by Don Boudreaux on October 31, 2020

in Current Affairs, Reality Is Not Optional, Risk and Safety, Science

Here’s a letter to a young woman who accuses me (and other lockdown opponents) of being “anti-science”:

Ms. Hasanov:

Thanks for your e-mail.

I did indeed read Alan Alda’s Washington Post op-ed. Of course he’s correct that, in the formation of policy responses to Covid-19, science should be consulted. But if your interpretation of his op-ed is accurate – as it seems to be – I cannot agree with, as you approvingly describe it, “his demand that science determine the policy.”

Science is an indispensable source of knowledge. While it can help us to better achieve the goals to which our values point us, it itself does not and cannot determine those values and goals. Nor can science tell any individual, and much less any group of individuals, how to trade-off one desirable outcome against other such outcomes. In short, policy is not something that can be “determined” by science.

Therefore, even if (contrary to reality) science offered a clear answer to the question ‘What number of lives would be saved by tighter lockdowns?’ – and even if this answer is positive and large – science would not settle the matter in favor of tighter lockdowns. Such a policy has costs. It disrupts lives in many ways. The value of what is lost as a result of this disruption must be weighed against the value of whatever might be the net gains to health. And science can’t possibly tell us how such a trade-off should be struck.

If it seems heartless to accept policies that result in premature deaths, note that each year in the U.S. approximately 7,000 people drown in swimming pools. That’s an average of more than 19 such drownings daily, and a disproportionate number of these deaths are of young children. And so as a matter of scientific fact, government could prevent this number of tragic drownings by locking down all swimming pools.

Should government adopt this lockdown policy? Your answer likely is no. You recognize that there’s positive value to the exercise and enjoyment that people get from swimming, and that this value is sufficiently high to justify the risk of drowning. Importantly, your opposition to swimming-pool lockdowns isn’t “anti-science.”

And so it is with Covid lockdowns. While consideration of such lockdowns should take account of scientific information, no amount of such information settles the case scientifically in favor of (or against) lockdowns. We, like you, necessarily are guided by our values and preferences in coming to our position regarding lockdowns. Those of us who oppose lockdowns are not, as you accuse us, “anti-science.”

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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