Has there ever been a time when we have had to weigh so much science in our day-to-day lives? Today’s most prominent science-related issues are COVID-19 and climate change, but many other things are also important to us: medications, nutrition, travel safety, protecting the Great Lakes, etc. Not everyone is going to agree on what the science says about these issues, so how can we make the best decisions?
First, we should recognize that much of “the science” that gets filtered down to us through the media, experts and public officials comes from people who are as self-interested or politically motivated as you and me. The perfectly disinterested scientist is an exception, not the rule. We also get a lot of scientific information from people and organizations who have a very narrow interest and are often ignorant of the complex science behind technical issues.
With all the talk and advisories about masks and social distancing in public places for almost two years, I have been surprised to see and hear next to nothing — public service announcements, CDC advisories, governors’ pronouncements — about the risks of casual sexual activity, where disease-causing organisms can easily be transmitted. Is this because cautioning against such activity is contrary to today’s social and cultural norms, and especially the norms among people in the media, academia and government? If so, then science isn’t the last word on public health after all.
Second, we should remember that many complicated scientific subjects do not provide definitive answers to most problems we face. Most provide answers as probabilities, recognizing the difficulty in perfectly predicting complex systems, such as climate, economies, public health or societies. Authentic science seeks to explain the physical world based on evidence, measurement and rigorous testing. It does not tell us directly what should be done — those are political or ethical decisions, not scientific ones.
When CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, recently overruled the agency’s technical advisors and approved the COVID-19 booster, she recognized this reality when she wrote, “At CDC, we are tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data to make concrete recommendations that optimize health.” Such complex science and associated decisions are not black and white as the sloganeers would have us believe.
When we are faced with a practical decision involving a science-related issue, it’s best to seek out layman-friendly explanations by reputable scientists or doctors. This takes time, but if the goal is a good decision, then this is time well spent. Seeking out at least one scientific authority with a view contrary to the consensus of the moment is also a good idea because the consensus of the moment has been proven false more often than we think. Plenty of scientists, including Albert Einstein, won Nobel Prizes because they challenged the consensus of the moment.
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn is full of the inventions of men and women who went against the consensus of the moment. In the 1990s, the engineering consensus was that conventional infrastructure like sewers presented the best option for handling storm water, and I wasn't convinced that local stormwater holding ponds would have much positive impact in relation to the costs and land area required for them. But the more I read and experienced, the more convinced I became that if these ponds couldn’t pacify big storms, they could still reduce flooding during less intense storms and mitigate negative storm water impacts on rivers and lakes. The consensus view was incorrect, or, at least, inadequate.
The good news is that amidst all the sound and fury of modern society and social media, we have never had so much access to useful and enlightening information. Seeking out experts won’t guarantee the right decision but will reduce the likelihood of a bad decision.
Even when we are mandated to do something because of “the science,” or when we experience a tidal wave of public opinion in favor of some scientific consensus, just a little bit of knowledge of the issue will help us to respond appropriately. For instance, knowing how viruses and other disease-causing organisms are transmitted from person to person helps one decide when wearing a mask is most appropriate and when it will not make one bit of difference. Understanding weather systems helps one know if the latest natural disaster has historical precedent or might be the new climate change normal. But like real science, this takes work.
It is worth it, though, especially considering that we are setting examples for our children and grandchildren. We need to teach them there’s more to the scientific process and knowledge than just the latest slogan or political noise masquerading as science. We need to teach and show them how to think and decide rationally, using authentic science as a guide, skills that seem, unfortunately, in short supply these days.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.
Get insightful commentary and the most reliable research on Michigan issues sent straight to your inbox.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit research and educational institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for a free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.
Please consider contributing to our work to advance a freer and more prosperous state.