A few days ago, in response to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted “FREE AMERICA NOW.” Though Musk may be the most popular and followed of the bunch, other high-profile technologists and investors are making statements in a similar vein.
In response to Musk’s statement, Brad tweeted a synopsis of what we’ve come to call “Guru Syndrome”: High perceived confidence in all areas, despite actual competence being in a narrow field.
Guru syndrome is definitely a part of these tweets, but it’s not the whole thing. And while it would be great if more people had the humility to say, “I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion,” that’s not the entire story either. There is a larger question about what science is, what science is not, and how we should (and should not) use science going forward. What follows is our attempt to parse this out. While our focus for the rest of this piece is COVID-19, the principles are applicable to any area of inquiry.
Science is a Way of Thinking. It is a Process. It Doesn’t Tell You What to Think. It Tells You How.
In the past, science did not unfold out in the open. It played out in labs and obscure peer reviewed journals. Now, thanks to the internet and tools like Twitter, debates that once occurred behind closed doors are public. This has many positives: sunlight and transparency leads to a more rigorous, self-correcting process. The thing is laypeople aren’t accustomed to it.
Science is an ongoing back-and-forth of fervent debate. The arguments you see playing out over study designs, drug trials, and the sensitivity of antibody tests? That’s science. It is messy. It takes time and often makes wrong turns. But eventually, it gets us to a better position than would any single study or any single person’s belief. It allows us to work through possibilities until we get enough data more clearly supporting one path to take.
In this way, science requires patience and restraint. The internet, and apparently at least a handful of influential individuals, are not good at either. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that an industry whose slogan is “move fast and break things”—and that gave rise to the fraudulent biotech failure Theranos—is becoming increasingly impatient with science.
Because science is an ongoing process, its findings are constantly changing. Unlike the arguments we all have in day to day life, science isn’t about winning, or proving your beliefs correct. It’s actually the opposite. A good scientist (or scientific thinker) is always trying to prove themselves wrong. This is an inherent vulnerability of science. Science acknowledges there is all kinds of uncertainty in the world and that it is very hard to get to truth with a capital T. It is a system we’ve set up to work against our natural tendency to overestimate our certainty, to work against our ego and that feel-good hit of dopamine we get for being “right.”
The internet dislikes ambiguity, nuance, and humility. It likes—and rewards—ALL CAPS, ALL OR NOTHING STATEMENTS, AND LOTS OF EGO.
But What About When The So-Called “Experts” Are Always Wrong?
Leading health bodies comprised of scientists such as The World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have changed their guidance on many things related to COVID-19, from face masks, to social distancing guidelines, to treatment protocols. So yes, experts are wrong all the time.
But part of the reason experts are wrong is because they are willing to be wrong, and as stated above, they are in the business of trying to prove themselves wrong in search of a better way. This runs completely contrary to all those who have a fervent ALL CAPS belief that they are right. Now certain things may demand those kinds of beliefs, as a result of years of science. For example: CLIMATE CHANGE IS HAPPENING. VACCINE’S WORK. SEWAGE AND SANITATION WORK TOO. EXERCISE IS ALMOST ALWAYS HEALTHY. SMOKING IS UNHEALTHY AND YOU SHOULD TRY TO QUIT.
But opinions on how to treat what is literally called a novel virus that we’ve known about for less than six months do not deserve all caps certainty. Unfortunately, the leader of America struggles mightily with this.
If we don’t trust science, then how do we go about determining what is the right thing to do? Trust whomever has the loudest voice? Whomever appears to be the smartest or has the biggest Twitter following? Do we only use logic to find the answer, and not test empirically? Science may be messy, but it’s the best method we have to get to the correct route, and then to change routes, if required, as we go.
In a social media world, everyone wants to have an opinion. And we tend to give value to those who shout the loudest and who have the biggest followings instead of those who possess a deep understanding of the topic and how science works.
Research shows the smarter you are, the better you are at justifying your beliefs. Intelligence is often tied to engaging in motivated reasoning, or being really good at “proving” your own opinion right. Even the best and brightest of us are susceptible to cognitive biases that push and pull us toward our desired conclusions.
