George Rebane: Unsettling ‘settled science’
Today, the SARS-CoV-2 (or Covid-19 or simply C19) pandemic “science” in the public square rapidly became a mish-mash of unreliable reports, contending medical views, and ideologically tailored fake news.
One thing you can always take to the bank — people claiming “settled science” is the litmus test for identifying the charlatans, the ignorant, and the ignorant charlatans. Historically all important scientific advances were met with an overwhelming chorus of opposition from the entrenched establishment. Their consistent theme was citing how the new was not in accord with the old, or worse, that the new directly contradicted the long and dearly held beliefs. In our highly polarized and politicized society, it is safe to say that all reports purporting a solid scientific foundation are at a minimum suspect.
The C19 virus has been uniformly mischaracterized in the popular press and politics. As more and more evidence climbs out from under widespread media (broadcast and internet) censorship, it becomes clear that the national lockdown was and continues to be a horrible mistake of yet to be tallied cost in lives and livelihoods. And that lockdown was imposed by governments citing “science” when no such science existed to support the mandates to shut down commerce and impose stay-at-home. It now turns out that C19 is only a bit more virulent than our seasonal flus, and the cited data claiming otherwise is dreadfully flawed and misreported.
Many reasoned, reasonable, and experienced voices have sought to counsel holding back on the draconian measures our politicians have imposed on the country. An example of one of the more recent ones is epidemiologist Dr. Knut Wittkowski, former head of biostatistics, epidemiology, and research design at The Rockefeller University’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science. He points out that, far from being settled, the science around C19 is “bitterly contested”, as confirmed by anyone doing an internet search on the topic. The bottom line that the expanding data on the pandemic now shows is that C19 is not significantly more dangerous than our usual infectious diseases (which don’t require forsaking freedoms and destroying economies), unless you have an age-related comorbidity. And then you are in line to die anyway, either of an unfortunate C19 infection or something else.
Sadly, Americans don’t “do numbers.” We are an overwhelmingly innumerate nation educated in dumbed-down public schools that have a decades-long record of abysmal and declining performance now imposed on the third generation of young people as documented by the National Center for Education Statistics of the Department of Education. And when it comes to STEM-based knowledge, you can forget it. As a population, we are at the mercy of the loudest demagogues that rise above the media cacophony, with no way to even reasonably assess alternative viewpoints and opinions. We have found that the safe and sane way to handle the daily conflicts and conundrums is to adopt a simple set of beliefs, view everything through its lens, and commingle within a cohort of common, confirming, and comfortable minds.
Those who have spent their lives in and with science have an easier time and a natural inclination to say “it ain’t necessarily so,” and then use their skills to examine and evaluate alternative explanations. But not everyone so blessed will voice such doubts if their job, livelihood, and/or reputation depends on swimming with the established school of thought that succors the correctly like-minded with grants, stipends, tenure, endowed chairs, published peer-approved papers … And unfortunately, science is such a multi-variegated field that there is a lot of latitude in the words that can be chosen to support or remain circumspect about any scientific position.
Politicians like Governors Cuomo (New York) and Newsom (California), and Mayors de Blasio (New York City) and Garcetti (Los Angeles) have been quick to tell their flocks that their lockdown and loosening mandates are based on science not politics. And those carefully taught in their compliant constituencies have no available alternative than believe in the cited “science” dispensed from on high.
At this point your columnist will usually offer a solution to get us out of today’s judiciously fabricated dilemma — “profits before people” or “people before profits.” Unfortunately, those of us having spent our lives in and with science can offer no science-based acceptable solution, because here it is all politics. Today America’s answer to Keynes’ immortal question, “When I get new information, I change my mind. What do you do?” is a confidently calcified “Nothing.”
George Rebane is a retired systems scientist in Nevada County.
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