Science does not give us all the answers. When it comes to forming policy, there are no technocratic answers. The Great Barrington Declaration is a sensible statement by a group of scientists daring to stand against the “consensus” of experts. It is based not merely on science but on prudent thought based on a broader understanding of public health.

Joe Biden has been telling people lately that, unlike Donald Trump, he will “listen to the scientists.” Strangely enough, Mr. Biden’s stated plans for how he would fight COVID-19 sound suspiciously like Mr. Trump’s, so much so that in the debate last week Vice President Pence observed that this might well be another case of Mr. Biden’s historic tendency to plagiarize—the very sin that knocked him out of his first run for the presidency in 1988.

The problem with the trope, however, is that “listening to scientists” is not the same as “listening to science,” though many people seem to think it is. There is a very large difference between the results of scientific experimentation that have been reproduced several times and what a given scientist or group of scientists says on the basis of those results.

Of course, some people, even those with scientific training, will condescendingly tell you that the “consensus of scientists” is a different matter—that is to be taken as, if not the truth, at least something that we must follow until the consensus changes. I have no doubt that the opinions of a consensus (or perhaps “herd,” “gaggle,” or even “annoyance”?) are worth something. It shows where the scientists think the data is going. But the idea that scientists form some sort of doctrinal authority that must be believed and obeyed on pain of mortal sin is itself absurd since scientists are, to most appearances, human beings whose opinions are not solely derived from the results of their research or logic. Whether speaking as individuals or, even more so as groups, scientists are no less susceptible to group-think, an eye toward grant monies or jobs, or their political views when they speak beyond the bounds of their own research on controverted topics.

In a delightful lecture delivered at Caltech in 2003, the late Michael Crichton warned, “Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.” He explained that “consensus is only invoked in situations when the science is not solid enough” and provided a great many examples of how following “scientific consensus” retarded both science and society in geology, biology, medicine, and other fields. “If it’s consensus,” he explained, “it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus.” What is it, then?

Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.[1]

If this is true of hard science, how much more so when we speak of topics like public health policy that depend not merely on hard scientific questions but those involving human behavior, psychology, and economic and social effects? Even if science gives hard answers to many questions about COVID-19, there are no hard answers to public policy questions. To appeal to the “scientists” or even to “scientific consensus” to shut down debates about policies involving lockdowns, masks, and all the other measures that are rightly prudential and ultimately political decisions, as governments and big tech companies have attempted to do so often this year, only accelerates the growing distrust that people have for scientists and doctors.

The public are reaching for their wallets.

The truth is that a public policy consensus among scientists and doctors concerning public health and COVID would not demand our fealty in any case. Even more, however, there has never been one.

Even in March 2020, public health experts like Dr. David Katz were questioning the blunt instruments to fight COVID being used by politicians.[2] Others continued to ask the questions, including many of us who were not doctors or scientists. But doctors and scientists who dared to step out of line were generally shouted down. Now, however, a group of nearly (as of this writing) 6,000 public health experts and 12,000 medical doctors have signed a document arguing that the destructive lockdown policies that have been promoted around the world need to be replaced by an approach that they call “Focused Protection.”[3] The document, authored by professors Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, Martin Kilduff of Harvard, and Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, advocate for policies like minimal rotations in nursing homes, the use of staff with acquired immunity, and frequent testing of staff. They want programs to have groceries and other necessaries delivered to the homes of those who are elderly or sick and guidance on the best ways to meet with those who are vulnerable, preferably outside. And they advocate that those who are at little risk of serious illness or death be allowed to get on with the business of living.

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport, and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

The reaction to the document has been somewhat predictable. The online platform Reddit banned links to the declaration on its r/COVID-19 channel, the moderators insisted, because

Posts and, where appropriate, comments must link to a primary scientific source: peer-reviewed original research, pre-prints from established servers, and research or reports by governments and other reputable organisations. Please do not link to YouTube or Twitter

If only Michael Crichton could read that sentence! Reports from “governments and other reputable organizations” are somehow the equivalent of scientific sources in the moderators’ eyes. The populist in me loves the inference that Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford professors are disreputable, but the deeper problem is the notion that policy papers can even be “scientific” in the sense that hard science papers are. Any time we are talking about policy we are going to be talking about judgments that are not able to be tested in a lab. We are going to be talking about politics.

