Category Archives: pandemic

mixed thoughts about the status of science

Science is at the heart of several of our hardest issues, including COVID-19 and global warming. (And even race and policing.) While some Americans display “Science is real” yard signs on their front lawns, Dr. Fauci is the face of oppression for others.

The question of science is not simple.

On one hand …

What individuals think about matters like vaccination and climate change has consequences for everyone else. It can be hard to coexist with people whose beliefs seem fundamentally, even willfully, false.

Some findings are well-substantiated, e.g., that vaccines work and that human beings are causing the climate to heat up dangerously.

For any given question, there are better and worse methods of inquiry. If you want to know whether a vaccine works, a randomized, double-blind, controlled experiment is an excellent method. Google-searching to see what various “influencers” say … is not.

Science is a process of inquiry, not a set of truths. When scientific consensus shifts, that is a sign of learning, not an embarrassment.

The process of learning about COVID-19 has been extraordinarily fast and impressive. It is harder to assess the pace of learning about climate change, but we have learned how to learn a lot better than our ancestors could have done three or four centuries ago.

On the other hand …

No one obtains complex knowledge directly or alone. Science is a collective enterprise, deeply dependent on interpersonal trust. Even if you are an epidemiologist or a virologist, you can’t directly observe truths about COVID-19. You must trust data, instruments, protocols, metrics, and theoretical models that come from other people. For instance, you can only know what you’re seeing through an electron microscope because you trust that device and all the previous science that yielded it.

Science is a set of human institutions that confer power and status on some, while excluding others. Anyone with a doctorate has received a graduate education that cost someone hundreds of thousands of dollars. Americans rank physicians highest in status (7.6) out of hundreds of jobs. Physics professors and college presidents come next. Environmental scientists also rank high (6.5). But many Americans are in no position to obtain these jobs, and many may not want them. By the way, just 5 percent of physicians are Black, and 0.3 percent are Native American.

It is all very well to say “Trust the experts.” But the experts in foreign and defense policy bear responsibility for two disastrous wars since 2001. Experts in urban policy wrecked our cities’ cores by slicing highways through them and forcing people into segregated public housing. Medical experts described homosexuality as a pathology in the DSM until 1973. Some influential nutrition experts insisted that fats were bad and sugar was safe while being financed by the sugar industry.

People like me have deep personal reasons to give scientific institutions the benefit of the doubt. One of these institutions literally pays my comfortable salary. My parents, spouse, sibling, and children have been admitted, supported, and (in many cases) paid by universities. I live in a neighborhood dominated by people who have benefitted from the same institutions; it has good public schools, safe streets, and high property values. Many other people could not get into any of these institutions, or don’t want to get into them, or would not feel comfortable in them, or would not be valued by them. Trusting science comes naturally to me but has no natural appeal for many other human beings.

Partisan and ideological heuristics affect all of us. I find it very comfortable to decry Ron DeSantis’ handling of COVID-19 and to blame him for Florida’s current wave. That fits with what I want to think about Republicans, conservatives, etc. It is a lot less comfortable for me to consider why the highest cumulative per capita COVID rates are in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, while Florida ranks 26th and has (to date) just 62% the cumulative case rate of New Jersey. I don’t think the takeaway is that liberal policies have worsened COVID-19. (For one thing, Mississippi is close behind Massachusetts, and Vermont and Hawaii have done best of all.) But it is no more valid to infer that conservative policies are to blame.

As the last point suggests, there is much that we really do not understand, such as the reasons for the variation in COVID-19 outcomes by state or nation. If we knew the answer to that, it might help us to assess overall social systems. We are deeply divided about what kind of society we should live in, and science has not answered that question. It is not as useful as it could be for public debates, yet it should never provide the solutions, since we must reason about values as well as facts.

There is no such thing as value-neutral data. People always decide what to observe and measure and what to call the results. When I search Google Scholar for “school social distancing COVID,” I see the following keywords in the top results: school closure, workplace non-attendance, school lockdown, mental health, weight gain, nonessential workers, nonessential businesses, epidemic control, and mitigation strategies. Whether these are the most important topics, what is missing (race, for instance), and whether these factors are rightly named–these are value questions, not scientific ones. Besides, in many cases, the data come from mandatory reports, and what we require people to report is a value-judgment.

Finally, the methods that work best for evaluating the effects of a mass-produced chemical compounds, such as vaccines, may not work best for assessing many social, cultural, and moral issues. In many domains, positivist methods are too influential and not enough credibility is accorded to laypeople’s knowledge.

I agree with Jonathan Badger that the most prominent critics of science are not raising subtle points about the soft despotism of scientific institutions or the tension between expertise and democracy. Instead, they are making false statements with great certainty. That is a disgrace, but it doesn’t negate real questions about the role of science.

See also methods for engaged research; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; what is Civic Science?; “Just teach the facts”; notes on the social role of science; etc.

“Just teach the facts”

Apparently, at public meetings about social studies curricula, some people are saying: “Just teach facts.” Insofar as this call is coming from people incensed about Critical Race Theory in our k-12 schools, the irony is hard to ignore. CRT is very rarely, if ever, taught, and some of the ideas being attributed to it are factual. Yet I think there is also something else going on. Across many issues and in many political subcultures, it’s common to demand facts instead of opinions, as if the facts are all on our side and the other side is the opinionated one. I have encountered liberals who make versions of this argument, whether about COVID-19 or about history and politics.

