You can never just follow the science

By Martin Michaelis and Mark Wass
There is much discussion about which measures should be taken to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic based on what ‘the science’ tells us. However, ‘the science’ or rather scientific evidence never gives us an absolute answer. Actions depend on our aims, on our interpretation of the data, and on the risk that we are prepared to take. And we are responsible, not ‘the science’.

The question of whether ‘we follow the science’ in the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred much disagreement. Often, there seem to be unrealistic expectations of what the scientific evidence can actually tell us. Scientific evidence enables a realistic consideration of the options, but the choice of measures is a political one that depends on the desired outcome. Nevertheless, measures are often discussed without clearly articulating the outcome aims.


Obviously, the first question is how many deaths are ‘acceptable’ in a pandemic. Is 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, 500,000, or 1,000,000 deaths an acceptable number? Some people think every avoidable death is too much. Others make comparisons to the flu as an acceptable level of death. Other considerations may be not to overwhelm the healthcare system or to protect the economy.


Once, you have decided what your aim is, you still have to appreciate and accept the limitations of the available information and knowledge. Scientific scenarios come with significant error margins. This is partly because there are still so many things that we do not know. Also, many things are simply unpredictable because there is an element of chance involved. Hence, your decisions do not only have to reflect the desired outcome but also the level of uncertainty and the risks that you are prepared to take. You may decide to accept a higher number of deaths to protect the economy. If this approach fails, however, you may end up with the worst of both worlds, many avoidable deaths and a devastated economy.


Thus, scientific evidence can inform us of our options, but decisions on measures have to be taken at a societal, political, and personal level. Informed decisions depend as much on a realistic understanding of the factual situation as they depend on what we want to achieve. Thus, we cannot hide behind ‘the science’. We are responsible for our actions (or a lack thereof). Hardly anything is inevitable. The question is what price we are prepared to pay for which outcome and which risks we are prepared to take.