And the Use and Misuse of Science…
COVID-19 masks, good-bye! Life after COVID is calling to all of us!
We’re not quite there yet. Puritans and rebels, suggested by this image, are still battling over coronavirus rules. However, rapidly multiplying news reports point to almost-normal lives for most people, later this year.
Today’s blog discusses the US States opening up, for good or for ill. But on balance, I think for good. The following blog will review pecks of good news, with a peek at the near future. Today is mostly my analysis and opinion; the next blog will quote research results and extrapolate from there.
Here are today’s topics, with links to each major section:
The Fallacy of Following the Science
When people propose policies they often insist that we “follow the science.” As a scientist, I respect the value of scientific evidence. But when a person starts with the phrase “follow the science” and then segues to “shut up and do as I say,” they are misusing science.
But, exactly what “science” are we talking about? Consider the following:
- Science is an objective search for knowledge. Scientific knowledge is never certain, never black or white. It is inherently in the gray, tentative, subject to amendment when new data or analysis comes available. Dogmatic, one-sided statements, even if they quote data, are not science.
- When we talk about coronavirus, immunology is not the only science that’s important. Economics is a science, and economists have valid concerns about the impact of coronavirus business restrictions on general welfare. Psychology is a science, and has lots to say about the negative effects of unemployment, lockdowns and remote schooling. All of these sciences, plus other thoughtful voices, must have a seat at the policy-making table.
The Fallacy of Extreme Views
If science has an opposite, it may be the assertion of extreme views, with or without claiming the veneer of science. An extreme view is inherently hostile to uncertainty, and resistant to compromise or change. Therefore (I assert) it can’t claim to be scientific.
For example, when discussing COVID-19 masks we should avoid embracing either the Puritans (the enthusiastic mask-requirers) or the Rebels (the equally enthusiastic mask-deniers). We should speak up against both extremes, and advocate transparent open discussion of options and risks.
The Logic and Illogic of Coronavirus Rules
There is no right or wrong on coronavirus NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) such as masking and social distancing. Every rule represents a tradeoff between death and other forms of social damage.
Here’s an example: A CDC analysis in October estimated that of the US excess deaths in 2020, only two-thirds were directly caused by COVID. What caused the other one-third deaths? Here are some possibilities:
- Death due to COVID but not properly recorded as COVID.
- Deaths caused by COVID crowding hospitals, interfering with treatment of other serious conditions.
- Due to COVID rules (NPI) leading to depression, suicide and economic hardship, in turn causing starvation or lack of medical care.
Let’s Loosen Those Rules!
Some jurisdictions are not waiting for this kind of proof. To date, a number of states have repealed many rules, including mask mandates. They include Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana and Texas.
Does it make sense to soften or eliminate NPI rules?
A person could argue that factors we described as economic and psychological are so damaging that they outweigh the direct damage of COVID deaths. That would be a judgment call, open to debate but not provable or disprovable. Accordingly, if a state wanted to remedy the economic and psychological damage of COVID they could do the following:
- Bring back jobs by allowing businesses, including restaurants and bars, to open at full capacity, adding isolation barriers where possible.
- Re-open classrooms for in-person teaching, to return children to a normal school environment.
The five states mentioned above are taking steps similar to these. They are bold, possibly chancy moves, but not illogical as a concrete step forward. The jurisdictions are trying to restore normal business and schools as quickly as possible.
– Should a Daredevil Drive the Bus?
The steps outlined above for businesses and schools do not require trashing mask rules. Nevertheless, these five states are also eliminating mandates for COVID-19 masks, a step that seems to be political, not economic or psychological: “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.”
I also perceive a moral inconsistency. Many of those who oppose COVID-19 masks also believe that Christian principles are central to US culture. Those principles of course include the Golden Rule and love for one’s neighbor. But evidently for these mask-deniers, love for oneself overwhelms any feeling of responsibility or caring for anyone else. The wedding of these beliefs (Christianity and anti-masking) seems to me un-Christian.
– Mask Rules as Gradualism
Of course, mask rules are not all-or-nothing. Mask advice can range from a gentle suggestion to a requirement with fines and enforcement. Let’s see what these five states are doing about COVID-19 masks:
- Gov. Kim Reynolds (Iowa), 2/5/2020: Mask mandate ends February 7. “Strongly encourages …[all]… to take reasonable public health measures.”
- Gov. Greg Gianforte (Montana), 2/10/2020: Mask mandate ends February 12. Businesses can be sued unless they take “reasonable measures.” The Governor emphasizes “personal responbility.”
- Gov Tate Reeves (Mississippi), 3/2/2020: Mask mandate ends March 3 except in schools, urges people to “use their best judgment.”
- Gov. Greg Abbott (Texas), 3/2/2020: No mask mandate Mar 10, however “it is still good practice” to wear a mask.
- Gov. Kay Ivey (Alabama), 3/4/2020: Masks optional April 9. “Strongly urges” continuing to wear masks.
Bottom line, these governors are removing mask mandates, but giving some encouragement to mask-wearing as an individual choice. And no doubt other officials in these states will try to promote masks: mayors, where permitted, as a requirement; and public health leaders via strongly worded advice.
– Delegation of Rules on COVID-19 Masks
What about allowing counties and cities to require COVID-19 masks, if they are locally needed? That seems logical to me.
Montana allows local governments to make their own rules about masks. Texas allows county mask rules only if hospitalizations rise above a specified threshold, and forbids penalties. (The governor’s unwillingness to delegate has set up a confrontation between Austin and the state Attorney General.) Mississippi allows businesses to make their own mask policies. The positions of Iowa and Alabama were not explained in the articles I consulted.
I will refrain from either praising or demonizing the governors who are pressing forward to bring a quick end to pandemic times. They are taking calculated risks, partly logical and partly political.
Is this a good thing? Their voters put them into office to lead, and that’s what they are doing. I say that, at least, they deserve commendation for taking initiative rather than evading action.
– Here’s how I summarize the situation:
- Policymakers need to consult all of the relevant scientists: not just public health experts, but also economists, psychologists and educators.
- Political leaders should, I believe, be more transparent. They should frankly explain the conflicting issues and present their policies as a sensible, thoughtfully considered middle ground. It’s a lack of transparency that tempts one to denigrate state actions as purely political, rather than as a best effort to address a complex, uncertain situation.
- The US is a federal republic, that is, a federation of states with local and national government by elected leaders. As a result, we are engaged in more than 50 different strategies to defeat the COVID-19 virus. This is potentially of great benefit, because the states and cities will learn from each other’s experience.
- Our federation also delivers disadvantages: because there is little or no restriction on travel between the 48 contiguous states, we cannot defeat the virus nationally until we conquer it in every state. Otherwise, the remaining “hot spots” may breed new virus mutations that then spread to other areas. This will pose a challenge going forward.
On balance, I think that there is some good in the diverse experiments now underway. Each state has a unique combination of economic and political considerations, and our governmental system gives states great discretion. We will encounter setbacks in the battle against coronavirus, but our varied approaches will give us great tools for a durable long-term victory against COVID-19 and its variants.