Scientists: The New Arbiters of Right and Wrong
And yes, that should concern you.
I recently had a unique encounter with a custodian at my lab. While working late one night, I crossed paths with the cleaning crew. After some brief small talk, one of the fellas eyed the lab coat I was wearing, and then looked at me with an expression of curiosity. "Now, what are you workin' on over there? Are y'all workin on a vaccine, on a way to fix all this craziness?" Replying in the best way I could, or rather, by saying all that I was allowed to say, I told the man. "Well no, that's not what I'm doing, but there are thousands out there working on things that will help!" He relaxed slightly, seemingly satisfied enough with my answer, only to tense up again and give me that same expression, searching for answers. He then asked me where COVID-19 had come from.
A reasonable question, but one that was followed up quickly by another: "When will this all get back to normal?" I wish I'd had an answer for him. I didn't. I was (and am) just as clueless as him.
This wasn't the first (or the last) time this question came up. In fact, I find myself the recipient of more and more questions about life, the universe and everything. And usually, that's pretty fun. It's nice to be noticed, appreciated, and respected. But some questions have answers that are far beyond the reach of one young biologist. "When will things return to normal? When can we go back to normal?" It's a huge, multilayered, and complicated question. "Normal" is a state determined not just by biology, after all, but by economics, law, philosophy, sociology, environmental science, and other factors simply too numerous to name. But, as interesting as the answer to the question might be, the fact that we're increasingly asking this question of scientists is incredibly interesting. There's an old computer game where one of the sprites, a scientist, chirps "I've got the knowledge!" when selected. And, I like to think, we do have some pretty cool knowledge (if I do say so myself).
But just how far exactly does that knowledge extend?
And at what point does scientific knowledge become insufficient as an arbiter of right and wrong?
Modern society seems to defer only to those with specific experiential knowledge when searching for specific answers to specific questions, ignoring any information or opinion that does not seem to be readily comparable or helpful to answering that specific question. And that's fairly logical: If you need your car fixed, you go to a mechanic--not a dentist. Knowledge is often domain-specific. But that's just the problem: "When should things return to normal?" isn't a domain-specific question.
To answer a question about a virus, it only makes sense to consult an epidemiologist. But that scientist can only tell you about the virus. And that's not all that needs to be considered here. When should businesses reopen? When can sports resume? How are weeks and weeks of living in social isolation going to shape our culture's outlook on the next forty years? The first question alone requires at least two domain-specific forms of knowledge. Someone with a strong grasp of biology might be able to make a good prediction of how the virus spreads; but they are unlikely to understand the complexities of the global economy. And, by the way, just because an action is optimal from a combined biological and economic standpoint doesn't make it right. Add in the issue of a culture's mental health and suddenly we're dealing with an issue with tendrils in biology, economics, morality, and human psychology.
Now, we certainly don't want to ignore the input of our nation's best and brightest scientists. Without the tireless work of our friends in healthcare, biology, and chemistry we would all be in a lot of trouble.
But at the end of the day, maybe it's worth considering just how many dimensions there are to these issues of "what the right decision" is, or "when will things get back to normal?" Scientists know a lot, but we can't do it on our own