A problematic aspect of the lockdown is that most of what is said about the subject rests either directly or indirectly on the testimony of experts or purported experts. Contrast that with a case of the sort with which readers of this blog are familiar. Philosophical arguments can, for the most part, be evaluated entirely independently of any considerations about the knowledge or objectivity of the person giving them. For example, you can evaluate Chalmers’ Zombie Argument, or Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlin Argument, or Searle’s Chinese Room Argument, without knowing anything about the expertise or biases of Chalmers, Nozick, or Searle.
Of course, you might think that the fact that they gave these arguments reflects certain biases or expertise on their part. But that is entirely irrelevant to how good or bad the arguments themselve sare. There is no premise in any of these arguments that requires you to assume that Chalmers, Nozick, or Searle made a correct judgment call. You don’t have to take their word for anything. For purposes of evaluating the arguments (as opposed to the purposes of, say, doing intellectual history) you can treat them as if they fell from the sky and have no essential connection to their authors.
Little of what is said by way of defending or criticizing the lockdown is like that. Most people’s opinions depend crucially on what they have heard from political commentators, journalists, politicians, and scientists. None of what any of these people say can be evaluated the way a philosophical argument can, viz. in a manner that entirely abstracts from considerations about the knowledge and biases of the people giving the arguments. And that includes, to some extent, the scientists. Moreover, the knowledge and biases of these experts give us grounds for having at least some reservations about what they say. And that too includes, at least to some extent, the scientists.
Before I proceed, and to forestall premature hyperventilating, please take careful note of what I am not saying. I am not saying that the epidemiological opinions of a Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow should be given the same weight as those of an Anthony Fauci. I am not saying that scientists qua scientists are in general as prone to political bias as opinion columnists and elected officials are. I am not saying that we are within our rights in dismissing whatever they have to say if we don’t like it, or that we should throw up our hands and conclude that we can’t trust anyone.
What I am saying is no more and no less than what I already wrote, with nothing hiding between the lines. There are grounds for having some reservations. Science, when done well, is much more immune to the problems of ignorance and bias than journalism and politics are, but it is not entirely immune. And to pretend otherwise is, here too, to commit a fallacy of appeal to authority.
Politicians and journalists
Let’s start with the more obvious cases, though. If you believe what you believe about the lockdown because of what Carlson or Maddow or Donald Trump or Andrew Cuomo has said, then your opinion is based not on abstract arguments but on the authority of someone you take to have the relevant expertise. But of course, politicians, journalists, and opinion makers are in general not experts in epidemiology or public health, and they have strong political biases. That doesn’t mean that you should entirely dismiss what is said by a commentator or public official you judge to be in general competent and honest, but you certainly should take the views of even the best of them with more than a grain of salt.
Let’s put aside for present purposes the more unhinged and blatantly partisan accusations, such as that conservatives don’t care about whether the elderly die or that liberals favor the lockdown only because they hope it will hurt Trump. Even when these are factored out, there are some biases that do plausibly influence the way commentators and politicians approach the current crisis.
For example, conservatives are temperamentally bound to be suspicious of governmental measures that dramatically interfere with the everyday functioning of families, churches, and businesses. This can reflect either the libertarian strain in modern American conservatism or the concern for subsidiarity among more traditionalist conservatives. Naturally, since I am a traditionalist conservative, I regard this as a perfectly normal and healthy instinct. But there is no doubt that, if one is not careful, this instinct can lead one too quickly to dismiss such measures even when they are necessary.
But liberals deceive themselves if they think the bias is all on the conservative side. If the right-wing bias is in the direction of liberty and decentralization, the left-wing bias is in an egalitarian and “one size fits all” direction. This is obvious from the way left-wingers tend to think about healthcare and poverty.
For example, take the premise (with which I agree) that government ought to do something to remedy the fact that some people don’t have adequate healthcare. All that follows is that government should assist those specific people. What does not follow is that we should have a single-payer system. “Government should guarantee that everyone has healthcare” does not entail “Government should be the sole provider of healthcare to everyone.” That some people need governmental assistance doesn’t entail that everyone needs it. The left-wing tendency here is to make the exceptional case the rule for all. Similarly with “universal basic income” schemes. That some people don’t have sufficient income entails at most that government should assist those particular people. It doesn’t follow that government should send everyone a check every month.
