DANIEL VAUGHAN: Values form our decisions, not science and data

We’ve hit the stage of the COVID-19 pandemic where America’s rebellious streak is starting to come out. It’s not a left- or right-wing thing. People are protesting their state governments in red and blue states, from coast to coast.

Rebellion against state authority is part of the American DNA, and if you’re a legislator, you should always take that into account.

One of the ways some officials are deflecting criticism for harsh quarantine measures is by appealing to science. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose state has been a success story, provides one of the best examples.

Responding to protests in his state, Newsom tweeted: “Politics and protests will not drive our decision making. Science, data, and public health will drive our decision making. #StayHomeSaveLives.”

The problem is that science and data can’t answer a value question, something that isn’t a fact. Science and data can give you probabilities, explain how the virus works, and help us develop treatments. These are essential factors to take into consideration when forming public policy — but they don’t make those policies.

We make decisions based on what strategies we believe are “best” or “good.” Figuring out what is “good” in a policy decision is not a scientific question; it’s one of value.

Values explain why we choose specific ideas over others. Value propositions undergird everything, though we often don’t notice them.

The question of reopening or remaining closed isn’t one of science; it’s one of value. Will citizens engage in intelligent behavior to remain distanced to prevent the spread of the virus? Science can’t answer that. And even if it could, people wouldn’t trust the answer. Individuals decide whether or not to go out into the world, regardless of government advice.

More broadly, however, the question of values explains what factors we’re giving the most weight to when dealing with the virus. I believe there is good evidence that we’ll develop a vaccine for COVID-19 — that’s a scientific quest where we can likely find success. But I’m also fully cognizant of the fact that scientists have never developed a vaccine for a single coronavirus. Not one.

If a vaccine isn’t coming, then states and governors have the unenviable position of figuring out how to reopen economies when no calvary may be on the way. If we can’t expect a vaccine, then the only other option is figuring out how to live with the virus.

Life with infectious disease isn’t a new thing for humanity; we’ve lived most of our existence with fear of even the slightest cuts. For most of our history, a simple infection could end a life, and more dangerous diseases wiped out entire populations.

Even if a vaccine is coming, right now, the earliest we could get it is by the end of this year — if we’re lucky. If we’re not, and coronaviruses of the past have proven impossible on this front, we’re likely as much as two years from a solution.

While we cannot say for sure how this virus gets solved, we can say one thing with absolute certainty: not one city, county, state, or nation is staying shutdown and in quarantine until a vaccine is discovered. You don’t need the rebellious American streak to know that; it’s just a fact of both the economy and human nature.

We make value judgments all the time. Driving a car is one area where we make these decisions. When setting a speed limit, most cities settle on what’s called the “prevailing speed.” That’s the speed that around 85% of drivers naturally choose for a speed limit. We know if people travel above that prevailing speed, the number of crashes goes up dramatically.

If you talk to libertarians, some of them would like maximum liberty and no speed limits. If the value you want to maximize is pure liberty, then eliminating the speed limit will expand those rights.

On the other side, you have people already planning for a driverless car future, where people will be banned from driving on the grounds of public safety. For these people, the highest value is saving lives. And if you believe in saving lives, this is the right plan to take over the long haul.

Public policy, which lacks driverless cars, has settled for speed limits, but those limits are slowly creeping up as cars become safer. In essence, we have made a decision that accepts some traffic deaths to allow more people to drive faster. Allowing faster speeds drops commute times and also expands the amount of area considered commutable for those driving long distances to work.

Is there an absolute right answer in that discussion? Probably not. It’s not that the truth is relative, but rather, that it is an amoral situation. Risk is involved on either side, and we’re trying to balance those risks along with unknown variables.

Governor Newsom wants everyone to believe his decisions are shaped by science. It gives him some level of plausible deniability when making a decision.

Ultimately, however, the American public doesn’t buy those answers. That rebellious streak recognizes that these policies are, at the root, value propositions being made by politicians. We elect politicians to make those unenviable decisions. We protest them when we don’t like the values politicians elevate.

Science and data can’t give us values or answer the propositions those values raise. There’s another field included in all this discussion, too: economics — but that field can’t explain a value proposition either.

From purely economic terms, the shutdown was a mistake. But we valued saving lives and protecting the health care system above financial gain. We can’t ignore the economy forever, however, because people have to make a living and put food on the table.

The problem in front of us concerns balancing values, the information in front of us, and protecting those we love. Making public decisions is difficult. It’s work that’s beguiled politicians for all history. Mistakes will get made, but we’ll learn from them. That’s part of being human: living with the values we choose.