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Science as Scorekeeping 

Brendan Foht

On Covid-19, America’s political leaders need to stop acting like spectators and get in the game.

If there is one thing about the coronavirus pandemic that both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree on, it’s that the science that bears on it should never be “politicized.” From the left, former CDC directors of the Obama and Clinton administrations warn of how the Trump administration has politicized the agency’s science: “The only valid reason to change released guidelines is new information and new science — not politics.” From the right, the Wall Street Journal frets about the scientific journal Nature publishing a politically charged editorial about why China shouldn’t be blamed for the coronavirus: “Political pressure has distorted scientific judgment.” What both sides assume is that political authorities should defer to scientists on important decisions about the pandemic, but only insofar as science itself is somehow kept free from politics.

But politicization, and even polarization, are not always bad for science. There is much about how we can use science to respond to the pandemic that is inescapably political, and that we cannot simply leave to scientists to decide.

There is, however, a real problem with how political institutions in the United States have engaged with science. Too much of the debate over coronavirus science has centered on how bad the disease really is, with the administration downplaying its risks and the opposition insisting on its danger. One side sees the scientists warning of peril as a political obstacle that must be overcome. The other side sees them as authorities to whom we must defer, not as servants of the public who could be directed toward solving the problem. The false choice between these two perspectives on how science relates to politics obscures a wide range of political choices the country faces about how we can make use of our scientific resources in responding to the pandemic....

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Brendan Foht is associate editor of The New Atlantis.