Nevertheless, if you don’t favor single-payer healthcare or a universal basic income, some (not all, but some) left-wingers are quick to accuse you of not caring about the needy. Their tendency is to suppose that if you don’t want far-reaching government action in these areas, then you must want no government action.
There is a parallel with the divergence between conservative and liberal reactions to the lockdown situation. It seems pretty clear by now that most people are not in danger of death or even serious illness from Covid-19. It is primarily the elderly and those with certain medical conditions who are at risk, and even then the virus seems to be more of a problem in some parts of the country than others. Nor, as it turns out, have U.S. hospitals been overwhelmed or medical supplies run short (which would affect everyone). Hence, conservatives reasonably wonder why a completely general lockdown is still necessary. Why shouldn’t the lockdown be relaxed, and confined only to the most vulnerable parts of the population?
Some liberals respond with the accusation that conservatives don’t care whether grandma dies – which is as ridiculous as saying that unless you favor single-payer healthcare and a universal basic income, you must not care about the poor. They seem reflexively to think that a policy that is needed for some people must be applied to all. Accordingly, it is perfectly reasonable for conservatives to suspect that some left-wing public officials and journalists have let their bias toward statist and “one size fits all” policies unduly influence their thinking about the lockdown.
Another bias to which all politicians, left and right, are prone is the “sunk cost” fallacy. They are unlikely to want to retreat from a risky or costly policy, precisely because it is risky and costly. To do so would invite the accusation that they have made a colossal blunder. Hence there is a temptation to move the goalposts and look for new rationalizations of such policies.
Many today would say that this is what happened with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they seem not to consider that there is a danger of the same thing happening with the lockdown. The original rationale was to “flatten the curve” so as to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and medical supplies from being depleted. And again, those things have not happened. Mission accomplished. So why is a general lockdown still necessary? As I have argued before, it is not sufficient to reply by suggesting that these bad outcomes could still happen if the lockdown were relaxed. What we need is solid evidence that that is likely.
It is not unreasonable, then, to worry that “sunk cost” thinking and “goalpost moving” is also a factor in some politicians’ thinking about the lockdown.
Here is another potential source of bias. Consider the sorts of people who have primary responsibility for shaping policy and opinion on the lockdown – politicians, journalists and other writers, scientists and other intellectuals, administrators, and the like. For the most part, these are people whose livelihoods have not been affected by the lockdown. Many of them work at home anyway, so that the lockdown is for them largely business as usual. It is not unreasonable for people whose lives and livelihoods have been dramatically affected to believe that the policy- and opinion-makers don’t have “skin in the game,” and thus lack a sufficient grasp of the gravity of the lockdown’s effects.
Finally, though it is foolish to suppose that left-of-center journalists and politicians favor a lockdown merely for the purpose of hurting Trump politically, it cannot reasonably be denied that there is a political slant to much coverage of the crisis. For example, though New York has the highest Covid-19 body count in the country and Governor Cuomo’s administration has made serious mistakes in dealing with the crisis, he has enjoyed hagiographic media attention. Does anyone seriously believe that Trump or any other Republican would have gotten the same treatment under those circumstances?
For reasons like these, it is not irrational for people to have reservations about media reports and statements from public officials concerning the lockdown. They are not necessarily guilty of an ad hominem fallacy. On the contrary, they would be guilty of a fallacy of appeal to authority if they didn’t have at least some reservations about what politicians and journalists say on the subject.
But the science!
Some will respond that what matters is what “the science” tells us, so that the biases of journalists and politicians wash out as irrelevant. But one problem with this is that very few people are getting “the science” straight from the scientists. Rather, most are getting it only as filtered through the testimony of… journalists and politicians. This is true to some extent even when scientists are allowed to speak for themselves in interviews. Interviewers, of both the right and the left, will often try to goad their subjects into saying something they can use as political fodder, or otherwise choose or formulate their questions in a way that reflects a certain bias. Even if a scientist tries to correct for all this, much of what he says might still end up on the cutting room floor.
Then there is the fact that scientists themselves have their own biases, simply because they are human beings. You shouldn’t have to have read writers like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend in order to realize this, but it helps. Even when dealing with theoretical abstractions remote from everyday experience, even when the empirical evidence is rich and well understood, and even when they have the leisure to take years calmly to mull things over in relative privacy, scientists are influenced in their thinking by extra-scientific considerations of a philosophical and even political kind. It would be absurd to think things are any different in a context where the evidence is poorly understood and changes daily, the media attention is intense, and the social, political, and economic implications of their advice are enormous.
