Because Science Says So!
Since COVID-19 debuted in our world, there has been no end to politicians, pundits, and social media sirens crying out something along the line of “we are following the science” or “because the science says so” as they support one new policy or another or to bring down one political view or another. In so many ways, this appeal to authority reminds me much of when I was a kid and my mom would say “because the Bible says so” anytime she’d say no to something fun my brother and I wanted to do.
Back then, this reason was usually good enough for me. I mean, I didn’t want to go against the Bible. As I got older, however, I started to annoy my mom by asking “where does it say that”. And as I got even older, I would ask “why does it say that.”
As professionals who set, guide, and lead public policy, we need to start asking questions of “show me the science” or “where does the science say this” when we are faced with the never-ending barrage of “because science says so” claims in relation to public policy.
What Is Science
There are a myriad of ideas and definitions to explain science, but for use in setting public policy, there are two key parts of science which we need to keep in mind.
First, science is a systematic process for studying the world around us. This process involves observing and collecting data, developing and testing hypotheses and theories, compiling and being able to repeat results, and finally producing conclusions that can be used to improve and inform our knowledge of the world (Peach, 2017).
With that, science is also the knowledge base of accepted information which provides explanations of the world we live in (Bonnay, 2018). And herein lays the problem… getting folks to agree on accepted knowledge. A quick google search will reveal there are as many people claiming science supports wearing cloth face masks to prevent COVID as there are claiming they have no effect. How on earth can we know for sure? Well, if the science is brand new research then maybe we can’t as of yet, however, we need to ask “show me the science” if we really want to know.
Fallacies and Bias Leading Us Astray
The greatest problem with claiming science as support for all our statements is the fallacious appeal to authority. An appeal to authority is not necessarily a logical fallacy when the authority is legitimate. True science based on an established process that builds acceptable knowledge is a reasonable appeal to authority. However, just saying “because science” is a reliance on dogma that has no authority behind its claim.
Circular reasoning leads to this level of dogma. For example, media site XYZ News has an expert guest on the morning show who says, “I believe that fried eggs carry COVID”. Later that day, XYZ News reports on the breaking news from the morning that “Scientists say fried eggs carry COVID” and later others reference the second story as proof of this “science”. All the while, no one has ever asked “show me the science”.
Confirmation bias also causes problems as the media, politicians, and policy makers seem to look for “science” which reflects their beliefs and ideas without looking for any contrary or dissenting ideas. Politician Smith thinks that people should always wear masks to prevent COVID and finds the science, usually in the form of the news stories above, to back up his stance. Likewise, politician Jones thinks that masks are unnecessary to prevent COVID and will find the stories that back up her stance as well.
True understanding, learning, and building of knowledge requires that we not only look at the underlaying details of the science, but that we also look at the data which disagrees with what we really hope the science will say.
Developing Policy, Say It With Me… “Show Me The Science”
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time many of us have needed to develop policy in response to a crisis and it will not be the last time we must do so. Despite the rhetoric of politicians, media, and the public which relies on dogmatic reference to mystical “science”, we need to make sure that we are exploring the research behind the claims, examining the evidence provided from every side, and evaluating the full impact of our policy decisions. We may not be able to do much about false appeals to some vague authority of science, but we can make sure we are following our own due diligence as we establish policies which affect many of those around us.
Bonnay, D. (2018-08-30). Scientific Explanation. In The Philosophy of Science: A Companion. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 Nov. 2020, from https://oxford-universitypressscholarship-com.ezproxy.uis.edu/view/10.1093/oso/9780190690649.001.0001/oso-9780190690649-chapter-1.
Peach, K. (2017-11-30). Science, Research, Development and Scholarship. In Managing Science: Developing your Research, Leadership and Management Skills. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 Nov. 2020, from https://oxford-universitypressscholarship-com.ezproxy.uis.edu/view/10.1093/oso/9780198796077.001.0001/oso-9780198796077-chapter-2.
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Gene Cossey is the Executive Director of the Tri-Cities Airport Authority in Northeast Tennessee and is a student in the Doctor of Public Administration program with the University of Illinois Springfield.