Corona is the trolley problem – the limits of “Science!”

Posted: April 25, 2020 by socklessjoe in China, It's Science!, Lame, Not So Funny End Of Civilization, Zombies!

Science is a methodology to find or approximate reliable information. It is not something you “believe in” as though it were a religion.

Science can inform decision making. Science cannot make a decision.

Based on the best available data (-which is always subject to new observation), science can suggest that the novel coronavirus is more deadly than most influenza viruses. Science can suggest methods of reducing propagation of the virus among the population. Science can suggest probable outcomes from various policies.

Science cannot decide the relative importance of allowing greater economic activity versus suppressing activity in order to reduce the rate of viral infection. Science cannot balance the number of deaths from infection against the loss of livelihood due to unemployment, depression and suicide due to social isolation, or unintended consequences of delaying “elective” medical procedures. Science cannot assign moral value.

Take the classic “trolley problem” and its variants. In the trolley problem, science will tell you that if you flip the switch, a certain set of individuals will die, and that if you do nothing, a different set of individuals will die. Science does not tell you whether to flip the switch.

When a politician of any party tells you that they are making a policy decision based on science, they are implying a value. That implied value might be reasonable. You may agree with that value. But be aware that they sneaked in the value through the back door.

  1. Paco says:

    Very shrewd observations. Unfortunately, too many do look at science as something one “believes in”, and as a religion, it becomes practically the Whore of Babylon.

    I had an argument one time (thankfully, very brief) with a woman at work about global warming (this was before the alleged phenomenon acquired the more slippery title of “climate change”). I kept pressing her to tell me why she thought global warming was a threat. She said something along the lines that it was in the papers everywhere, but I kept pressing her. “Ok, so it’s a topic in the newspapers. How do you know that the people who wrote the articles are experts? What, specifically, is the empirical evidence that you find compelling?” After a little more wrangling of this sort, she finally just declared that she believed in it, and that was that.

  2. HayZeus says:

    Personally, I think the whole “Science!” thing is going to take it on the chin as part of the larger fallout from the inevitable “we burned our economy down for this?!” backlash but my more cynical side reminds me that every time I thought that in the past folks inevitably hugged their TVs, said, “let’s never fight again,” and went right back to believing their daily dose of propaganda infotainment because of the ominous music playing in the background.

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