In their 2002 book Stealth Democracy, John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that about 70% of Americans are drawn to the idea that gives their book its title. These people basically see disagreement as a sign of corruption. It should not be necessary to disagree about matters of political or moral importance. People who express contrasting opinions must have bad motives or be sadly misguided. Since disagreement is rife, it would be “better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts.”

In a great 2010 paper, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey showed that fewer people probably held the stealth democracy position than Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had found, and Americans were more tolerant of disagreement. However, Neblo and colleagues didn’t find zero support for stealth democracy, and I think it pops up fairly often.

It may reflect frustration about opinions that one strongly dislikes: Why can’t those misguided people just acknowledge the facts? But it may also reflect a deeper problem.

In an era when science (as popularly defined) has enormous prestige and purports to distinguish facts sharply from values, people don’t know what to make of value-laden disagreements. Justin McBrayer found this sign hanging in his son’s second-grade classroom:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

McBrayer attributes this distinction to the Common Core. I think the text of the Common Core is actually a bit subtler, and the sign reflects a widespread view. In any case, the distinction is untenable.

First of all, we must select which facts to investigate. We could teach George Washington’s achievements or slavery in colonial America–or neither, or both–but the facts themselves can’t tell us which of those things to study.

Second, the information we possess always reflects other people’s interests and concerns. American historians, for example, study marginalized and oppressed people more than they did a half century ago. This shift reflects ethical principles. Historians do not, and cannot, pursue all facts indiscriminately. You might dispute their emphasis, but then you’re arguing for different values, not rejecting their facts.

Third, it is very hard to identify a fact that is free of value-judgments or a value-judgment that does not encompass empirical beliefs about the way the world works.

Fourth, many of the most important facts about history are the opinions people held. Lincoln’s response to secession was his opinion, but attributing a position to him is either correct or incorrect. You cannot teach history without teaching–and spending a lot of your time teaching–opinions.

Perhaps most importantly, not all values are just opinions that people happen to hold. Valuing chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream is subjective, in this sense. Believing that genocide is evil is not. It isn’t a fact “that can be tested or proven,” but it also isn’t just something I happen to feel. It is something we are all obliged to feel.

Education inevitably involves choices about what to teach and how to talk about and interpret information. It inevitably conveys values and causes students to make judgments–whether as intended or in reaction to what the school wants them to think. Education is better when it helps students to develop political and intellectual virtues. But adults disagree about virtues, and our disagreements reflect our freedom, our diversity, and our nature as finite, embodied, fallible creatures. Therefore, disagreement about what and how to teach is inevitable, permanent, and a sign that free people care about the future. “Just teach the facts” is a call to stop this debate, when what we need is more and better.

See also: first year college students and moral relativism;  science, democracy, and civic lifeis science republican (with a little r)?some thoughts on natural lawis all truth scientific truth?; etc.

public opinion has moved against mandatory vaccination

Using Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel, the Tufts University Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth, and Civic Engagement surveyed representative samples of Americans in 2020 and 2021. Among many other questions, we asked whether authorities should be able to mandate vaccination. Most respondents said no both times. Support declined from 42.6% to 34.5% from 2020-2021. Biden supporters were more favorable than non-voters, who were more favorable than Trump supporters. However, both Biden and Trump voters moved against mandatory vaccinations. Possibly, Trump supporters have become less likely to favor vaccination mandates now that the federal government is led by a Democrat, but that wouldn’t explain the decline among Biden supporters.

I report these results without a strong value-judgment. I think I would support mandates (with appropriate exemptions), but that's just an opinion. I don't have expertise or fixed views.

Some caveats: In 2020, we asked about vaccinations in general. In 2021, we asked about the COVID-19 vaccines. In 2020, we asked whether people would vote in the next November election--and if so, for whom. In 2021, we asked whether and how they did vote in the prior election. Too few people admitted they didn't vote; our turnout estimate is inflated by over-reporting.

See also: Despite Similar Levels of Vaccine Hesitancy, White People More Likely to Be Vaccinated Than Black People.

explore equity and inequity in the USA

On the Tufts Equity Research website is a user-friendly tool that allows anyone to explore data from our May 2021 national survey. The tool requires no specialized background or vocabulary to use. You can just select pairs of variables and see the results.

For instance, I looked at the proportion of Americans who report that other people act afraid of them because of their identity. The graphic shows the result for the whole population. The rate has doubled since last year, and I suspect that’s because we have feared each other during this year of pandemic and political conflict.

One can also look at differences by demographic category. For instance, 33% of Black Americans–versus 15% of whites–believe that they are feared because of their identity.

You can explore hundreds of other combinations on the site.

debating politics in a pandemic

A few months ago, I published Levine, P. (2020). Theorizing Democracy in a PandemicDemocratic Theory7(2), 134-142, with the following abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about the future of democracy and civil society. Some recent predictions seem to use the suffering to score points in ongoing political arguments. As a better example of how to describe the future during a crisis, I cite the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. King does not merely predict: he calls for action, joins the action, and makes himself responsible for its success or failure. With these cautions about prediction in mind, I venture two that may guide immediate responses. First, communities may erect or strengthen unjustifiable barriers to outsiders, because boundaries enhance collective action. Second, although the pandemic may not directly change civic behavior, an economic recession will bankrupt some organizations through which people engage.

Today, Faculti released the video of an interview with me based on this article. In the interview, I also mention Levine P. (2021) Why protect civil liberties during a pandemic?J Public Health Policy. 42(1):154-159. `

By the way, I think my second prediction (or worry) proved too pessimistic, at least in the USA, mainly because of the federal aid packages.