“Follow the science” has become a ubiquitous expression. But what does it mean?
Science is a structured investigative method that is indispensable for civilization. It is a cornerstone of our growing understanding of the universe. It is a process that includes developing hypotheses, doing experiments to test those hypotheses, and offering new hypotheses based on the results of the experiments. It is a quantitative, objective, never-ending process.
Then what does it mean to “follow the science”? To “follow” means to make a conscious choice to act in a certain manner. Conscious choices are qualitative, whereas science is quantitative. Science is data and information. Data and information are useful inputs for making choices, but they do not inherently contain moral or ethical perspectives. The hard decisions in life require far more than just quantitative data and information. They require qualitative consideration of ethics, legality, practicality, collateral damage, and unintended consequences. An assertion by science that something is likely true does not necessarily justify all actions based on that truth. For example, the National Socialists in Germany “followed the science” of eugenics, at the expense of six million Jewish people.
Bad decisions often happen when “follow the science” is taken to mean “follow the scientist who says something I agree with”. This perversion of science is exactly backward. It happens when a person begins with an ideological perspective, then listens to a politician who agrees with that perspective, who in turn listened to a scientist who agreed with his/her perspective, who in turn may or may not be right. Many people who claim to be “following the science” in this manner have little understanding of the actual science. They are simply placing their faith in a particular politician who has placed their faith in a particular scientist.
This phenomenon has become so pronounced in our society that science has become polarized. There is a left-leaning “science” and a right-leaning “science”, and never the twain shall meet. This polarization should be an important clue that the truth of science lies somewhere else besides the two polarities, because science itself is not inherently polarized. Sadly, science that is predicated on ideology merely clouds vital information, especially when the various media platforms with their own ideological biases collaborate to selectively present incomplete information to the public.
Other indications that science has become politically hijacked are statements like “the science is settled” or “all reputable scientists have agreed”. A real scientist would never contend that “the science is settled”, because science is a process of continually testing and challenging every hypothesis. A real scientist would never profess that “all reputable scientists have agreed”, because science is not a polling process. Scientific debates are settled by objective data and by experiments, not by popularity contests or majority opinions.
One of the stark realities about elections is that we elect people who are good at winning elections, not people who are proficient at science. Very few politicians have the wherewithal or background to understand complex scientific issues. They may have some expertise in a very narrow field, but politicians must address a nearly unlimited array of complex situations. The very last thing we should expect from any of them is that they are qualified to instruct us on the science of all those situations. If that is what people think “follow the science” means, then our country will be the sport of every gust of the political winds.