.
Fed on different media diets, it’s not surprising that partisan views on the severity of the pandemic have diverged further in recent months, with 85% of Democrats seeing it as a major threat – nearly double the percent of Republicans, according to a Pew Research poll from mid-July. And in a related division that predates the pandemic, another Pew poll from February showed that Republicans are less likely to support scientists taking an active role in social policy matters – just 43% compared with 73% for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
“If you have more of a populist type of worldview, where you are concerned that elites and scientists and officials act in their own interests first, it becomes very easy to make assumptions that they are doing something to control the population,” says Prof. Asheley Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University who specializes in science communication.
Beyond following the science
Determining what exactly “the science” says is only one part of the equation; figuring out precisely how to “follow” it poses another set of challenges for policymakers on questions like whether to send students back to school.
“Even if you had all the science pinned down, there are still some tough value judgments about the dangers of multiplying the pandemic or the dangers of keeping kids at home,” says Dr. Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, an engineer and physicist who now co-directs the science, technology, and public policy program at Harvard Kennedy School.
Dr. Lipsitch echoes that point and offers an example of two schools that both have a 10% risk of an outbreak. In one, where there are older students from high-income families who are more capable of learning remotely, leaders may decide that the 10% risk isn’t worth reopening. But in another school with the same assessed risk, where the students are younger and many depend on free and reduced lunch, a district may decide the risk is a trade-off they’re willing to make in support of the students’ education and well-being.