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Confession of a public-health expert

The public-health officials are getting around to admitting the fallibility of public-health officials.

The former head of the National Institutes of Health during the pandemic and current science advisor to President Joe Biden, Francis Collins, has noted that he and his colleagues demonstrated an "unfortunate" narrow-mindedness.

This is a welcome, if belated, confession.

Not too long ago, anyone who said that epidemiologists might be overly focused on disease prevention to the exclusion of other concerns -- you know, like jobs, mental health and schooling -- were dismissed as reckless nihilists who didn't care if their fellow citizens died en masse.

Now, Francis Collins has weighed in to tell us that many of the people considered close-minded and anti-science during COVID-19 were advancing an appropriately balanced view of the trade-offs inherent in the pandemic response.

"If you're a public-health person and you're trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is," Collins said at an event earlier this year that garnered attention online the last couple of days.

This is not a new insight, or a surprising one. It's a little like saying Bolsheviks will be focused on nationalizing the means of production over everything else, or a golf pro will be monomaniacal about the proper mechanics of a swing.

The problem comes, of course, when public health, or "public health," becomes the only guide to public policy. Then, you are giving a group of obsessives, who have an important role to play within proper limits, too much power in a way that is bound to distort your society.

Francis Collins, again: "So you attach infinite value to stopping the disease and saving a life. You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people's lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recover from."

True and well said, but that's an awful lot of very important things to attach "zero value" to.

He also admitted to having an urban bias, driven by working out of Washington D.C. and thinking almost exclusively about New York City and other major cities.

If Francis Collins and his cohort got it wrong, the likes of Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Georgia governor Brian Kemp -- and the renegade scientists and doctors who supported their more modulated approach to the pandemic -- got it right.

It's always worth remembering that the pandemic was a once-in-hundred-years event and initially, we had very little information and very few means to prevent and treat the disease. It is inevitable that decision-makers are going to make mistakes in such a crisis, and adjust as they go.

That said, the scientists who were in positions of authority could have shown more modesty. They could have welcomed debate. They could have distanced themselves from -- or better yet, denounced -- the campaign of moral bullying carried out in their name.

Many people wanted to outsource their thinking to the experts and then, with a great sense of righteousness, rely on arguments from authority to demonize their opponents and shut down every policy dispute.

Francis Collins, one of the most eminent scientists in the country and a subtle thinker who dissents from the orthodoxy that science and faith are incompatible, would have been an ideal voice to counter the propaganda campaigns that aimed to suppress unwelcome views and even unwelcome facts. Instead, he stuck with his tribe.

It's progress, though, to realize that scientists, too, are susceptible to group-think, recency bias and parochialism; that the experts may know an incredible amount about a very narrow area, while knowing little to nothing about broader matters of greater consequence; that point of views considered dangerous lunacy may, over time, prove out, so they shouldn't be censored or otherwise quashed.

It's not just that the scientists acted like blinkered scientists during the pandemic; they tolerated, or participated in, agitprop that was inimical to the scientific spirit and to good public policy.

 

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