Thursday, May 14, 2020

Let's Keep Talking, But Let's Also Be Gentle With One Another

In this week's testimony to the US Senate regarding the current plague, Dr. Anthony Fauci, physician, immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said, in an apparent rebuke of one senator's line of questioning, "I give advice according to the best scientific evidence."

I've taken this from the Wikipedia entry on "scientific evidence": 

Scientific evidence is evidence that serves to either support or counter a scientific theory or hypothesis. Such evidence is expected to be empirical evidence and interpretation in accordance with scientific method. Standards for scientific evidence vary according to the field of inquiry, but the strength of scientific evidence is generally based on the results of statistical analysis and the strength of science controls.

The scientist Fauci isn't just relying on scientific evidence, but rather "the best" scientific evidence, which is what we would expect and want from a scientist who is giving us his advice. But what makes it the best? We know there is other scientific evidence (presumedly not "the best") that counters his scientific theories about Covid-19 and the spread of the virus. We learn that every time we look at our social media feeds. It can be confusing to those of us who are not scientists. "I don't know what to believe," we say.

When scientists talk about "the best" scientific evidence, they are referring to the most widely held opinion amongst scientists, which is usually referred to as a scientific consensus. In the case of climate change, for instance, some 97 percent of scientists hold the opinion, based upon their study of the evidence, that it is at least in part caused by human activity. So while there are three precent of scientists who interpret the evidence to the contrary, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is manmade. Yet there remains a huge percentage of US citizens who disagree with the scientific consensus. Some of them find the evidence presented by the three percent to be more persuasive, but most simply don't take scientific truth (e.g., scientific consensus) to be the "be all end all" which was what Fauci was responding to when he told the Senate that he was following the best scientific evidence.

We live in an era in which scientific truth is ascendant. It may not feel like it with science so visibly under attack on all fronts, but throughout most of human history, when it came to seeking truth, we were far more likely to look to religion, philosophy, art, and mythology. Just because the scientific method has emerged to show us a new version of truth, it doesn't mean that these other methods have disappeared or been entirely invalidated. Scientific truth can only answer the questions it can answer. For instance, science alone cannot answer questions of ethics or morality. As anyone who has read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy knows the scientific answer to the meaning of life is 42, a true but useless answer: for the meaning of life we need religion, philosophy, art, and mythology (which I define as the collective stories we tell about us.)

And we all know that "the best" scientific evidence can change. Take for example, our current science around the wearing of masks as a prophylactic against the coronavirus. A couple of months ago, the best advice was that we didn't need to wear masks in public. In fact, there was even some evidence that it could actually make things worse. That has now changed. Now we are told that we should be covering our noses and mouths in crowded places. The "consensus" on this advice is no where near 97 percent. Indeed, among scientists, there is considerable debate around the efficacy of masks. The advice to wear masks is being given based upon the argument that it will probably do no harm and could possibly do some good, but always with the caveat that physical distancing should still be maintained whenever possible, because the scientific consensus on that is more significant.

No, our current truth that we should be wearing masks is one that is emerging as much from mythology as science. I'm not saying that there isn't scientific evidence behind it, but rather that most of us are wearing our masks because of the stories we are telling one another about them: that we do it to protect others, that it is a social good, that it is a symbol of us all being in this together, that this is what good citizens do. This truth is as valid as scientific truth.

The best scientific evidence tells us that there is no such thing as race, yet we all know that this isn't true: race exists and it impacts all of us. Race is a true story we tell together, even if science can't find evidence for it. There are other truths that can only be revealed through art (see my post from last week), which is how we strive to understand reality as viewed from within ourselves. This is at least as valid as seeking truth from outside ourselves the way science does. And, of course, there are important truths to be discovered through religion and philosophy, such as those pertaining to ethics and morality.

We each have our individual truths and they are a unique and complex mix of science, religion, philosophy, art, and mythology. None of us are all scientist any more than we are all artist. We all believe things that the best scientific evidence fails to support. We all find flaws in the truths of others. But somehow we must live together. It would be so much easier in times like these to rely upon a good, wise, and benevolent dictator to simply tell us all what to do. This dictator could simply shut us all up in our homes for a few weeks and the coronavirus would simply disappear. None of us would stand for that, however, because we believe in the promise of freedom of choice and self-governance even if that is perhaps the worst possible system for combating a virus.

There are those who insist that we should all just shut up for the time being and, for the good of everyone, instead just follow the "best science," turning science into a kind of dictator. While science is not the be all end all, I believe we would be fools to turn away from advice being given based upon the best scientific evidence. Still, that does not negate the other types of truth out there, and they must be on the table as well as we debate what to do.

As preschool teachers, parents, and child care providers, our voices are among the most important voices in this debate. Our collective truth must be front and center. I know that we don't all agree about everything, but that is not a reason to disengage. This is not a time for sitting quietly by waiting to be told what to do. Our voices are essential because not only are we on the front lines, but because we understand truths about children and society that many of the scientists, artists, mystics, and myth makers do not. I am heartened by all the groundswell of discussion, often heated, that I'm seeing today. Not a day passes when I'm not invited to join this discussion group and that. Not a day goes by that I'm not engaged with my fellow ECE professionals in discussing what we should be doing. There are those who would rush us, but we are working on developing our consensus and doing that is hard work that will take time.

It's also emotional work because so much is at stake and so many truths are colliding. Let's keep talking, with urgency, but let's also strive to be gentle with one another. That's my advice, base on the best preschool teacher evidence.


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