The moderators of the even larger Reddit channel r/Coronavirus were even more obtuse, censoring the document under the pretext that the Great Barrington Declaration was either spamming, self-promotion, or a scam.[4]

Obtuseness is pretty contagious. The prize-winner may be Richard Murphy, a professor of political economy at City University of London blogging at the frighteningly named site Brave New Europe, who complained that he was “reliably informed” that the concept of herd immunity has no scientific merit in human populations—a rather odd claim, given that this is the basis for needing a certain portion of any given population vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella. Sensing that he had perhaps overstepped yet unwilling to edit his post, he simply went on to note that even if the concept is applicable to humans, it couldn’t be applicable to COVID-19 because we don’t have herd immunity to the flu or the common cold, which is also a coronavirus. Instead, he opined, we need a vaccine.

Well, given the rather dismal success rates of flu shots and the fact that we have no common cold vaccine, should we not simply write off this idea too?

Professor Murphy’s stabs at science are really no more than a fig leaf for him to assert that because the meeting for the scientists took place at the home of the free market and Austrian-economics-inspired American Institute of Economic Research that thus the whole thing is really just a cover for “culling” the population of elderly people because they are not “useful” and “productive.” The declaration is really about economics, specifically “far-right economics.”[5]

Oh, dear.

Like most people on the political left, Professor Murphy does not strike me as understanding that policies always involve trade-offs. Nor that the trade-off of the various hard- and soft-lockdowns and restrictions on schooling and business that the Great Barrington Declaration is aiming to stop have led not only to deaths of despair among the young and the middle-aged, but also contributed to increased numbers of deaths among the old due to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.[6]

Yet Professor Murphy is perhaps a bit clearer on the point than many others are in identifying this as about economics. Professor Murphy may not know anything about Austrian economics and thus could not point to any specifically Austrian economic ideas in the declaration, but the idea that the scientists are not simply doing hard sciences but are doing something more political and economic is exactly right.

Opinions gathered from other scientists who disagree with the Great Barrington group by the U.K.’s Science Media Centre show that usually what is being argued about are practical and political questions that sometimes rely on scientific questions yet unanswered, sometimes deal with scientific questions that do not determine public policy questions, and often do not deal with any scientific question at all. How do you determine who is less vulnerable and can go about a normal life? If you can, is it really fair to separate out the elderly and vulnerable and not let them live normally when others can? Can we keep the serious illness and deaths down enough to allow normalcy before we have a reliable vaccine or herd immunity? Many of the questions rely on assumptions, such as one that assumes that because there were excess deaths even where there were hard lockdowns that this means we cannot forego the lockdowns.[7]

Science does not give us all the answers. When it comes to forming policy, there are no technocratic answers that can be given. To believe it otherwise is to believe in the false god of scientism. What is good about the Great Barrington Declaration is that this is a group of scientists daring to stand against what is purported to be the “mainstream” or “consensus” of experts and give their informed and prudent views. Yes, their views are no more infallible than other scientists. Yes, they rely on things other than strictly scientific questions, including political and economic considerations. That is because political and economic considerations have to do with public health.

The Great Barrington Declaration is not a dogmatic document. It is a sensible statement based not merely on science but on prudent thought based on a broader understanding of public health than simply COVID deaths. If you want to brag about “listening to the scientists,” you have no excuse not to listen this group.

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Notes:

[1] Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming,” the 2003 Caltech Michelin Lecture.

[2] David L. Katz, “Is Our Fight Against Coronavirus Worse Than the Disease?The New York Times (March 2020).

[3] See the statement here.

[4] Ethan Yang, “Reddit’s Censorship of The Great Barrington Declaration,” American Institute for Economic Research (October 2020).

[5] Richard Murphy, “The Great Barrington Declaration has Nothing to do with Epidemiology and a Great Deal to do with Far Right Economics,” Brave New Europe (October 2020).

[6] Tucker Doherty, “Summer wave of dementia deaths adds thousands to pandemic’s deadly toll,” Politico (September 2020).

[7] “Expert reaction to Barrington Declaration, an open letter arguing against lockdown policies and for ‘Focused Protection,'” Science Media Centre (October 2020).

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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