Monday, June 15, 2020

Science, Judgment, And Authority In The Time Of Pandemic

The Coronavirus moment is reminding us all of the problems with the way we normally do things. Some of these problems have to do with the place of science in our practices, the way we talk to one another, and why we do what we do. These are just a few items that I have found extra personally irritating.

Masks of confusion
I know a lot of people are irritated by the way that we were told not to wear masks, because they were pointless and we'd all fuck it up and wear them wrong and cause mayhem, only to learn later that wearing masks actually works. And sure, I can spare a thought for that annoyance.

But for me, this been massively eclipsed by my feelings about the bizarre communication style about masks right now. Almost everything I read says something like "Here's what to do about masks" or "Here's where masks are mandatory" or "Here is the updated health policy on masks -- without explaining the reason people are being asked to wear masks.

Every public communication about masks should include a basic explanation that the use of basic non-fancy masks works because it prevents asymptomatic infected people from spreading the disease around. People do not know whether they are asymptomatic. So if they're going to be near people, they should wear a mask. Sure, it might help you avoid infection yourself, but that is not the main point.

There still seems to be massive basic confusion about this. I keep seeing people in comment sections saying how it's their choice how much they want to protect themselves, or that they're personally not worried about getting sick, or that only infected people should have to wear masks. Are health communicators being deliberately obscure about the collective responsibility angle, because they think people will assume it's self-interest and thus follow the rules? Are they leaving out the explanation because they think people will just follow the rule? Bad news for you, guys.

"Listen to the science"
This one is trickier, because of course, yes, I think we should base our decisions on the best scientific information that we have. But science alone tells you almost nothing about what to do in a pandemic, because everything you do is going to have complex ripple effects and you have to trade those off against one another. BCE (before Coronavirus era), I used to constantly bore people talking about how many people die every year from car crashes -- in 2016 alone, around 1.35 worldwide and over 37,000 in the US. But no one ever seriously suggests giving up driving.

Please note that I am not saying that the virus is comparable to driving! Clearly, it is much more dangerous. The point is just that structurally, we're always making collective and personal judgments about how much risk is OK for the things we want to do. One thing that's challenging in the Coronavirus case is that different people have different risk tolerance, and yet in the nature of a pandemic, we have to act together. That is a very difficult situation, but it's also one that isn't helped by saying "listen to the science."

Amateur epidemiologists around every corner

These fall into two categories: the data watchers and the microbiology obsessives. The data watchers are checking out the Johns Hopkins site to follow the numbers and see whether their preferred policy response is working and whether countries with leaders they hate are suffering. I'm guilty of this myself, relying on this cool visualization site to compare stats, form hypotheses, and rationalize my existing prejudices. As this Guardian article reminds us, though, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics: massive variation in how cases are counted, and when they are counted, and what counts as "dying from Coronavirus" means it will be years before we have any clear picture of what is happening.

Then there are the people who keep up to date on things like what size of particle travels by aerosol transmission. Whatever floats your boat, I guess -- but, as with most science, a few papers you download from a preprint server is probably not enough for a non-expert to make an informed opinion.

While these are my personal irritations, I will say one thing they have in common is that science, while crucial, is never the whole story: the world still needs judgment, communication, shared deliberation, and all those murky things you find over in the Arts and Humanities departments. So please, please don't destroy us and leave everything to the STEM people.

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