President Biden declared in a January memorandum that it be “the policy of my administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”
The memo, which creates a task force and directs some directors to ensure some things, is the formal institution of the “trust the science” message into policy. By itself, it’s a harmless thing to declare, but observers ought to take notice that “trust the science” is functionally a political axiom. It’s really more of a way of posturing about whom to trust — me and my people, not the other guy and his people. It doesn’t offer a functional method for interpreting or understanding what the best science actually says, especially on questions that are harder to answer..
On Jan. 17, Anthony Fauci was on NBC’s Meet the Press and when asked about the UK virus strain, he said, “We’re looking at all of them very, very carefully to determine – obviously, the Brits have made it very clear that it’s more contagious. They say that it isn’t more virulent. But, you know, we’ve got to be careful because the more cases you get, even though on a one-to-one basis it’s not more virulent, meaning it doesn’t make you more sick or more likely to die, just by numbers alone the more cases you have, the more hospitalizations you’re going to have.”
Several days later, the Wall Street Journal published this dispatch from London: “Britain’s top scientific adviser Friday said preliminary studies show it may be between 30% to 40% deadlier than previous variants,” meaning the variant is in fact supposed to be more virulent on a one-to-one basis.
I raise this example not to take a position on the question of virulence, or to try and discredit the Brits or American scientists or Fauci. The point is that scientific knowledge develops and changes and is not just a static thing we can consult, like a dictionary.
Now, there must be a general recognition that evidence develops and even changes, and that has immediate policymaking implications. But it also has implications for the whole “trust the science” ethos, because it would treat the conclusions of its trusted representatives as the firm resolutions of science at any given point in time.
Here is another example: In May of last year, the Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency use authorization for remdesivir to be used as a COVID-19 treatment. In October, the FDA fully approved the drug for treating COVID-19 when it became evident enough that the drug can improve outcomes.
However, in November, the World Health Organization recommended against remdesivir, finding that there is “currently no evidence that remdesivir improves survival and other outcomes in these patients.”
What does one do when two world-class public health organizations evaluate differently what is universally considered the “gold standard” of scientific experiments, drawing opposite conclusions about its ability to keep people from dying? Which one is properly representative “the science?”
The commitment to evidence-based decisions does not insulate the administration, nor any other nominally scientific person or entity, from making mistakes, nor does it guarantee that they will deliver the fullest understanding of a scientific question at any given point in time.
None of these are reasons to write off the guidance of public health authorities or scientific knowledge as a pursuit. The fruits of science are visible everywhere, in technologies, in medicine, in our historically high life-expectancies.
They are, however, reasons to be open to an environment of public discourse which allows for more deliberation about of scientific evidence. They are reasons for people to take down their yard signs and drop the rigid faithfulness to a vacuous political expression.
ORIGEN AUTORAL: Jeremy Beaman