COVID-19, Where Science and Politics are Separate and NOT Equal

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Photo by Imke van Loon-Martens on Unsplash

In many locations across America, there have been protests held to “open up” the country so people can go back to work and the economy can recover. Considering the prevalence of “Trump 2020” flags at these events, not to mention the “Don’t Tread on Me” signs, as well as young men holding assault rifles jauntily pointed downward from their waste (no, dear Freudians, I am not even going to go there), it is obvious these events have been inspired to take place by Fox News and similar media outlets. Or in other words, this is Politics.

And the Science? The consensus is that opening up too much, too quickly would be disastrous and potentially nullify the good (and remember, we are measuring “good” by a current death toll in America, as I am typing, of over 47,000 human beings, that number being less than the number of deaths we otherwise would have by now) that has so far been accomplished by staying at home and social distancing. Scientists indicate easing of restrictions can take place when widespread testing is occuring, which will enable more efficient quarantine measures and contact tracing, and that realistically, we can only finally “get back to normal” once a vaccine is in place. See the article When Can We Lift the Coronavirus Pandemic Restrictions by Tanya Lewis in Scientific American, published on April 6, for more detail on what a scientific approach to opening back up would be.

Politics versus Science. This is not a debate occurring on equal footing. This is not a case of two sides holding a debate wherein both sides should get an equal hearing. Because one side is based on opinion, emotion, bias, and assorted “did you here about?” stories circulated by political pundits on cable news and social media. The other is based on data. Do I really need to elaborate on the relative merits of the two in relation to a novel coronavirus with astounding transmissibility compared to other viruses and an equally astounding death rate? Opinion or data, which do want to have take the lead? Now, please understand, I love Politics. I have a degree in Political Science, and that tells you how much I love it. I love political debates and discussions, provided they are held respectfully, and generally in any political debate, there is not a perfectly right answer since any political view, be it on the Left or the Right, can be dissected apart and shown to have flaws. I love Politics. But in a pandemic, Politics needs to stand down, step aside, and frankly, just shut up. Because you are not playing in the same league as Science. In a pandemic, Science is the Major Leagues, and Politics is the pick-up game at a local park.

Sadly, what is playing out here is hardly surprising when we look back at the evolution of the so-called “debate” (there isn’t a debate, actually) about climate change. People with strong political opinions that climate change was not really happening, or even if it was, nothing we could do about it, decided they could legitimately pontificate on a subject without any necessity of backing up their positions with data. And in the time-honored tradition of magicians performing prestidigitation, diverting your attention with a shiny object, while the real business is going on just out of your sight, these people holding these strong opinions about the falseness of climate change pointed out, as their “proof,” the ulterior motives and agenda of those putting forth the science of climate change. However true it may be that many (even most?) scientists working on studying climate change do in fact also care about the environment of planet Earth, to argue that provides the Aha! proof that climate change science is therefore false and a scam, well that argument is a magic trick of stunning skill executed deftly and with aplomb by political pundits and has been effective in certain circles (Fox News viewership, primarily).

And lo and behold, a variation on the climate-change-is-nothing-to-worry-about magic trick is playing out now with COVID-19. It is the look-at-wonderful-Sweden magic trick. Sweden has become the darling of Fox News and friends. (And the irony of that, considering the otherwise liberal and progressive nature of Sweden is so staggering, one could really laugh about this, if it weren’t that the subject now is matter of life and death.) Political pundits show with glee the Swedish populace seemingly engaging in life totally as normal, people gathering, businesses open, no masks to be seen, and that is the shiny object, the magician’s trick, where they tell you, “See! Look at that! The Swedes are being sensible while we’ve been suckered into wrecking our economy.” And the protests here in America about “opening up” commenced. But let us look behind the shiny object and ask some scientific questions.

Hans Bergstrom wrote an article “The Grim Truth About the ‘Swedish Model’” that lays out in some detail what Sweden has and has not been doing (which is a bit more complicated than the Fox News 30-second sound bite version), as well as the problems being encountered, the most painfully glaring problem being the rising death toll, far outpacing that of its neighbor countries. Some political pundits (that is to say, the magicians) have given a misleading picture, claiming Sweden is going about life as normal. Technically, that is not completely true. Yes, the government has not “ordered” many restrictions in the way other nations have, but instead has opted to trust the people to be sensible. And by sensible, they mean practice some social distancing, avoid large gatherings, try to protect the elderly. Unfortunately, judging by the death toll, not enough people are being sensible enough on their own initiative.

Now since I have framed this as Politics versus Science, one might well object that in fact the Swedish approach does come from a scientist. Quite right. It does. The architect of Sweden’s strategy is epidemiologist Anders Tegnall. A scientist, yes. But here is the problem: Science functioning at its best is a collaborative effort, many researchers collecting data, analyzing the data, propounding theories, publishing theories, having those theories peer reviewed, etc. This is one man. Sweden is operating under one man’s theory. A roll the dice gamble on one man’s theory. An article in Forbes by David Nikel states “Sweden: 22 Scientists Say Coronavirus Strategy Has Failed”. Even as early as late March, some 2000+ academics signed an open letter to the government of Sweden calling for stricter measures. In Science, the number of voices speaking does matter. Peer review does matter. We are looking at one man’s theory about some notion of herd immunity (though Tegnall prefers not to use the term “herd immunity,” but I’m not sure what else to call his idea) versus the consensus in the scientific community that what Sweden is doing is misguided and will lead to a higher death toll. Herd immunity is a notion that works when there is a vaccine in place (see COVID-19 and herd immunity). Herd immunity arrived at by some notion of just let the virus run its course is not so much herd immunity, but a prescription for a high death toll. Yes, good Science is about running experiments, but when an experiment entails large numbers of death, that is an experiment that should not be run.

But all of these finer points, and arguments, and nuances mean nothing at all in the realm of magician political pundits. They still cry “Look at Sweden.” For now. I wonder if a month from now, they will still be saying look at Sweden? More likely, they will have to find some other shiny object to use to divert the attention of their viewership, to keep alive their wishful thinking that the virus really is not all that serious.

Politics versus Science. Divert attention or follow the facts. It is not even a contest. Please, let’s follow the facts.

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