We've Listened to the Epidemiologists. Let's Please Now Listen to the Economists
Epidemiology has a lot more in common with economics than it would like to admit.
That matters a lot right now, because we’re being asked to view the COVID forecasts and pronouncements of public health officials as certainties based on objective reality, while the grave concerns of economists about the devastation we’ve inflicted on our own well-being through lockdowns are treated as some kind of apocalyptic prepper fan fiction.
There’s an old joke that says a mathematician and an economist were both asked what 1+1 equals. The mathematician says, “Two.” The economist says “It depends on your assumptions.”
Public health officials in the COVID crisis have too often claimed to have mathematically precise answers, when in fact those answers are based on the epidemiologist’s assumptions.
As a result, we’ve been treating the picture they’ve painted – of hospitals collapsing under the weight of an endless flood of COVID victims, of millions of Americans dying -- as the invariable truth of a mathematician.
And we can only find the path to salvation through the public health officials’ draconian solutions. We ask questions, they give answers, and they must be right, because…science.
Economists? They could be wrong when they see 32% unemployment rates coming – the highest ever recorded in American history, or when they believe we’ve triggered a depression that will dwarf the Great Depression. Because they’re just economists.
But is epidemiology a hard science? It’s vastly less clear-cut than the clampdownistas might have us believe. The American Journal of Public Health said in a 1999 editorial that “Epidemiology is – or is not – the basic science of public health. Epidemiology is – or is not – a basic science.” The editorial concluded that epidemiology is “at once objective…and partisan”, and that it must embrace both “science…and advocacy.”
It is not, in other words, a cut-and-dried thing like chemistry or physics. It exists on the border between hard science and social science.
Kind of like economics, actually. Each field attempts to better understand and predict one of the most complex systems on the planet.
Epidemiology studies the health of a population and the factors and diseases that may adversely affect it.
Economics studies the wealth of a population and the factors and problems that may adversely affect it.
Both are driven by enormous quantities of observable data that must be interpreted by highly educated human beings. Both have an almost endless supply of variables inherent in their analysis, which means that nailing down clear and complete cause-and-effect conclusions will always be subject to interpretation, attribution, and bias.
Both have to deal with the realities and difficult-to-know vagaries of human psychology, since both are dramatically influenced by people’s behavior.
Both are asked to tell us how we’re doing and progressing. Both are asked what policies we should enact to ensure the outcomes we want. Both are asked to predict an unknowable certain future.
Both often get it right. And both sometimes get it wrong.
This isn’t meant to cast aspersions on epidemiologists, and it also isn’t any kind of attempt to say epidemiology is definitively a social science. That’s an argument for academic journals and university faculty lounges.
What it does mean is that we should stop giving such an unskeptically wide berth to the decisions and forecasts of every public health official and every epidemiologist. The assumptions undergirding their studies and projections should be subject to the most vigorous questioning. Their prescriptions to make things better should be examined and treated as advocacy vehicles, just as economists’ are.
Just as economist and federal reserve chair Ben Bernanke’s role in the financial crisis was so great that he was named Time’s 2009 Man of the Year, it’s natural that epidemiologists have occupied elevated roles during these early days of the COVID-19 crisis. We all saw and felt the precipice of societal disaster, and we all dearly wanted the help of responsible adults who were trained in the matters of the moment.
But as time grinds on and our economic circumstances grow more dire, it’s critical that we hold advice from both fields in equal regard. We should demand, in fact, that experts from both fields more actively collaborate, share information, and where possible, jointly communicate to the public to assure us that they’re not making decisions in a vacuum.
If we don’t, our failure to take heed of the dismal science will leave our both our lives and our freedoms in a place we never imagined we could be.