Crisis 8: let science decide

“We will let the science decide.”

We’ve heard this or similar many times recently. We’re going to hear it a lot more in the weeks to come as we navigate the easing of lockdown. We even trust experts again. At first, I was overjoyed – we should use evidence, science and expertise to guide our decisions.

But I have become worried that we are using science as a shield from full responsibility. If science says we should do it, it’s no-one’s fault; it’s incontestable. You can’t argue with science.

The trouble is, science can’t decide any course of action by itself. Science is the jewel in the crown of human reason, and the best tool we have to get closer to the truth. But being true is not the same as being right.

Science cannot tell you what to do. Science can tell you what will happen if you do it; whether that justifies the action requires something else. Justification needs a value – a principle or ethical position. And science doesn’t give you those. To put it another way, I was always taught that you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

Science can tell us (tentatively) how different dates for easing the lockdown might affect deaths from the coronavirus. A separate branch of science can tell us how different dates for easing the lockdown might affect economic growth (which also affects mortality in the long run). That still doesn’t tell you what date to ease lockdown. That depends on what you value. Lives, livelihoods, or the complicated relationship between livelihoods and lives. Deaths today or deaths tomorrow; deaths among one group versus deaths among a different group; the quality of a life or the length of a life. No wonder we don’t want to talk openly about these things.

To make decisions during this crisis, we need principles plus science. We want our political leaders to listen to scientists and experts, but we also need them to make clear the ethical principles they will use to judge the facts.

We see these issues most clearly in political and national leadership, but they occur in organisations and teams at every scale. Use the science to predict the effect of your decision. But be explicit about the principles that lead you to choose one effect over another.

Science will say, “If you want x, then you should do y.” But only you can say what you want. We may disagree with you; we may want something else. But you were elected, so you have the right to use your principles to make decisions. You just don’t have the right to hide them – because we need to hold you accountable for them come the next election.

“Let the science decide” must not cloak the principles and values that drive our decisions. Those values can only come from us. There is no external source from which we can take values without also bearing responsibility for taking them. That’s a frightening responsibility but not one that we can evade. There’s always a value judgement within every action. We just hide them for palatability or convenience, or because we don’t examine our motivations.

“Who, then, can prove that I am the proper person to impose, by my own choice, my conception of man upon mankind? I shall never find any proof whatever; there will be no sign to convince me of it. If a voice speaks to me, it is still I myself who must decide whether the voice is or is not that of an angel. If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad.” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism


The full crisis collection.

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