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There's No Such Thing as "Following the Science"

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Ezra Klein quotes a Harvard epidemiologist's criticism of the FDA for blocking rapid at-home Covid tests: "They are inadvertently killing people by not following the science."I agree with the spirit of the criticism (and was heartened to read that Biden’s surgeon general nominee agrees that the FDA has been "too conservative"), but it's worth clarifying that the FDA's failure here is fundamentally ethical, not scientific.It's a popular rhetorical move, to present one's preferred policies as being backed by the authority of science.  It immediately puts one's critics on the back foot: who are they to question science, after all?  But it's also misleading.  Science doesn't recommend policies for us to follow, for the simple reason that science merely tells us what is the case, and cannot by itself answer normative questions about what ought to be done.Whether we realize it or not, we use normative bridging principles to cross the is/ought gap.  If some such principle is implicitly presupposed in a context, it might then seem as though the scientific claim alone suffices to yield a policy recommendation.  Opponents of the policy may then try to undermine our scientific knowledge in order to muddy the waters (cf. climate and covid "skeptics").  Perhaps such silliness could be decried as a failure to "follow the science". But such a framing risks reinforcing the mistaken impression that the science alone determines what should be done.  It's often worth making explicit the underlying normative bridging principles, not least because these are often debatable and worthy of critical scrutiny.Difficult policy decisions tend to involve trade-offs, whether between different people's interests, different kinds of values, or different levels of risk.  This is what makes them difficult.  Accurate scientific data is crucial for getting clear on what the prospects for various policy options look like: the. . .

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