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Opinion: Science can't tell Gov. Whitmer how and when to reopen Michigan

David Shane

According to a recent report, Gov. Whitmer pledged not to soften the state response to COVID-19 until there is a vaccine, saying “Until then, we’re going to have to continue to follow the science.” She thereby continued what has been a habit for her throughout the COVID-19 response, which is to mischaracterize the nature of science, and deploy vague appeals to science like a shield to hide behind that would nullify any criticism of her actions.

Science is a tool with limitations. Science does not tell you how you should live your life, and science does not tell politicians what policies they should set. It may and, in many circumstances does, provide helpful information in making such decisions, but it cannot make the decisions.

Gov. Whitmer appealed to science as she promised continued measures against COVID-19 until there is a vaccine, Shane writes.

The governor does not have access to a book, helpfully labeled “SCIENCE” on the cover, that informs her on page seven that, according to the science, she should not further reduce restrictions in the state until a vaccine is available. Science cannot answer that question. Science does not tell you how to balance the many considerations that make up a human life. And we should stop pretending (for a game of pretend is all it is), that it does or can.

Maybe this is a strange thing for a physics professor to write, but I think much of our COVID-19 response has forgotten our humanity (and to forget our humanity in the name of “science” is even more painful). I have called it, in another context, the “idolatry of health,” or perhaps more specifically the idolatry of avoiding COVID-19. We write policies as if the only thing that really matters is reducing our COVID-19 statistics.

But the purpose of human life is not to avoid a disease. Maybe science is to blame for part of the confusion. A scientific lens often sees humans as just their biology, which exists to reproduce and survive and … is there anything else to life?

Yes, there is. But again, what matters most in life will not be taught to you from the pages of a biology textbook.

People who want a normal backyard gathering with friends, with their kids tumbling in sport under the tree, are not being “selfish” even if they are increasing the risk of COVID-19 spread by such activities; they are just recognizing that life is not about avoiding all risk.

People who gather with fellow believers in a church every Sunday and sing their hearts out, or who long for the day when their business can truly return to normal and they and their customers can smile at each other again in friendly conversation, are not acting “against the science”; they just correctly recognize that there is more to life than a reductive appeal to the sciences could teach them.

Let us recognize that science is helpful, but science alone cannot tell you how to live a human life, or write a political policy.

David Shane is a professor of physics at Lansing Community College.