Science, Uncertainty and Pandemic Response


John W. Tomac

Matt Ridley’s essay “What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Science” (Review, Oct. 10) is flawed. Science fixes mistakes as science advances. In citing the errors of some scientists, Mr. Ridley ignores studies done by highly credible scientific institutions such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that produce expert, objective, nonpolitical, independent, public assessments of scientific knowledge relevant to important issues. Such institutions have a responsibility to accurately say what is known from science, what isn’t known and what the uncertainties are.

Mr. Ridley touts Sweden’s experience during the pandemic and fails to mention Finland. Here are recent data with Finland listed first and Sweden second: deaths per 100,000 (6 vs. 58), total cases per 100,000 (210 vs. 967). Also, the economic performance of Finland during the pandemic has been better than that of Sweden.

Using science in a crisis is essential even when there are large uncertainties in science and uncertainties in what people and countries will do. Science can advise on what is working and not working as decisions are being made and actions taken. Scientific knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19 has expanded rapidly, and new knowledge should be informing decisions.

E. William Colglazier, Ph.D.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

McLean, Va.

Mr. Ridley admonishes us that the only way to be absolutely sure that one scientific pronouncement is reliable is to examine the evidence yourself. I would be interested to know how he would propose the layperson goes about preparing herself or himself to parse and review such medical information.

James Wilbur Mimbs, M.D.

Edgefield, S.C.

To all the yard signs claiming that “Science is real,” I would like to add “and complicated.”

Jim Mayhall

Lake Bluff, Ill.

Mr. Ridley’s essay should be required reading for all pundits and governors. Science can’t determine should or shouldn’t. It only informs our choices, which must ultimately be based on values and preferences. There is no one “right” balance between freedom and prudence, and the rules that strike that balance must be worked out by negotiation and compromise. This makes it all the more frustrating when leaders refer to “the science” as justification for long-term suspension of our democratic process, as if it makes their decisions somehow objective and therefore unarguable. It is equally frustrating when the public accepts this abuse of science and allows itself to be disenfranchised.

Theodore Zachary


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Appeared in the October 17, 2020, print edition.

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