Reality Matters

Governors and other state and local leaders have been telling us that the decision of when and how to reopen society from the Covid-19 lockdown will be guided by science. But what does it mean to use science for decisions?

Some people think of “science” as a tool that can somehow measure how far we are from reopening like a measuring tape can tell us how much our waist has grown from quarantine baking. You should, instead, think of science as process that helps us determine the truth.

Scientists begin from the assumption that there is an objective reality, independent of our hopes and desires. We try to understand the nature of that reality through observations and experiments.  We get ideas and make models from those observations and from those models, make predictions of what will happen in the future. We test the predictions against reality to see if we are right.

And we know we are sometimes wrong because the easiest person to fool is oneself.  So we use peer review to find the mistakes. We take our research, our intellectual offspring, the prized result of our hard work, and put it in the hands of colleagues, or even a competitor, and ask them to be brutally honest, to tear it apart, find the flaws and tell us what we did wrong.  The process doesn’t always work – people make mistakes or actively commit fraud.  But the system is set up to make it difficult to keep fraud going. Because reality matters.

This novel corona virus doesn’t care what we believe about it. Our need to go back to work, and our desperation about the economy won’t change anything about how the virus infects new people. It also doesn’t put out a big sign saying “It’s safe now.” Rather, scientists are creating a model for how many people will become infected and how many will die as we do or don’t change our behavior. A good model is the best representation of that reality. We cannot wait until we have all the data to be sure our model is right, but we have to carefully monitor what happens and adjust the model as new data comes in.

Reality is real – and it doesn’t care what we believe. People’s lives depend on how well we understand, and act on, the truth. And you can’t hope, believe or wish something into becoming true. Reality matters.