Column: Don’t lecture me to “follow the science,” and then not follow it yourself

By Dan Kontos

Every supposed catastrophe that our society has faced—and there is a lot—has an underlying piece of unsolicited advice that accompanies it, intended to cement the validity of one side of a stance or the other.

That is the seemingly obvious and likewise innocuous refrain, “follow the science.” After all, who can argue with science? We are constantly reminded to follow the science, and anything less is intellectual heresy, right? 

Merriam-Webster defines science as, “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.” No wonder everyone wants to pursue the scientific truth; no one wants to be labeled as ignorant. After all, aren’t our smartest people all scientists? So we are told anyway.

Some science is “settled,” as the saying goes. The planet Earth is a sphere, it’s not flat. The sun is at the center of our solar system, not the Earth at the center of the universe. We have accepted these premises as fact. It’s science, not because someone told us, but because it comes from a system of knowledge regarding the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method. We can repeatedly point to data that consistently proves that these things are true.

However, it wasn’t always this way. Settled science in the 16th century was cemented in the perceived truth that the stars and sun rotated around the Earth. In the early 1500s, the Polish scholar Nicolaus Copernicus espoused that the Sun was the fixed center of our universe, with the Earth, other planets, and stars all moving around it.

In the seventeenth century, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei built a telescope and confirmed that our planet was not being orbited by the rest of the known heavens. How were their scientific discoveries rewarded? Copernicus never published his theory until he was on his deathbed in 1543 in order to escape the wrath of government and church alike. Galileo was tried and found guilty of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life by the infamous Inquisition. On February 8, 1600, the excommunicated Italian-borne philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive at the stake for supporting similar theories.

So you see, you must accept the premise that science is not black and white. It’s constantly evolving, improving upon previous knowledge, and rather fluid—slowly solidifying over time, until we are sure that the Earth is not flat.

In other words, it’s messy at times. What we perceive as science is our current understanding of how we interpret the data that we have uncovered. It is as much about what we actually know about the science as what we don’t.

You may not know it, but I’m a bit of a scientist myself. Not a hard science, like immunology, epidemiology, or bacteriology, but a soft science; political science. Britannica explains that political science is the systematic study of governance by the application of empirical and generally scientific methods of analysis…and examines the state and its organs and institutions. It encompasses studies of all the societal, cultural, and psychological factors that mutually influence the operation of government and the body politic. It borrows heavily from the other social sciences, and it is distinguished from them by its focus on power—defined as the ability of one political actor to get another actor to do what it wants.

So why does this matter? Well, you see, when the contemporary knowledge of science overlaps with the political nature of the acquisition of power, science often takes a back seat; useful only in the pursuit of an end. Is the end always nefarious? No, not at all. But where humans are involved, the greater the power pursued, the greater the potential for corruption exists. More on this in a bit. Just keep this in mind for now.

When I am lectured to follow the science, I want to see the data for myself. Don’t tell me your opinion, or your interpretation of a study. Show me the facts and let me decide for myself. Sorry, I am uninterested in numbers and figures with no context. I need a depth of understanding to make an informed decision. 

Take the Chinese coronavirus for example. Are we seeing an increase in the number of positive tests in the US and Wisconsin in particular? Yes, we are. The inference, we are told, is that the virus spread is on the rise. But what is the context behind this? For example, are we doing more testing? Yes, the number of tests administered is reportedly increasing steadily. If a certain percentage of the population is infected, won’t increased testing reveal more cases, even if the percentage is steady? Why yes it will. You don’t need to be a virologist to know this, just have a high school level understanding of statistics or common sense. After all, if we had a mass IQ testing program, we would undoubtedly find more positive tests for morons, right? Context is vital.

What about the depth of the data? What tests are we talking about? Are these the same tests that the New York Times reports will give 85-95 percent false-positive results, or are 50 percent inaccurate, to begin with? Do these numbers include repeat testing of infected (already positive) people? Do these numbers take into account problems with laboratories conducting the tests or errors in reporting? Do these numbers only include confirmed positive cases, or all total cases – including suspected or presumed? See what I mean. I need to see what is actually happening to truly understand the science.

Speaking of which, why is the raw daily infection rate so important to some people and the media? Wouldn’t better indicators of disease spread be, the observed case fatality ratio, or better yet, the infection fatality rate? Most medical scientists that I have read say yes. I guess if it bleeds, it leads. Have I lost you yet?

I understand that this can be confusing, and too burdensome to look into yourself. So we naturally rely on “experts” and authorities to tell us about the science and how we should respond to the perceived threat. We allow familiar faces to interpret the data for us, and tell us what they want us to hear. This is filtered through the old fashioned media and social platforms, all swirling around and intertwined with the rest of our day-to-day affairs that we must still attend to. It can be overwhelming.

This is exacerbated by these same experts changing what they tell us in a short period of time; like masks are bad for you, oh wait, now masks will save us all. The science tells us one thing, but without context it means little. They may have had reasons for this, but it does not have anything to do with science, well not the science of viruses anyway. It does have to do with political science. That is why voices of descent must be crowded out or silenced.

Remember that politics has the goal of having an actor do what you want them to do, for good or bad. When Governor Evers issued his latest face-covering mandate, did he decide that purely on the science? No, not exclusively. The science is represented here, but it’s much more complicated. He has to calculate in many other factors, such as the economy, the law, other public health impacts, education, medical resources, mental health, and collateral unintended consequences that even the best psychic would blanch at. 

His supporters say that he is saving lives, while his detractors say that it all has to do with politics. Neither side tends to show the underlying science. So, did he make the right call? Only the 20/20 hindsight of history will tell us about his effectiveness, but we may never know what is in a man’s heart. I’d like to believe that he made his choice for the right reasons.

So, when you argue to “follow the science,” please understand. Twitter and commentaries are not science. News articles about a study is not a study. When you tell me what the science is, rather than show it to me, you always shade the truth, consciously or unconsciously. Socially replicated “facts” become more perverted over time. Politics corrupts science; it has to by definition. Fear makes us want to quickly cling onto anything that will bring us hope, and nothing creates more fear than the unknown, salted with corrupted science, fanned by the irresponsible and selfish, all with ulterior motives. So beware, science is hard—politics is hell.

Join me on Parler @”DanKontos” for some bare-knuckles political opinions, a bit of overly dry humor, and shades of columns to come. All opinions are truly welcome there. God bless.