To hear the way some politicians talk, when it comes to COVID-19, they’re all “following the science,” not to mention “the data.”
“Look at the data. Follow the science. Listen to the experts. Be smart,” now-former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote on Twitter in May 2020, after “Two Weeks to Flatten the Curve” had fully transitioned to “The New Normal.”
“We’ve been operating on facts and data and science from the very beginning,” said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a campaign ad titled simply “Follow The Science.”
President Joe Biden has frequently appealed to “the science.” In an executive order announcing a vaccine mandate for federal workers, for instance, he said his administration used “the best available data and science-based public health measures.” In an article criticizing Biden’s move to push vaccine boosters in September, StatNews’s Lev Facher described “Follow the Science” as “a mantra” for the administration.
“The science” emerged long before 2020 as a potent source of authority for politicians. Yet while the scientific method is a powerful tool for advancing human potential, the belief that it alone can guide us is an example of “scientism.”
Scientism is, in the words of public intellectual Scott Masson, “the belief that moral or evaluative judgments are merely subjective and that only the ‘hard’ sciences—think physics, chemistry, or biology—furnish legitimate objective knowledge.” While few American politicians would openly endorse this position, the actions many have taken during the COVID-19 pandemic reflect scientism in deed, if not in word.
Scientism lets politicians off the hook for their decisions. They didn’t really make a decision—they merely “followed the science.”
As a scientistic credo, “Follow the science” doesn’t just abrogate leaders’ accountability as decision-makers. It also does violence to the nature of science, which seldom offers the clear-cut, politically useful conclusions that politicians want.
A popular meme contrasts the “scientific method” with the “science worshiper’s method.” While the former moves in a rigorous, self-correcting way toward results that may or may not align with a specific hypothesis, the latter constructs a model and then only accepts the data that will confirm that model.
At its most extreme, “following the science” is inflexibly dogmatic. When less inflexible, “following the science” can lead to sudden, sharp changes in public policy, often in the face of other evidence and goals separate from the COVID-19 response—for example, avoiding other health problems or economic disruption traceable to such policies.
In the case of masking, “following the science” has led to a series of dramatic reversals.
In February 2020, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams wrote on Twitter that Americans should “STOP BUYING MASKS!” as they were “not effective.”
Yet as mask production ramped up in the United States, U.S. public health authorities changed their tune. In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that Americans consider wearing cloth masks.
By June 2020, WHO recommended that healthy members of the general public wear masks in situations where physical distancing wasn’t possible, citing new scientific evidence on transmission.
In 2021, the CDC repeatedly shifted on masking. In July 2021, it reversed a May recommendation that vaccinated people need not wear masks, drawing rebukes from Republican governors.
Some experts believe that such shifts mark a significant departure from our understanding of masking before the pandemic.
“When it comes to the point of certain interventions that are sort of weakly supported, and if you go back and look at everything that was published before 2020, and come to this completely different conclusion if you read the things that published later on in 2020, about masks or the ability of lockdowns to stop and end spread indefinitely—long-term lockdowns that have devastating collateral damage—and that type of thing. And then you realize how politicized this really has become,” immunologist Steven Templeton, a professor at Indiana University, formerly with the CDC, said in an interview with The Epoch Times’ EpochTV.
One of the most politicized issues is the masking of young children. While advocates have argued that children could be major transmitters of COVID-19, opponents have argued that children are neither major vectors of the disease nor vulnerable to serious illness or death. They have also pointed out the understudied developmental and physiological risks of masking young children.
One 2021 preprint found no correlation between mask mandates and COVID-19 case rates among students and faculty across schools in Florida, New York, and Massachusetts, though the authors included caveats about how well their findings could be generalized.
Still, for many schools, “following the science” has led to universal mask mandates. Portland Public Schools, for example, requires the masking of children at all times and places, indoor or outdoor, and irrespective of vaccination status, “except when eating, drinking or playing a musical wind instrument.”
In one instance, guerilla footage showed kindergartners “eating” while sitting outside on buckets in 40-degree weather while socially distanced from playmates.
In cases such as these, “following the science” has the look and feel of political theater.
Omicron and Beyond
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 hasn’t yet caused a surge in serious COVID-19 cases. Yet as soon as the new strain made international headlines, governments across the world were ready to “follow the science,” or at least take some sort of action in its name.
The CEO of Pfizer, too, has speculated that the variant could push up the debut of its latest booster, telling CNBC, “I think we will need a fourth dose.”
For now, however, the new variant appears to be mild. To date, Omicron doesn’t seem to have caused a single verifiable death.
When asked by The Epoch Times if Omicron had led to a single confirmed fatality, a WHO spokesperson sent its weekly epidemiological update for Dec. 7.
According to that guide: “All of the 212 confirmed cases identified in 18 European Union countries for which there was information available on severity were asymptomatic or mild. While South Africa saw an 82 percent increase in hospital admissions due to COVID-19 (from 502 to 912) during the week 28 November–4 December 2021, it is not yet known the proportion of these with the Omicron variant.”
In addition, the WHO spokesperson said, “For Omicron, we have not had any deaths reported, but it is still early in the clinical course of disease and this may change.”
The CDC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Epoch Times on whether there were any confirmed Omicron deaths.
Other examples abound. For instance, while data show vaccinated individuals are significantly less likely to die of COVID-19 than the unvaccinated, “following the science” to preapproved conclusions may prematurely foreclose or minimize serious concerns about vaccine safety, particularly in relation to heart inflammation or other cardiovascular disease.
In September testimony before the FDA in its evaluation of the Pfizer booster, entrepreneur Steve Kirsch said that Pfizer’s vaccines kill more people than they save, citing Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) data, among other information.
Just days ago, physicians and scientists in the UK reportedly warned that post-pandemic stress disorder is driving a rise in heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues, including among younger patients.
Some commentators speculated that the rise could be related to vaccines.
Candace Owens wrote on Twitter in response to the story: “I’ve just learned that the sudden increase in heart-related illnesses is likely due to **checks Big Pharma notes** Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder. Nothing to see here!”
Following Science, Not ‘Following the Science’
While New York and New York City have pursued hardline policies, including the city’s vaccine pass system applicable to children as young as 5, the state of Florida has blocked mandates and prioritized individual choice.
Today, case rates in Florida are lower than in New York, likely in part because of the disease’s seasonality. Moreover, while Floridians are on average older than New York residents, suggesting that they should be more vulnerable to COVID-19, the death rate per 100,000 is still lower in that state than in New York, according to NBC News. New York City itself has had more than 34,000 deaths, due partly to major early clusters in nursing homes in the city.
The Senate’s Dec. 8 vote to block Biden’s OSHA vaccine mandate for large employers, which came soon after the 6th Circuit Court overruled the same mandate, could signal the resilience of checks and balances against compulsion in the name of “the science.”
Elsewhere in the world, “following the science,” often in spite of other scientific evidence, is leading to more draconian policies.
New Brunswick, Canada, has permitted grocery stores to exclude the unvaccinated, violating the basic human right to food articulated in Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
Numerous studies have raised questions about whether vaccination stems transmission, with some suggesting that vaccinated people with suppressed symptoms of the disease may even be major drivers of new infection. Regardless, “the science” demands greater sacrifices by the day.
Good science can and should inform our judgments as well as those of politicians. But unthinking gestures toward “the science” don’t shield any of us from responsibility—though as Jeffrey A. Tucker of The Brownstone Institute points out, the bureaucrats whose banalities enforce our new scientistic consensuses shirk any blame for its self-evident failures.