Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the relation between science and politics is now at the center of the world stage. The novel coronavirus offers up a powerful and extremely clear lesson about the appropriate role of science in helping to guide us toward a better future—a lesson that sharply contradicts standard thinking about science and politics. Above all, we are learning that science’s place in politics is determined not by the logic of facts, but by the fundamental influence of human values. To understand why, we have to start by recognizing how the COVID-19 crisis differs in almost every important respect from more familiar controversies at the intersection of science and politics.
Most importantly: The COVID-19 threat is immediate, global, and existential. The protection of one’s own life depends on the protection of the lives of others. We are thus unified by the shared value of preserving life, which in turn means we are all actually talking about the same thing when we talk about the COVID crisis. A similar condition of value convergence emerges during time of war, but because the threat now is a pandemic virus and not an enemy nation, the desired goal of preventing loss of life is universally shared. The reality of what we are facing sinks in, people everywhere are showing that they are increasingly willing to put their immediate interests and conflicting values aside in the service of achieving a much larger, shared goal of slowing the pandemic. For once, we all agree.
Complex policy issues around problems as diverse as education, climate change, health care, and immigration are all accompanied by a diversity of ideological and political sub-agendas that rarely get articulated yet may importantly influence why certain positions are supported or opposed. Different ideological theories—for example, about the role of government versus the private sector in problem-solving—are available to support competing interests, and they justify disagreement about what actions should be taken. Disagreement can be sustained because no one really knows what to do, because short-term testing of alternative policies is impossible. The problems are so complex that even defining them is controversial. Is climate change a problem of lifestyle or technological innovation or population growth? Is poor public education a reflection of underpaid teachers and inadequate government investment, or too powerful teachers unions and insufficient focus on the basics, or racial and economic inequalities whose origins go deeper than anything that can be resolved at the level of school reform?
COVID-19 is a hard problem, but not a complex one. We know what COVID-19 is because we see it around us. Experts, in expressing their deep concerns, are also talking candidly about the great uncertainties and exercising humility. Politicians are nonetheless listening to experts and taking action. They are, on the whole, acting for the common good. The tired, unhelpful, ever-wishful tropes of “evidence-based policy” and “political will” actually seem to have some meaning under these special conditions.
None of this is to say that catastrophe can or will be averted. But we can say that the threat of COVID-19 is bringing out the best in both science and politics. The lesson is not that we need to always listen to experts and that science will show us the way to go. It’s that a shared sense of our commonality as humans is the essential condition of a society that has the tools to deal with its problems. Common values, not expert assertions about facts, are what make science good enough to act on.