She Blinded Me with Science
Science: An excellent servant, but an imperious master
Appeals from politicians that they are just ‘Following the science’ have always rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like it might be helpful to you if I explain why. Science is a tool for us to use, not a leader for us to follow. It is meant to be a method of inquiry, not a pre-approved set of conclusions. I bristle when I hear that ‘the science is settled’ — it’s never settled, exactly. It is always in flux. It is far from settled for climate change, evolution, gender studies, and certainly for Covid-19.
“Science is not about building a body of known ‘facts’. It is a method for asking awkward questions and subjecting them to a reality-check, thus avoiding the human tendency to believe whatever makes us feel good.”
― Terry Pratchett
I’m not going to argue here for flat earth or the sun revolving around the earth, but as a reminder that those things took years to be established.
So what is happening with science? Science can tell you things like:
- how long the virus can survive on this kind of surface under these conditions,
- this strain of the virus is more infectious and less virulent than the original,
- the virus can stay viable and travel on droplets this distance, but not in the air,
- a person with this virus load is infectious, at this distance, over this period of time, within the set limits of certainty.
Limitations to Science
We have to recognize, however, that there are limitations to science: the accuracy with which we can measure things, the knowledge we have of the world, and also the kinds of questions science can answer.
Sometimes, we have to wait until technology catches up so that we can learn, for example, the DNA sequence of an organism. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Heisenberg realized about a century ago that there are limitations to how accurately we can measure one thing before we throw off the measurement of something else. In recent years, we have been able to measure much smaller quantities of viruses.
What we still need to discover, is at what level does it become important. We always have viruses and lots of bacteria in our body. If there are one or two copies of a virus in your body, your body will usually kill it off before you even knew you had it. If you have millions of copies of a virus in your body, now you have a problem!
Science is very good at providing predictions for something that has been studied many times before and will happen again under the exact same conditions. But, not how much virus a person needs to be exposed to before he is contagious or even symptomatic. Science can predict how much energy needs to be added to water to make it boil. We are not able to say, “you got a positive RT-PCR Covid-19 test result at X Ct, so you could pass the virus on to others for Y number of days.”
Science can’t predict accurately for a group of people, because it varies greatly from person to person; it also varies greatly for the same person. We’ve all probably had the experience of getting sick, during a period when we weren’t taking as good care of ourselves as we normally do. Our immune system’s ability to defend us against all kinds of invaders depends on having gotten enough sleep, exercise, and a diet including enough vitamin C, D, and zinc, etc.
There are also inherent limitations to the kinds of questions science can answer. Science answers the question “How?” If you want to know how something happens, you can design a scientific experiment to discover the answer. If you want to know why something happens the way it does: whether it was God’s will, evolution pre-determined it, prayer, karma, luck. Now you’re in the territory of philosophy or theology.
You can’t use science to answer a question of history. It needs to be repeatable in another lab, and history is not. That kind of evidence needs to be discovered the way a lawyer examines witnesses.
Science can not tell you that closing your business, seeing your family at Christmas, sitting in a theatre is better or worse for you. These are moral judgement calls; not science. Science doesn’t do morality, that’s a philosophy or political science. With so many unknowns, leading to legitimately different interpretations of scientific data, we are left with political solutions, based on one philosophy or another.
Science in Politics
Why do we need to make these distinctions, and keep science within its proper boundaries?
“ I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in’. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. Perhaps the real scientists may not think much of the tyrants’ ‘science’ — they didn’t think much of Hitler’s racial theories or Stalin’s biology. But they can be muzzled.”
— C. S. Lewis, British novelist, in Willing Slaves of the Welfare State, 1958
Before the Enlightenment, it was politics that determined what the truth was, based on power.
Since the Enlightenment, we no longer needed to appeal to authority, but just to critically evaluate the science. Now, it appears that we’re back to authority. If a person in power can say, “it’s science,” whatever he says is now unassailable. Science is now the new ultimate authority. This is science elevated to a religion. In ancient days, rulers would say, “The gods told us that you must make this sacrifice.” Now, it’s science that they appeal to.
But will the gods or science answer?
How Science Works
Science isn’t set up particularly to provide immediate, applicable answers to questions on demand like that. Many famous scientific discoveries have been serendipitous.
Science is uncertain, not just because scientists are fallible humans like the rest of us, but because uncertainty is built into the scientific method. Before stepping into a lab, you design the study. In that design, you will determine what is a good enough statistical strength and accuracy to be able to confirm your hypothesis. (ie. Probability-value=95%, Confidence Interval=0.001) More science and more accuracy are not always better.
For example, it is not obvious that it is always better to have more testing. If false positives are too high, it leads to healthcare springing into action, doing more harm than good. If false negatives are too high, some people will have a false sense of security.
What you want the test to do will determine the cycle threshold of PCR you will use, etc. For example, is a test designed to confirm a diagnosis (needing to catch as many positive cases as possible) or, is its purpose to screen healthy-looking citizens with no symptoms (needing as accurate as possible)?
The large scale testing of persons with low pre-test probability that we have seen for Covid-19 is unprecedented for a respiratory viral pathogen. This means we have no scientific basis for predicting what this kind of testing will mean.
It is not unusual to have disagreements between honest respected scientists, looking at the same data, especially at the beginning of a new subject. In fact, epidemiologist and biostatistician, Dr. John Ioannidis, received a lot of attention for his article demonstrating that most published scientific research is wrong. This is not a bad thing. It is just how science works. We get it right sooner or later, but it becomes an issue when there is a tight deadline imposed.
Peer Review: Key aspect of scientific research
This is how it works. I come up with a theory, test it and publish my theory and supporting data.
Intelligent people with knowledge of my field read it, some try to confirm or disprove it in their own labs. I see their data and modify my theory accordingly, getting closer to the truth bit by bit. My theory is challenged, improved or replaced, over several iterations, usually over several years.
Political approvals can be sped up from 10 years for a vaccine approval to 10 months. Science can not be sped up so easily, because it is a function of human thought processes.
The remarkable advances in science began when scientists began to openly propose a theory and not shut down any scientist who disagreed with him, but would listen and learn from each other. Within science is the idea that we must confront, discuss, debate, and refute ideas. Science only works if there is free exchange of ideas. When the environment becomes too toxic for scientists to speak up against the majority opinion, science is impeded terribly.
Scientific Literacy — Crucial
In the 21st Century, we all need to be scientifically literate, regardless of our line of work. The fact is that the people who are wary are not science deniers or conspiracy theorists; they are science embracers. The skepticism reflects the essence of the scientific approach. Scientists know that a reliable methodology is not an infallible methodology.
We need to recognize that a valid result published by a scientist is not an irrefutable result. We can understand that a reasonable conclusion is not the only possible conclusion. We see that support for a theory is not proof of a theory.
Ad hominem arguments based on the author’s pedigree, or how he voted, have no place in science. The fact that the majority of people agree with a scientific theory does not make it valid — that’s how politics works, not science. It helps to remember that many things we now take as scientific ‘fact’ were minority opinions when they were first proposed.
So, when you hear somebody say he is following the science, ask questions.
Is it a scientific question?
Is it a scientific answer?
The key to navigating all the information out there is to keep science in its place, rather than assigning it a place on a pedestal.
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