Talking Points

COVID debates are more than just science vs. misinformation

During the time before vaccines, a friend of mine told me he was traveling home for Christmas despite the pandemic but would not visit his 93-year-old grandmother. A perfectly reasonable position: She was in a high-risk group for COVID-19 based on age. No one would want to make their loved ones sick.

And yet, how many more Christmases and how many more visits can a 93-year-old grandmother be expected to enjoy? Actuarially speaking, not visiting her may mean never seeing her again. Perhaps, if she is up for the risk, you should be too? It would also still be understandable for you to not want to bear the responsibility of making her potentially fatally ill, even if she extended the invitation.

The above dilemma is a common one in the COVID era and it does not come down to science versus misinformation. People can reach different conclusions about what the correct answer is while looking at the same data. Many of the conflicts we have over the pandemic are not about having different views of what the science says, although that certainly does happen as well. The biggest debates involve trade-offs and differences in values or priorities.

Those debates can be informed by the science. But science cannot resolve them. Science can help understanding of the risk of exposing my grandmother to COVID. It can also tell me what a normal human lifespan is. But it cannot tell me what the right answer is in terms of visiting her, at least in a way that is acceptable to everyone.

Some of the differences of opinion over business restrictions during the pandemic or mask mandates or other public policies may stem from how seriously one takes the virus. But often, they come down to valuing certain cost-benefit analyses differently. The government, of course, has to try to make these decisions based on the common good. But individual policymakers will differ, sometimes based even on their own areas of expertise.

None of this is to say there isn't a great deal of misinformation circulating, especially about the vaccines. But believing in science is not the same as believing it resolves all questions in life.