Sunday, November 01, 2020

Science, policy-making, and the right thing to do

I know people don't read this blog for politics, but the past week has seen a couple of very unusual situations, and I think it's worth having a discussion of science, its role in policy-making, and the people who work on these issues at the highest levels.   (If you want, view this as writing-therapy for my general anxiety and move on.)

As a political reality, it's important to understand that science does not, itself, make policy.  Public policy is complicated and messy because it involves people, who as a rule are also complicated and messy. Deciding to set fuel standards for non-electric cars to 200 miles per gallon beginning next year and requiring that the fuel all be made from biological sources would be extremely bold, but it would also be completely unworkable and enormously disruptive.  That said, when policy must be made that has a science and technology aspect, it's critical that actual scientific and engineering knowledge be presented at the table.  If science isn't in the room where it happens, then we can make bad situations worse.  (It's been one of the great privileges of my career to have had the chance to meet and interact with some of the people who have worked on policy.  One of the most depressing aspects of the past four years has been the denigration of expertise, the suggestion that no one with detailed technical knowledge can be trusted because they're assumed to be on the make.)  The pandemic has shined a spotlight on this, as well as showing the (also complicated and messy) scientific process of figuring out how the disease works.

A million years ago at the beginning of this week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy put out a press release, linking to a detailed report (pdf), about their science and technology accomplishments over the last four years.  The top highlight in the press release was "Ending the pandemic".  That language doesn't appear anywhere in the actual report, but it sure shows up front and center in the press release.  After this was met with, shall we say, great skepticism (almost 100,000 cases per day, about 1000 deaths per day doesn't sound like an ending to this), the administration walked it back, saying the release was "poorly worded".  The question that comes to mind:  How can Kelvin Droegemeier, the presidential science advisor and head of OSTP, continue in that position?  There is essentially zero chance that he approved that press release language.  It must have been added after he and OSTP staff produced and signed off on the report, and therefore it was either over his objections or without his knowledge.  Either way, under ordinary circumstances that would be the kind of situation that leads to an offer of resignation.  

In a weird complement of this, yesterday evening, Dr. Anthony Fauci gave an interview to the Washington Post, where he stated a number of points with great frankness, including his opinion that the pandemic was in a very dangerous phase and that he disagreed in the strongest terms with Dr. Scott Atlas.  Dr. Atlas has seemingly become the chief advisor to the administration on the pandemic, despite having views that disagree with a large number of public health experts.  The White House in the same Post article takes Dr. Fauci to task for airing his grievances publicly.  Again, the question comes to mind:  How can Dr. Fauci continue to serve on the coronavirus policy task force, when he clearly disagrees with how this is being handled?

As I alluded back in late 2016, these situations remind me of this book, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man, about Max Planck and his difficult decision to remain in Germany and helping to influence German science during WWII.  His rationale was that it was much better for German science if he stayed there, where he thought he could at least be a bit of a moderating influence, than for him to be completely outside the system.  

There are no easy answers here about the right course of action - to quit on principle when that might lead to more chaos, or to try to exert influence from within even in the face of clear evidence that such influence is minimal at best.  What I do know is that we face a complicated world filled with myriad challenges, and that science and engineering know-how is going to be needed in any credible effort to surmount those problems.  The cost of ignoring, or worse, actively attacking technical expertise is just too high.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of the recent line of scientific journals and organizations making public decisions about which American presidential candidate they support? It seems there is a movement to not be impartial scientists in the current political climate.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, there is a time and place for impartiality, and I doubt these publications have taken their stands lightly. Not everything should be political, but is it responsible for organizations (including publications that may have some amount of popular influence because they have a platform for reaching an audience) to remain silent when one candidate is making policy based on objectively incorrect statements about science (e.g., Dr. Atlas saying that masks don't slow the spread of coronavirus)? I'm deeply skeptical that Nature or Science or Scientific American expressing an endorsement will change anyone's mind, but I can understand why their editorial boards decided to say something.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I think you're being overly dramatic - pulling the Nazi comparisons etc. I'm used to better commentary from you. Take a chill pill and don't worry so much. People listen to scientists - see page 6 - even they don;t always take their exact advice:

At the end of the day, decisions have to be made, and sometimes the logical approach misses the human element and may be flat out wrong. I'm happy we don't 100% conform to expert advice. Experts have tunnel vision and often have more confidence than they deserve. They often lack humility in the face of a messy and very creative world.

Anonymous said...

Exactly! Trump has done a fantastic job with COVID, all things considered with how much the liberal deck is stacked against him. Had he listened to Fauci or Pelosi or "experts", then America would have no economy worth protecting. Scientists need to understand that Trump understands the big picture than anyone, he's the only one we can trust to make these decisions.

The fact that antifa people compare Trump to Nazi-ism just speaks to how weak liberal leaders in the US have been. Trump is so charismatic and decisive as a leader that people (particularly scientists) can't really fathom how quickly and efficiently he gets things done.

Douglas Natelson said...

I knew that mentioning the Planck book would risk Poe's Law coming into effect. To be clear, I was not trying to draw a comparison between Trump and Hitler. I was, however, using Planck as an analogous example for someone who chose to be "moderating from within" rather than quitting on principle.

(I'm not going to debate commenters on the administration's response to covid, primarily because no one's mind will be changed.)

Anon@3:03, I thought I was pretty clearly agreeing with your point that policy should not necessarily always conform to narrow technical expert advice - policy has to account for human factors, not just technical expertise.

Anonymous said...

Damn, something is deeply, deeply rotten with this country that physicists (or anyone really) can write something as outrageously false as this comment with full conviction that it's true.

Steve said...

You say "The cost of ignoring, or worse, actively attacking technical expertise is just too high." That's true, but it ignores the fact that scientific and technical people continue to act in ways that completely gut their credibility every time a new crisis comes along. When covid broke out in China, the WHO hastened to assure us that it was nothing to worry about. When it came to the US, the same medical authorities who wouldn't let people hang out in parks or on beaches gave their blessing to going out to demonstrate for BLM, and the same politicians who claimed to be acting on the best scientific advice in prohibiting gatherings of more than 5 to 10 people had no issue with several hundred of their number gathering, with limited masking compliance even, for a funeral for one of their own. The scientific / technical community has a lot of work to do cleaning up their own messes before they can expect to be taken seriously by anyone else, no matter how dire the consequences!

Anonymous said...

Biden in, Trump out. YAY!!