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When Scientists Run Society

scientists run society

We are living through a singular epoch when scientists run society. A first for most if not all of us. How do you like it, so far?

Well, let’s be fair. Politicians, not scientists run society. But with COVID-19, political leaders were asleep at the wheel or in denial. We let the novel Coronavirus get away from us. Fearing a repeat of Spanish Flu, we turned to the only tool available – epidemiology. (For our discussion, let’s put aside the extremes and the dysfunctional. Instead, we will focus on rational political action based on best evidence and practices. For me, the benchmark is New York Governor Cuomo and his daily briefings. After initial denials, what New York State has done is probably as good as it gets in blending science with political leadership.)

Epidemiology is the science of public health. Dr. John Snow fathered modern epidemiology in 1854 when he discovered how cholera was spreading in London. For the past century, you will discover that epidemiology has evolved as a highly empirical, mathematical science. Earlier this year, we used scientific models to estimate spread of COVID-19. In this, we relied on early (incomplete) data and assumptions. Our predictions were alarming.

So, we said to the public health scientists: tell us what to do. We feared that health care systems would become overwhelmed. We feared too much death. Most scientists said: stop virus transmission by social distancing and testing. We interpreted this as shutting everything down. And so here we are. (Never mind herd immunity. Instead, we got a herd mentality among public health and politicians around the world.) Hey, I’m not saying that public health scientists were wrong. Our problem was one of choosing the wrong objective, i.e. managing hospital capacity.

As a counterpoint, Sweden was creative and said what if we don’t worry about hospital capacity, is there another science based approach? Essentially, our Swedish friends said “lets aim directly for herd immunity” and not do general lock down. We will live with a higher death rate. Time will tell about Sweden, but you should know that their approach was just as scientific as the rest of the world. Scientists run society in Sweden right now,too; they just chose a different path.

Another counterpoint is South Korea. Its scientific approach was test-trace-isolate. While it closed schools, you will find that South Korea kept most things open. It acted early prioritized testing. So, we see it’s possible that scientists run society in different ways.

Will Climate Scientists Run Society?

We haven’t even cleared COVID-19 yet, but environmental activists are already claiming the pandemic was just a dry run for climate change, which will be much worse. I will suggest that letting public health scientists run society was also a dry run.

At least epidemiology is a well proven, empirical science based on simple linear equations and straightforward cause-effect relationships. Politicians found themselves helpless in the face of the pandemic as they watched scientists run societies into the ground, at least economically. So-called climate science is not empirical, hard to test, based on non-linear equations and extremely complex/uncertain causality.

During COVID-19, we mostly saw scientists run society using blunt instruments, at least during the mitigation phase. Hopefully their work on therapies and vaccinations will lead to solutions more than unintended consequences.

Can you imagine how hapless politicians will try to choose so-called scientific tools to stop climate change rather than simply adapting to the inevitable? One spell of having scientists run society is probably more than enough.

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