Phil Klay at the New York Times: “…Stories are a quintessentially human method of responding to the chaos and uncertainty of the world. Science is a quintessentially human method of trying to control that chaos, and data is its raw material. Adrift in the world, uncertain of the future, hostage to fate, but possessed of increasingly powerful tools for carving up pieces of the world and putting them under the microscope, is it any wonder that we increasingly turn to science when looking for deliverance from our human predicaments?
Science, after all, will eventually bring us to the end of the pandemic, just as it has helped limit the damage through better treatments and proof of the benefits of wearing masks. “Science over fiction,” was one slogan of the Joe Biden campaign, a welcome message to those who’d like public policy tethered more to reality than political fantasy.
But because science supposedly gives clear answers about everything from how to open schools in a pandemic to who will be elected president, we tend to rush to embrace it as a panacea. Some, like the popular podcaster and author Sam Harris, even think science can answer moral questions. Rarely does it occur to us how often the invocation of “science” is used to mask value judgments, or political deliberation.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatricians released separate guidelines for reopening schools, the difference lay not in the underlying science but in their institutional priorities, one focused on disease spread and the other on the welfare of children. Likewise, the difference in how New York City handled the reopenings of day cares and schools reflected not simply science, but also what could be more easily demanded of workers who lacked the protection of a powerful union.
As much as we’d like to believe in “science over fiction,” decisions in the real world require negotiating between what we think the data means, what human value we’d like to assign to it and what stories about it we can get others to accept. Data alone is not knowledge, and it is certainly not wisdom. It rarely says as much as we think it does.
Yet its allure is undeniable, persistent. As I watched the election returns on Tuesday and Wednesday, I did so with the sinking feeling that I’d been fooled again by the lure of data. Even though it looked like Biden could still win, it was clear that those hard numbers I’d been absorbing for weeks, based on fine -tuned methodologies, correcting for past mistakes, aggregated to minimize chances of error, hadn’t come close to reflecting reality. “You are literally working on an essay about the problems with relying too much on data,” my wife told me the morning after the election, “and yet you were so confident in the polls.”…(More)”