My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“Follow the science” is one of those conversation-stopping statements often used condescendingly by some politicians and others who seek to stifle debate or disagreement with their policies by asserting that their position is scientifically infallible, so anyone who disagrees is simply ignorant. Of course, many issues are not so simple or clear-cut. Claims regarding the science behind the shutdowns of our economy, online learning for public schools, mask mandates, and safe-distancing during the COVID pandemic are examples of instances where the mantra “follow the science” was often invoked.
In fact, many scientists often disagree among themselves, which is the way science operates. Scientists propose a hypothesis, test it, and then compare results, which are not always unequivocal. There may be a variety of reasons why a study may be flawed due to methodology or bias. Peer review of test results and scientific studies helps to sort out which conclusions are more or less reliable.
When it comes to facial coverings and masks, for example, there are experts who argue for the advisability of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID, but there are also studies that conclude that wearing masks is not very effective in preventing people from becoming infected by COVID. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization initially recommended against cloth masks for the general public and later recommended the opposite. The Cleveland Clinic said last month that “cloth masks, which are often made of materials like cotton, don’t do much to protect you from inhaling particles that carry the virus — and with a virus as infectious as omicron, that becomes a problem.” It is no wonder that many people are confused by these shifting recommendations on the utility of masks.
With regard to social shutdowns, The Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise in January 2022 published “A Literature Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Lockdowns on COVID-19 Mortality.” This meta-analysis of COVID lockdowns identified 1,048 studies published by July 1, 2020, and focused on the following question: “What does the evidence tell us about the effects of lockdowns on mortality?” Their conclusion provides a firm answer to this question:
“The evidence fails to confirm that lockdowns have a significant effect in reducing COVID-19 mortality. The effect is little to none. The use of lockdowns is a unique feature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns have not been used to such a large extent during any of the pandemics of the past century. However, lockdowns during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic have had devastating effects. They have contributed to reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy. These costs to society must be compared to the benefits of lockdowns, which our meta-analysis has shown are marginal at best. Such a standard benefit-cost calculation leads to a strong conclusion: lockdowns should be rejected out of hand as a pandemic policy instrument.”
The data in this meta-analysis certainly support my conclusions in my article, “Social Shutdowns as an Extraordinary Means of Saving Human Life,” published in the September issue of Ethics & Medics and the Autumn 2020 issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.
In my article, I said, “If we had a moral obligation to use every possible means, even extraordinary means, to preserve life, then we should not even get into our cars, since there is a risk that we could be killed, given the fact that over thirty-five thousand people have died nationwide in auto accidents every year since 1951. We do not stop driving, however, and there is no moral imperative to stop driving, because we recognize that it would be an extraordinary burden on everyday life if people could not get to where they need to be for work, school, family, and other obligations to which they must attend. Instead, we take safety precautions to minimize the risk, such as using seat belts, installing air bags, and following the rules of the road.
“Similarly in the face of a pandemic, do we have a moral obligation to shut down our society, require people to stay at home, put employees out of work, send businesses into bankruptcy, impair the food supply chain, and prevent worshippers from going to church? I would say no. That would be imposing unduly burdensome and extraordinary means. While some people may voluntarily adopt such means, only ordinary means that are not unduly burdensome are morally required to preserve life, both on the part of individuals as well as society as a whole.”
So, when we hear someone say, “Follow the science,” we must distinguish between science and omniscience. Both words come from the Latin root scire, which means “to know.” Science seeks to know the truth, but cannot claim to know all truth. Omniscience, on the other hand, means to know all truth, since the prefix omni means universal or everything. Only God is omniscient, that is, only God knows all truth and everything in this universe. Since scientists are only human, what they know will always be limited, so a good scientist is modest enough to acknowledge his or her limits in asserting definitive conclusions about the absolute truth of a matter.
A good scientist also seeks divine guidance, praying for help to know the truth, especially turning to His Son, Jesus Christ, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
May God give us this grace. Amen.