Political Decisions and Science

The Boston Globe, our local newspaper, led with a story last month entitled “A warning on relaxing too soon,” subtitled “Epidemiologists say take it slow after Baker eases some pandemic restrictions.” The article noted that, citing an improvement in the pandemic curve, Massachusetts Governor Baker announced an overnight advisory for residents and that he would relax rules requiring many restaurants to close at 9:30 PM. The article went on to quote several experts about this, all of whom warned that this adjustment came too soon. Tellingly to our mind, one of the experts quoted was “not privy to all the data the Baker administration has and acknowledged that there are economic and psychological factors to consider when it comes to assessing restrictions.”

We could not agree more and argue strongly that fundamentally decisions about societal actions — including around Covid-19 — have to be political decisions that include the science but also must balance a range of other considerations. In the same weekend for example, we saw stories about surges in suicides among school-age children in Las Vegas, resulting in school re-opening, a scenario long anticipated by the CDC. Surely such reports should be a consideration in decisions made to maintain or relax restrictions.

Experts quoted by the Boston Globe went on to say that they were willing to endure continued restrictions in January and February “even though it stinks in order to have a better May, June, and July.” It may well be that a particular expert may prefer to endure restrictions in January and February, but all evidence is that the Governor is balancing the costs of these restrictions — economic, social, psychological — with the costs of maintaining them. What does it then mean that experts are lined up by a prominent newspaper for a story that essentially aims to undercut the complex balance that a governor — who by all accounts has acted responsibly and prudently for the duration of the pandemic — is trying to make in determining appropriate ways to handle the pandemic? Does it, we ask, serve the public good?

While epidemiologists have long been widely respected within public health, providing the quantitative heart of much of population health science, the field has never quite been in the public eye as it has during Covid-19. This rise in visibility, and the growing reliance of policy-making on the opinion of scientific experts, comes with power — the power to influence decisions, and to change, literally, daily life for millions of Americans.

We suggest that when the engagement of population health scientists with the media was more infrequent, and perhaps less consequential, experts enjoyed the luxury of casual assertion without much fear that it might tip the balance of action. When that is no longer the case, our caution in what we say, and when we say it, should increase commensurately. The public is weighing our words, but so are politicians, who sometimes rightly weigh decisions on a different set of scales.


Michael Stein & Sandro Galea

As we re-emerge from the pandemic, 2021 stands to be a turning point year for public health. In The Turning Point’s weekly essays, we reflect on what we learned during 2020, and what we are learning during 2021, that can guide us to the creation of a better, healthier world.