Integrating Politics and Science—By First Separating Them

Written by Dr. Lucian Gideon Conway III

Freedom inherently involves risks. If you want your children to roam free at the local playground, they might injure themselves on the big slide. If you want the freedom to watch baseball, someone might get hit in the head by a stray line drive. All decisions about restricting freedom thus require a cost/benefit analysis that weighs the benefits of freedom against the potential risks.

In practice, this analysis requires two very different sets of considerations. First, we have to consider the threshold at which we will restrict people’s freedom. How many injuries are too many before we stop the heartwarming laughter of the children’s playground? How many deaths due to line drives would cause us to squelch the glories of baseball? Second, we have to measure whether or not the threshold is met. What do we consider a playground injury? How do we decide if a death was due to a line drive or some other cause?

This distinction between setting a threshold and measuring a threshold is often overlooked—but absolutely vital. That’s because threshold setting is largely a political issue for everyone, but threshold measurement is largely a scientific issue for specialists. And yet, despite the importance of this difference, we tend to conflate the two. For example, it makes sense that health officials should decide on how best to measure health matters. But we also often take it for granted that they should set the threshold at which we will give up our freedoms for health-related risks. Should we?

No. In fact, who should reasonably decide the threshold is generally different than who should implement the threshold. Consider a parable. Imagine your beloved Pittsburgh Steelers are playing in the Super Bowl. They are down by two points with one second to go. On the last play of the game, the Steelers kick a (three-point) field goal to win the game. You start celebrating the glorious victory. But wait—the officials are huddling. The play is being reviewed. And the head official comes out and says this: “Today, the officials have determined that the point threshold for a last-second field goal is only one point and not three. Therefore, the Steelers have lost.”

The point here is quite simple. The officials’ job is not to determine what the rules are. The officials’ job is to judge whether those rules have been followed. They don’t get to decide how many points the field goal is worth; they only measure whether the field goal criterion has been met.

When we turn our attention to COVID policies, this distinction between threshold setting and threshold measurement becomes paramount. We’ve frequently acted like the measurement of the threshold (how dangerous is COVID?) is the same as the setting of the threshold (how dangerous does COVID have to be before we restrict freedom?).

But in order for science and politics to function together effectively, we desperately need to separate the scientific issue from the political one. Threshold measurement is a scientific issue on which public health officials, as scientific experts, ought to be listened to. Threshold setting is a political issue on which public health officials have no more (or no less) right to speak than any ordinary citizen. That’s how science and politics are supposed to work together. That’s how they are supposed to be integrated. Yet our lives these last two years have been increasingly defined by officials conflating the scientific judgment of whether a criterion has been met (which is their job) with the creation of the political criterion (which isn’t). Our public health officials have been metaphorically determining what a field goal is worth, when they should not get to do that. That’s our job. Their job is to determine if the field goal is good or not.

It didn’t start out that way. In fact, early in the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci is reported to have said to Donald Trump: “I just do medical advice. I don’t think about things like the economy and the secondary impacts. I’m just an infectious diseases doctor. Your job as president is to take everything else into consideration.”

That isn’t the attitude of someone who wants to set the freedom threshold; it’s the attitude of a man who wants to do his limited role of providing measurement information to those who do. By the end of the pandemic, however, Fauci was challenging court decisions that overturned the health experts’ power to make restrictions: “I’m surprised and disappointed because those types of things really are the purview of the CDC. … We are concerned about that, about the courts getting involved in things that are unequivocally a public health decision. This is a CDC issue, should not have been a court issue.”

Do you see what happened? At the beginning of the pandemic, health officials rightly viewed their role as simply providing information, making judgment calls about whether our metaphorical field goal was good or not. By the end of the pandemic, they had shifted to believing that they should determine the threshold itself, so that the very rules of the game—and not providing information relevant to those rules—was their purview.

Increasingly, the medical community failed to ask us regular citizens whether we liked these politically restrictive thresholds. Rather, the American public was simply shamed or bullied into complying with the medical communities’ simplistic medical-based view. Fauci said that anyone questioning him was “really criticizing science, because I represent science.” But much of his commentary wasn’t scientific; it was political. Fauci said he “strongly supports” vaccine mandates, eventually saying to people who questioned the vaccines, “get over it.” Texas’ and Mississippi’s anti-mask approach was “inexplicable,” Fauci said. And yet these aren’t largely medical commentaries; they are political thresholds completely outside of his purview. It wasn’t his political decision to make—it was ours. I’m not questioning science by saying I prefer to err on the side of freedom; I’m simply stating that I prefer to take my chances with COVID (against which I have a very high probability of success) than with a repressive government (against which I will certainly lose).

But no one asked me. Instead, the public health officials running our pandemic response increasingly assumed they had the right to set the threshold at which our freedoms were taken away.

The results have been predictably disastrous. Not only has the American public began to lose faith in public health, but a single-issue approach has led to declines in education and increases in teen suicide rates, among other negative outcomes. While it is hard to counterfactually know what would have happened if we had applied a different strategy, it nonetheless seems clear that lockdowns had many negative consequences that would have been avoided without them. In fact, one study by a highly cited Canadian researcher showed that, considering all variables, lockdowns were actually bad for public health. In the words of the researcher: “I explain why I changed my mind about supporting lockdowns … a cost-benefit analysis of the response to COVID-19 finds that lockdowns are far more harmful to public health (at least 5–10 times so in terms of wellbeing years) than COVID-19 can be.”

This is hardly surprising. That’s what happens when you cede power over a large and complex political issue to a single-issue group. Medical professionals almost by definition are going to overweigh the importance of any disease’s direct physical toll. I don’t begrudge them that; it’s likely part of what makes them good at their jobs. However, it is precisely for that reason that we don’t allow specialists to make judgments about political cost/benefit thresholds that have vast reach into all our lives. We would not let this happen in any other domain. Would you let a small group of green energy activists decide that you could not have gas-powered vehicles, or a small group of oil executives decide that you cannot have a Tesla? There is a reason we don’t let specialists decide far-reaching political issues. Instead, all of us should collectively have a voice.

Thus, the decision of when the danger of a disease outweighs individual rights for freedom should never again be in the hands of unelected public health officials. That political decision is our decision, We the People, and as such should only reside in our hands. Ironically, science and politics work best together when they are kept separate.

There is a danger in political laziness. If we become used to the conflation of the actual job of public health officials (determining the level of threat) and the thing they should never do (determining the point at which freedom gives way to threat), the next time a disease comes around, we may never fully recover our senses. The real threat is that we are becoming inured to medical authoritarianism by small degrees. Yet there is absolutely no reason that we should take such violations of our basic rights so casually.

So, my fellow citizens, as we turn the calendar to what will (God willing) be a better and brighter new year, let’s keep our heads held high. And let us continually pray that fear will increasingly fall away like rusted shackles, and glorious freedom—freedom to laugh and to play, to hope and to dream—will rise in its place throughout this beautiful land.

Dr. Lucian (Luke) Gideon Conway III is a Professor of Psychology and a Fellow with the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College. He is the author of over 85 articles, commentaries, and book chapters on the psychology of politics and culture. Dr. Conway’s research has been featured in major media outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, USA Today, the Ben Shapiro Podcast, and BBC Radio. Further, he has written opinion pieces for outlets such as The Hill, Heterodox Academy, and London School of Economics U.S. Centre. He is the author of the book Complex Simplicity: How Psychology Suggests Atheists are Wrong About Christianity. You can follow him on twitter @LGConwayIII, on ResearchGate, or on Google Scholar.

This article was originally published by The Institute for Faith & Freedom.