Scientists also have biases just by virtue of being scientists. What I mean is that, if they are not careful, scientists are prone to look at an issue from a purely scientific perspective even when it has important extra-scientific aspects, or to look at it purely from the perspective of their own scientific sub-discipline even when it has aspects that fall outside the competence of that sub-discipline. Everyone knows this is true of the social sciences, as is evidenced by the genre of “economist jokes.” But it is no less true of the natural sciences.
Now, the question of how to deal with the Covid-19 situation is, of course, an epidemiological and medical question. But it is not just that, because human life is multifaceted, and there are, accordingly, other crucial aspects of any policy implemented in order to deal with the virus. For example, how much economic damage is likely to be done by a lockdown? How will such damage ramify over time? How does the gravity of such damage weigh against the damage the virus is likely to do? At what point might a lockdown result in more sickness and death, given factors such as the lack of herd immunity, neglect of ailments other than Covid-19, the insolvency of medical institutions and their funding sources, etc.? What sort of psychological toll is a lockdown likely to take on people? What sort of social instability is it likely to produce over time? What effects will it have on education?
Medical doctors and epidemiologists have no special expertise on such questions. They fall instead under disciplines such as economics and social psychology. But most importantly, weighing all of these considerations and determining how to balance them requires statesmanship, and the virtue of phronesis – practical wisdom or prudence – which you cannot acquire by reading a book or getting a degree.
Scientists are no more likely to have this virtue than anyone else is. And scientism– the view that science alone gives us knowledge – is one of the great enemies of phronesis. It fits all of reality into an abstract procrustean bed, which rules out the grasp of nuance and concrete circumstances that phronesis requires. And it is blind to what Michael Polanyi called the “tacit dimension” of knowledge that is embodied in habits and instincts acquired through experience rather than book-learning. Yet this tacit knowledge is precisely the kind that phronesis requires.
By no means are all scientists guilty of scientism. But the people who most loudly and obnoxiously claim to have “the science” on their side in any dispute are typically guilty of it, and the degree of self-confidence they possess stands, accordingly, in inverse proportion to their possession of phronesis.
A scientist like Anthony Fauci, then, is not some Philosopher-King whose word should be law, though neither is he a sinister Dr. Strangelove of whom we should be suspect. He’s just one important expert giving valuable advice to be weighed seriously, alongside other valuable advice from other important experts. Nothing less, and also nothing more.
Then there is the fact that “the science” on Covid-19 is very far from clear or settled anyway. “Trust the science” is good advice if we’re talking about the Periodic Table, but just demagoguery in a context where, at least where crucial details are concerned, no one even knows what “the science” is. Certainly it would be dishonest to pretend that science has established that a draconian lockdown strategy is better than, say, Sweden’s approach.
You might say: Why not just go with what “the best science” is telling us? But how do we know which of the “the science” is the “best”? Should we rely on journalists, politicians, and other non-scientists to tell us? But the whole point of appealing to the authority of scientists was to avoid having to rely on these non-specialists! So this answer would just take us back where we started. Should we let scientists themselves, then – well, the best ones anyway – tell us? If you can’t see what’s wrong with that answer, I’ve got a T-shirt to sell you.
What all of this entails is that even an appeal to the authority of scientists can in this context be fallacious, not only because scientists too can be biased, but also because there are two respects in which they can lack the relevant expertise. First, their expertise qua scientists concerns only one aspect of public policy vis-à-vis Covid-19 (albeit a very important aspect) and not the whole of it; and second, the body of information of which they have specialized knowledge is, in the first place, highly incomplete and in flux.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that a non-expert is not necessarily unreasonable if he doubts the experts who favor continuing the lockdown – and indeed, that it would be unreasonable not to have at least some reservations about their advice. That is not to say that everyone who doubts this expert advice is reasonable. There are, of course, cranks among lockdown skeptics. But there are cranks in every area of controversy.
Indeed, if the case ultimately rests on appeal to the authority of experts, it is not at all clear that the grounds for continuing the lockdown are really any stronger than the grounds for winding it down, or at least greatly relaxing it. Yet as I have argued elsewhere (and as others have too), the burden of proof is on those who favor continuing the lockdown, not on those who want to relax it. I trust you have sufficient expertise to do the math.