Following the Science Where Science Can’t Lead

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Read and compare these two snippets from Ted Nesi’s weekly roundup column very carefully.  First (emphasis added):

The targeted restrictions have received praise from national health experts, including former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who praised Raimondo in a tweet, saying, ‘We face hard choices now, and Governors are leading.’ But the governor shouldn’t expect too many holiday cards next month from gym owners. They were left scratching their heads, wondering why workout spaces must shutter while restaurants, retail operations and churches remain open within limits. Raimondo argued the targeted shutdowns are anchored on ‘what is true, what is science, what is fact, what is data and what the health experts are telling me.’ But that didn’t do much for many business owners, including Crossfit Providence owner Tanner Baldauf, who argues they’ve followed all the rules and have been safe. He also worries the two-week pause will turn into another two weeks and then another. ‘Then it just turns into this never-ending two more weeks,’ Baldauf told 12 News.’”

Second (again, emphasis added):

The virus has become so widespread at this point that health officials tell me it’s almost impossible to identify where transmission is happening. To try and shed some light on the issue, IBM offered a new analysis last week indicating 42% of transmissions over the last couple months have happened within families and households, while the remaining 58% have happened at work, restaurants and bars, churches, parks and sports sites. (A full breakdown can be found here.) The data painted a slightly different picture than the one Governor Raimondo has offered in recent months, that the virus was spreading most at social gatherings. And she partly acknowledged that during her weekly news conference Thursday, saying, ‘I’m not going to pretend that we know with great specificity exactly how everyone in Rhode Island has contracted COVID. So I have to make decisions in the face of a lot of uncertainty and I’m going to do my best.’”

Put the two italicized sentences next to each other, and the conclusion that emerges is that we’re supposed to buckle under the governor’s commands (and those of bureaucrats throughout government) because they are issuing them in the name of science, but when analysis highlights the arbitrary nature of their restrictions, the response is that the science isn’t specific enough, so the governor is issuing proclamations about your life based purely on her own judgment.

That gap between what the science shows and what the government is pretending it shows — and the fact that human beings are incapable of conceiving of all of the factors involved, let alone making judgments about them for millions of other people — is why we don’t hand over this much power to government, at least not until recently.  Emergencies, during which government officials can say, “We don’t know exactly what’s going on, but we know it’s not safe to go over to that part of the city,” are one thing.  This is quite another.

Consider the slant that appears even in a seemingly straightforward explanation from the news media.  Nesi misleads his readers by lumping every outside-the-home circumstance into one bucket.  Even if you follow his link to Eli Sherman’s source material, you’ll get a misleading impression.  When breaking down “work, restaurants and bars, churches, parks and sports sites” to their own portions, Sherman gives them as percentages of the 58%.  So, for example, the article says “11% occurred at recreational sites, including churches, parks and sports settings,” but because that’s not a percentage of the whole pie, it’s misleadingly high.  As the following chart shows, that category actually accounts for only 7% of all cases.  In other words, the way Sherman reports the numbers makes it look overstated by almost 60%!

(Let’s ignore for our purposes, here, the bias and insult implicit in calling churches a subset of “recreation.”)

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Displaying the facts and data this way shows how absurd it is to target places like gyms and recreation facilities, let alone churches.  To really stop the spread of this virus, the governor would have to claim power to isolate members of families from each other and shut down our productive activity (work and spending).  Such practices would violate our civil rights and destroy our economy, so she’s “doing her best,” and by the time the journalists filter the background information to the public, that almost sounds like a reasonable thing for a temporary dictator to say.

It’s not.  Instead, we should acknowledge reality (you know, believing in science and all), respect rights, and do what planning and management we can around those to great Rs.



  • Rhett Hardwick

    I have noticed the ascendency of the word “science” in recent months. As in “anchored” in “what is science” above. I suppose this is to favor the idea that science is always correct. Perhaps, but sometimes it is dogma.

  • Christopher C. Reed

    How about some actual science in our policies?
    https://gbdeclaration.org

    • Rhett Hardwick

      I couldn’t help but notice the reference to “public health scientists”

  • Mario

    I think “percentage of the 58″ is the right way of looking at it. People may be contracting it at home, but it isn’t being spontaneously generated there. You certainly can’t believe that closing the border is an effective response while also claiming that only isolating individual household members would work.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      I’m not sure I’d say it’s “being spontaneously generated” anywhere. If I’ve got a family of six and a bug runs its way through us, I’m not sure there’s a helpful distinction from an office of six.

      But that seems like a separate conversation than whether it’s appropriate to present 42% as the number for in-the-home and 11% as the number for churches and recreation when those two numbers aren’t parallel. Maybe if it had been “11% of the non-home infections, which is 7% of the total.”

      • Mario

        I see it as more “11% of the preventable spread.” If someone in high school dies, you wouldn’t expect that to hurt the school’s graduation rate. There is no reason to leave the numbers in unless you are trying to force a particular conclusion. Personally, I like that we have an assumption that the home is basically inviolate, and that prevention has to take place at least one level beyond.

        • Justin Katz

          That’s a reasonable way to see it, but you’re adding the idea of “preventable spread.” If you present a statistic as one thing (or even ambiguously) while intending some other context, it’s misleading.