Wouldn’t it be great if we knew everything about the coronavirus? Based on science we would know how it would affect all of us. With this knowledge, our leaders would have the wisdom to select the best decisions for the optimum solution based on scientific certainty. Today we are led to believe pronouncements with statements and implications like, “We are making decisions based on science and therefore it is correct and what is best.”
Unfortunately, these decisions are often wrong, misleading, biased and illogical for a myriad of reasons including the wrong science. This misleading overconfidence is a hidden problem that is not addressed. Also, there are known unknowns, which are information that we know that we do not know. The only certainty about the coronavirus is that the data, analysis and conclusions are highly uncertain. There is a strong likelihood that it’s wrong and certainly incomplete.
What we know for sure is that there is imperfect information. Specifically there is not enough information with perfect statistical accuracy because there is not enough perfectly accurate testing done by perfect people on all the individuals affected who are doing this with all the time they need for absolute certainty. Furthermore, from chaos theory we know that even if we did know how the virus works, this may not yield correct answers because there unknown unknowns in initial conditions. Accordingly, a small change to inputs will upset the otherwise perfect system. No matter how certain we are of the system and its workings, there is always uncertainty.
There is little doubt that coronavirus information is filtered by the individuals who have personal biases about the problem, the solutions and the information. Moreover, there are many different people looking at different views of the situation and inevitably seeing different things. This is not physics with clearly defined laws. Even physics with clearly defined laws change, as Einstein modified the laws of Newton with his better knowledge and brilliant new insights.
To compound the problem, there are the misleading judgments that there is an optimum solution. There is only an optimum solution if there is a clearly defined objective based on inviolate rules and fully known inputs. Therefore, the optimum depends on who is defining it and not on an absolute truth. Humans are risk-averse and inevitably ascribe more weight to bad outcomes than good outcomes and this is certainly reflected in the analysis, interpretation and decisions about a nasty virus that kills a lot of people.
Although we want people to keep people alive, there is a tradeoff of between saving lives and economic outcomes that is glossed over by saying the approach is scientifically based.
These tradeoffs inevitably incorporate value judgments based on politics, viewpoints, personal situations and at least as many considerations as there are people in the decision-making process.
Humans are both illogical and logical at different times and under different circumstances. Conclusions are often presented as sound, reasoned, logical, based on irrefutable facts. Unfortunately, the facts, accompanying logic and decisions may or may not be correct. Certainly the individuals involved are not always correct.
Knowing all this, what are we to do? I do not know for sure but what I do know is: When someone says that this action is based on science, do not believe them. What we need to do is to carefully look behind the decision and be very skeptical, or we will all be in trouble.
G.A. Ben Binninger