Compare the above tweets with that of Andy Slavitt, one of the nation’s foremost experienced experts on public health. The thing is, Slavitt would be the first to tell you that his area of expertise is narrow when in fact it is easily 100-fold more relevant than that of the people above.
The pandemic has exposed:
- Our collective addiction to feeling right;
- Our propensity to fool ourselves into thinking we know a lot about everything, when the reality is we know little; and
- Our tendency to distrust the inherently skeptical scientists and trust the self-assured armchair experts.
So What Should We Do? To Whom Should We Listen?
We shouldn’t castigate someone if they get something wrong—as long as they update their beliefs. We should listen to individuals who are trained in the scientific method and who have subject matter expertise. If people from industries like tech and investing want to contribute their ideas that’s fine too, and it’s welcome. Breakthroughs in complex problems often require interdisciplinary thinking. But for those ideas to be taken seriously they ought to be contributed with the kind of humility and prudence that science demands.
When the WHO and CDC got things wrong in January it hurt. No doubt about it. But these organizations updated their positions. As better data became available, they changed.
That’s what we should want. We shouldn’t be attacking those who in January thought COVID-19 wasn’t a big deal but by early February were sounding the alarm when more and better data became available. We should be getting on those who refused (and still refuse) to change.
So Should We FREE AMERICA?
We don’t know. And unfortunately, we don’t think anyone does—yet. Science will help us answer this question.
Is the answer to keep things locked down for 18 months or more until we have an effective and widely available and easily distributed (people forget about this last part) vaccine? Probably not.
Is the answer to open everything up and go back to business as usual? Also probably not.
What we need right now are the right tools to let the process unfold as quickly and with as much integrity as possible so we can come to the best decision and update and adjust swiftly as the data changes.
Say we tasked you to build a shed, and all we gave you was a hammer and some wood. If after a week we returned and there was no shed, should we be mad at you or mad at ourselves?
In order for the process to work, scientists need to be able to track and measure. Unfortunately, science isn’t getting the tools it needs at the speed it needs. Don’t be upset that the models predicted something wrong. Be upset that we haven’t been able to test at the rate required to have data good enough to create a more precise model. Imagine you run a Major League Baseball team and are told that a potential prospect hit 12 home runs for the season. Is that information helpful with no understanding of how many games he played? No information on his batting average, strikeouts, walks, etc.? Now, you’re tasked with projecting how good of a baseball player he’ll be in the future. Impossible to do, right? That’s the task we gave scientists. Project the future of a virus that we have little data on, and much of the data we did have was bad.
So when all you see are the errors and the admission of errors (science) versus the ALL CAPS CONFIDENCE (most everyone else), it is very easy to listen to the all caps crowd. We fear this is a costly mistake, and hopefully this short article has helped you see why.
Also, to be explicit: Science is not perfect. There are money and politics and special interests involved. But if you don’t think that is true times 100 for all the armchair experts, then we’d ask you to look a little closer. The armchair experts all have something to gain in staking their positions too. For example, Tesla has been unable to produce new cars in its Bay Area factory due to the shelter in place orders. Bias is everywhere. The scientific process isn’t free of it, but it’s built on acknowledging, declaring, and attempting to minimize it.
Science is flawed but it’s the best we’ve got. If you care about COVID-19 and the future of this country take all your anger—whether it’s because you think we are opening up too fast or opening up too slow—and direct it toward compelling leaders to get scientists the tools they need and then GET OUT OF THE WAY. Direct your anger toward demanding nuance of others and yourself.
Each additional day the world stays closed economic hardship will occur; people will lose meaning and deaths of despair will rise. Each day too soon the world opens a lot of people will get sick and die. All we can do is make trade-offs based on the best available information, as continually evaluated by scientists, and update our beliefs and actions as we go.
It’s as simple and as hard as that.
(For more on this topic, check out the last few and coming episodes of our Growth Equation Podcast.)